John Harley: the Scot who transformed Uruguayan football

I trusted everything Eduardo Galeano wrote about football. I still do. His writing was as authoritative as it was beautiful. He told us about those crazy English, who brought their exclusive game to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and those lowly Creoles, who seized the pastime of the elite and made it their own.

The Creoles invented el toque, the touch. They defied their British masters by daring to take possession of the ball, by caring for it with a short-passing, intelligent game full of artistic expression. An exciting and romantic story, but Galeano missed one key figure.

It began in Buenos Aires, 1908, in a friendly between the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club (Peñarol) and Ferrocarril Oeste. Despite having demolished the Argentines 5-0, the attention of Peñarol’s players and officials remained fixated on a single player from the opposition.

The way he moved the ball, the way he moved himself, it was all different. This player would intercept the ball in his own half, but he refrained from banishing it down the pitch. Instead, he carried the ball through the midfield, bringing his teammates into play through short passes along the ground, to the feet. Surely, this was one of those cheeky Creoles Galeano wrote about?

No. His name was John Harley. He was a Scottish railway worker.

Born in Glasgow, John Harley travelled to Buenos Aires in 1906 to work at the British-owned, British-run railways as an engineer. It was there where he continued the development of another passion, football. Short and lean, Harley was physically uninspiring, yet possessed a different, Scottish version of football, the passing game.

Harley intrigued the Uruguayans, whose footballing philosophy had remained attached to that of the English since the game’s introduction decades earlier. Southampton’s tour of 1904 offered a glimpse of a different, short-passing style, but it was still dismissed as a distant, ‘foreign’ way of playing. Rather than sailing off like the English, however, Harley was in Buenos Aires to stay.

The Scot’s intelligence and technical expression left a mark on Peñarol legend José Antonio Piendibene. For him, Harley was the ideal partner, whose passing game could strike a balance between defence and attack, while combining with the rapidly developing technical abilities of the locals. Before long an offer was made to Harley, who accepted, then made the journey across the river to Montevideo in 1909.

Harley was immediately appointed captain of Peñarol. The process of transformation had begun. He uprooted the long-ball game, replacing it with what became known as cortita y al pie, a game of short passes to the feet. Rather than simply adding a short-passing game, however, Harley orchestrated plays from centre half, instilling in his team an intelligent, orderly, yet expressive style of play. The transformation of Peñarol’s style was to extend to the national team, with Harley again pulling the strings.

If captaining Peñarol was not enough, Harley quickly became player, and coach, of the Uruguayan national team. From there the development of Uruguay’s style of play mirrored that of Peñarol, with players encouraged to keep the ball, play it along the ground and combine plays more intelligently.

The national team built upon Harley’s teachings by introducing its own uniquely Uruguayan expressions into the team’s play. A certain improvisation combined with increased movement off the ball, producing a collectively dynamic and creative form of football. Uruguay was beginning to define its footballing identity, and it soon developed into a source of pride and joy for the nation.

The development of Uruguay’s footballing identity coincided with its consolidation as a modern nation state. Under the visionary Jose Batlle y Ordoñez, Uruguay was transformed into a socially enlightened and economically prosperous nation. The resulting social harmony and political stability became central to how Uruguayans defined themselves. They were different, and they were proud. Uruguayan exceptionalism extended to its unique style of play, further defining its national character.

The most effective way Uruguay could prove its exceptional character was on the international stage, with victories in the early South American championships demonstrating their regional dominance. However, Uruguayan national pride reached new levels following the legendary Olympic wins of ’24 and ’28, where this small, insignificant country dazzled European crowds while embarrassing their opponents.

John Harley helped pass football from the feet of the British to the hearts of the Uruguayans. In addition to its status as a modern, secular, prosperous nation, Uruguay’s footballing identity played a significant role in the development of its national character. In football, Uruguay could compete with, and surpass, the most advanced and civilized nations of the world.

Galeano was right. The Creoles took the game of football, and made it an art form. However, it would not have been possible without the figure of John Harley, the Scot who helped Uruguay create a new style of football, and dominate the world.

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