Motherwell: Beating Argentina & bringing football to South America

The Motherwell team aboard the RMSP Almanzora bound for Argentina in 1928

It’s a grim Buenos Aires day in 1928 and Argentina have just been spanked 3-0 by Motherwell. It isn’t going down well.

As the rain thunders down, so does a torrent of abuse towards the team in white and blue inside. Furious whistling pierces through the splutter of the deluge, the odd Spanish expletive also making itself heard. Again. And again.

Meanwhile, their victors toddle off, bathing in the glory of another iconic win under their mud-caked belts.

That victory in a sodden Buenos Aires may be one of the most eye-catching results recorded by a Scottish football team, but the fanciful tale of the side that toured South America that summer borders on fiction.

Heralded as “one of the best sides in the world” by the local press, a cash-strapped Motherwell spent six weeks at sea, faced an Argentina president and took on Brazil in Rio. And why? In the name of educating their hosts on how to play the beautiful game. Well, that and £5,000.

Here is their story.

Winning a Copa del Rey & sailing away

Sticking it to pretty tasty opposition had become a regular thing for John “Sailor” Hunter and his team of Lanarkshire cracks. Before going on to clinch Motherwell’s only league title in 1932, Hunter took his Steelmen to Spain five years earlier, only to give Real Madrid a 3-1 chasing on their own turf on the way to winning – unofficially – the Copa del Rey, becoming the only foreign side in the world to do so. A few days later, a draw with Barcelona was notched for good measure.

A year on and after finishing joint second in the Scottish first division, a London broker offered another opportunity abroad with a 13-game tour of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. With £5,000 on offer, worth around £325,000 in today’s money, Motherwell headed for Southampton and then on for a three-week expedition aboard RMSP Almanzora, bound for Buenos Aires.

As odd as it may seem now, expectations of the team bobbing its way towards them across the Atlantic were great. An Argentine journal claims “Motherwell did not come to compete with ours, but to leave us teachings”, with left wingers George Stevenson and Robert Ferrier described as “one of the best in the world”.

For their first game against Capital at the home of River Plate, 35,000 turned up to watch. Among them was Argentina Minister of War – and future president – Agustín Pedro Justo, resplendent in his bowler hat, who insisted in ceremoniously kicking the game off, much to the confusion of the travelling party.

Weary from arriving just three days earlier, Motherwell and their sea legs succumbed to a 1-0 defeat.

Matters would get worse before they got better.

Agustín Pedro Justo kicks off against Motherwell in 1928

Super Willie McFadyen & Beating Argentina

The performance from Hunter’s men failed to improve in the matches that followed. Combinado Provincia and Combinado Capital both inflicted defeats with little response.

It caused speculation among the local media that the big hitters from Lanarkshire weren’t the footballing masters they expected, indeed not to the standard of the Third Lanark team that had visited their shores earlier that decade. One local report states: “Expectations had completely changed. The local soccer society speculated the level of Argentine soccer was so high that not even a good British team could cope with us.”

By the time Motherwell arrived in La Boca on 2 June, a morale-boosting 4-3 plundering of Liga Rosarina had restored some pride prior to the task of taking on Argentina. With the Olympic Games under way in Amsterdam, it would be an Argentine amateur select side representing La Albiceleste, yet it did little to lower the expectation, or fury, that would befall them that day.

Reports claim “everything conspired against [Argentina], except the referee” in a day of drama and dreich weather in south east Buenos Aires. On a rutted and mud-clad park, Motherwell goalkeeper Allan McClory was a bystander as Wishaw’s very own Willie McFadyen thrashed two into the Argentine net, before a late own goal rounded things off.

With Motherwell “imposing their superiority” by “loading their bodies”, the defeat was not taken well by their hosts who “kicked the ankles of their opponents, with no other result than to impoverish their game”. Upon the final whistle a cacophony of abuse rained down from the steep stands, the glittering performance of McFadyen, who had scored a hat-trick in the previous game, the only thing illuminating Boca Juniors Stadium.

Incredibly, a third win of the tour was only a day away. The following afternoon, Motherwell took to the field to face an Argentina/Uruguay select side, with another 3-0 trouncing dished out.

Motherwell manager John Hunter, far right, prior to kick off in Argentina

Floodlights, Brazil & a dock dash

Victories over Combinado del Interior and Liga Rosarina followed, with the latter bizarrely being played out as an aircraft in the skies above the Parque Independencia repeatedly showered gifts on the 15,000 crowd.

While it took Motherwell’s winning run to five games on the spin, a 2-0 defeat to Boca Juniors concluded their time in Argentina. The Scots, who had played five games in eight days, made their weary way to Montevideo by boat for a double header with Penarol.

The teams shared a win each, with the ties being played at Gran Parque Central and then Estacion Pocitos, the two grounds that would simultaneously host the first ever World Cup matches two years later.

By the time Hunter and his team eventually docked in Brazil, it had been two months since the Almanzora pulled out of Southampton dock. Quite understandably, injuries and fatigue began to take their toll.

Their penultimate match against Combinado Carioca ended in a 1-1 draw, with the most notable aspect being kick off was at 2215 in what was the first international match in Brazil to be played under floodlights. By this point, all eyes were on the meeting with Brazil four days later.

Much like the Argentine team the Fir Park side had met three weeks prior, their opponents were cobbled together. Players from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo pulled on the famous yellow short at Estadio das Laranjeiras, with kick-off less than three hours before Motherwell’s Arlanza steamer was due to set sail for Blighty. In fact, the turnaround was so tight, the Scots’ belongings were taken straight from their lavish Palace Hotel to the dock.

In truth, they may as well have taken the team with them. Knackered after an arduous two-month trip, Motherwell succumbed to the challenge of facing Brazil in their own back garden, going down to a heavy 5-0 defeat. In truth, Hunter’s side played most of the game with nine men, due to the battle-weary lot he had left at his disposal.

Reports claim that upon the final whistle, “the public invaded the playing field and lifted the local players”, such was the euphoria of watching Brazil see off, well, Motherwell. It was a far cry from the intimidating scenes in La Boca. Instead, as the 20,000 celebrated, Motherwell were hurriedly whisked away straight to the dock to catch the boat home, with the team being loaded on to the steamer still in their match kit.

BBC News