BY PANOS KOSTOPOULOS
The distance between Rosario, Argentina and Genoa, Italy is just a bit more than 11,000km. Back in 1925, it would take up to 20 days by boat for Italian businessmen to arrive in Latin America and fortune seekers to do the opposite trip to the promised land.
When Julio Libonatti boarded the ship that would take him to Genoa, little did he imagine that he would open a door that would change the future of football. Very soon and for many years to come, thousands of footballers would follow in his footsteps and turn themselves into world renowned superstars.
Libonatti was born on July 5, 1901, in the largest city of Argentina’s Santa Fe province, Rosario. His parents were two of the many Italian immigrants that sought a new life in South America at the end of the 19th century.
A couple of years after his birth, just hundreds of metres from his doorstep, a historical football club would be founded: Club Atlético Newell’s Old Boys. Football was rapidly growing in Argentina and Julio was one of the many kids hooked by this new and exotic sport.
He joined Newell’s, where he took his first steps in the game. At the age of 16 he made his first team debut and from that point his career went on an upward trajectory.
With ‘La Lepra’ he won three domestic Copa Nicasio Vila trophies and one national Copa Ibarguren, while his performances on the pitch, as well as the goals he scored, earned him the nickname ‘El Matador’. Soon, the Argentina national team came calling and he donned the Albiceleste shirt for the first time in a game against Uruguay on October 19, 1919.
His hat-trick in the 6-1 triumph against their neighbours was just a taste of things to come. A couple of years after his international debut, Libonatti and Uruguay crossed paths once again, this time in the final of Campeonato Sudamericano, the predecessor of the Copa America.
The fifth edition of the tournament was hosted by Argentina, who were yet to win the trophy, having finished runners-up three times previously to Uruguay. More than 25,000 fans in the stands of Estadio Sportivo Barracas in Buenos Aires and Libonatti rewarded them with a 57-minute strike.
More than 25,000 were in the stands of the Estadio Sportivo Barracas in Buenos Aires to see Argentina defeat their oldest rivals 1-0 courtesy of a 57th minute strike by Libonatti, and soon after the final whistle, they invaded the pitch to celebrate with the players. Libonatti’s three goals in total made him the tournament’s top scorer.
The Argentine fans lifted him on their shoulders and carried him all the way to the centre of Buenos Aires, covering a distance of more than four kilometres. After capturing the hearts at both club and international level, Libonatti enjoyed hero status in Argentina.
His games would attract people from around the country and sometimes also abroad. One such visitor was Count Enrico Marone Cinzano, a football fan himself, but also president of Torino.
Cinzano took over I Granata in 1924 and immediately focused on building the team into a squad that would be able to win the league. On his trip to Rosario in 1925 he decided to attend a Newell’s Old Boys game against Tiro Federal. For him, it was a unique experience, but for ‘El Matador’ on the pitch it was just another day at work.
Libonatti scored a brace to lead his team to victory leaving Cinzano enamoured by the striker’s performance. Julio had everything a forward needed to shine: speed, agility, quality with the ball at both feet, as well as a powerful and precise shot. Albeit small in stature, he was brave and never shirked a challenge. He was an all-around attacker, when most of the strikers of the day would merely poach their goals in and around the penalty area.
When Cinzano inquired about the player and learned of his Italian origins, he immediately approached Libonatti to discuss a potential move to Turin. The 24-year-old was positive to such an adventure and the Italian entrepreneur quickly finalised the deal.
Cinzano and Libonatti had just made history, turning the Argentine into the first transatlantic transfer ever recorded. The player packed his luggage, went to the port and embarked on the journey that would take him to his parents’ homeland.
In Italy he once again hit the ground running, scoring another career brace on his debut against Brescia on October 4, 1925, to lead his team to a 4-3 win. He ended his first season in Italy with 18 goals in 22 games, while Torino finished in second position in the league.
In his second campaign with I Granata, he joined forces with Adolfo Baloncieri and Gino Rossetti to form the ‘trio delle meraviglie’ (trio of wonders) to fire the club to its first domestic league trophy.
The title, however, was stripped from Torino after the first bribery scandal in the history of Calcio was uncovered. In the final game of the season, Torino faced their local rivals Juventus, winning the match 2-1 to secure the silverware. The Old Lady’s left-back, Luigi Allemandi, was approached by a Torino executive who offered the player 50,000 liras to throw the game.
Torino bounced back the following season and with Libonatti at his peak, scoring 35 goals in 34 games, the club lifted the trophy, legitimately, for the first team in their existence. The Argentine was crowned Capocannoniere (the league’s top scorer), a feat he achieved just once.
Hero in Argentina, check. Legend at Newell’s Old Boys, check. Conqueror of Turin, check. Now, it was time to make history once again. When Gli Azzurri came calling he didn’t hesitate to accept yet another challenge.
He played his first game for Italy’s national team on October 28, 1926 and although this time he didn’t manage to score, he became the first oriundo – the Italian word for immigrants of native origin – to play for the country. After having paved the way to Europe for others, Libonatti had also opened the national team’s door for other oriundi who thrived with Italy over the years.
Upon Libonatti’s arrival in Italy, Benito Mussolini was taking power, introducing dictatorship as the new form of government. Immediately, the fascist leader introduced the Carta di Viareggio – legislation that allowed Italian teams to have just two foreign players in their squads.
In order to get around the new law, Libonatti was given dual nationality, an action that was controversially embraced by the new regime. By offering foreigners of native ancestry Italian nationality, Mussolini would benefit both in the short term by blaming his predecessors for creating an Italian diaspora, and long-term by Italy winning the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time in 1934.
That Italian team featured as many as five oriundi in the squad and helped Mussolini’s propaganda machine portray the country as a symbol of fascist superiority in Europe.
Meanwhile, Libonatti now aged 33, bid farewell to Torino as a knee injury coincided with Torino’s slide, after having been crowned champions. He would depart I Granata as their highest ever goalscorer – 148 goals in 238 games – to be surpassed later by Torino legend, Paolo Pulici.
Next stop was the port that first welcomed him to Europe, Genoa, and a team featuring in Serie B at the time. Libonatti assisted I Rossoblu to a promotion to the top-flight and stayed one more year in until joining Rimini in Serie C as player-coach.
Ultimately, he never featured for his new club, who finished fifth in 1937/38. The Italian dream had come to an end for Libonatti. His family had already moved back to Argentina as the Fascist regime asphyxiated Italy and was on the verge of invading Albania.
Libonatti himself was bankrupt. His expensive taste, as well as his love for fashionable clothes and la dolce vita, are said to be among the reasons that he literally left his ancestors’ land without a single lira in his pocket.
Former club Rimini had to pay for his boat ticket back to Argentina where Libonatti reunited with his family. Upon his arrival he tried to undertake some coaching roles, but it didn’t work out for him. He focused on his family, worked for the interim Ministry of Labour and took a permanent break from football.
Libonatti passed away on October 9, 1981. Eight thousand, four hundred and eight days later, a new star would rise in Barcelona, Spain. A Rosario-born player by the name of Lionel Messi would enter the field eight minutes before the end of the Catalan derby between the Blaugrana and Espanyol, to make his Barcelona debut.
Julio Libonatti was the first of his kind. He paved the way for those that followed; the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Messi and hundreds more.
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