They called him ‘the Poet’. It wasn’t a tribute to his personality, nor was it a celebration of his lyrical, joyful expressions on the pitch. It couldn’t have been, he was one of those lowly goalkeepers. The nickname owed to his love of poetry, and the many verses he wrote. A number of his poems opened with ‘Oh Peñarol, yo te saludo..’Born on February 16, 1896, Roberto Chery was raised in the Barrio Sur of Montevideo, within a predominantly Afro-Uruguayan community. He grew up with Isabelino Gradín, later known as one of the two black players at the receiving end of a protest at the 1916 South American Championship, denounced for being ‘African professionals’. Chery, Gradín, and another neighbourhood friend, Antonio Campolo, were recruited by Peñarol.
Chery and his two Barrio Sur friends arrived at Peñarol in 1915. Despite his youth, Chery possessed an impressive physique and extraordinary understanding of the game. He was a ready-made goalkeeper. However, while Gradín was elevated to the seniors almost immediately, Chery and Campolo would have to bide their time.
Chery’s senior debut was against none other than Nacional, on June 29, 1917. The match ended in a 2-1 victory for Peñarol, with Chery showing that he was made for Clasicos. Indeed, in the nine matches he faced Nacional, the Poet conceded a solitary goal, a penalty. Chery continued his exceptional performances, Penarol were crowned 1918 Uruguayan champions, and the possibilities were endless for the young goalkeeper. It was only a matter of time before he received the call to represent Uruguay.
The following year, the call came. Chery was chosen for the 1919 South American Championship, to be held in Rio de Janeiro. He remained on the bench for the opening game, with veteran Cayetano Saporiti in goals as Uruguay defeated Argentina 3-2.
Chery’s Uruguay debut came in the second game against Chile. He was twenty three years of age.
He played with the same security and confidence he showed at club level. Going into the break, Uruguay were up 2-0. It was meant to be the start of a long, illustrious international career.
Second half, Chile were pushing forward. Chery desperately scrambled from one post to the other, spectacularly saving an almost certain Chilean goal. The Brazilian spectators could do nothing but applaud Chery’s efforts, yet another demonstration of his assured game.
But he stayed down. The impact had injured the Poet, resulting in a strangulated hernia. He was later taken to hospital.
There were complications. Two weeks later, the day after the final, the Poet died. Peñarol’s captain José Benincasa was by his side. He was only twenty three.
A match to honour Chery was organised, intended originally to involve Uruguay and Brazil. Too distraught by the loss of their teammate, the Uruguayans declined the invitation. However, their rivals from across the river volunteered to take their place.
If only for ninety minutes, the Uruguay-Argentina rivalry didn’t exist. Indeed, Argentina wore the sky blue of Uruguay, while Brazil donned the kit of the poet’s other love, Peñarol. The game finished 3-3, the proceeds of the match given to Chery’s family, and the Roberto Chery Cup to Peñarol.
Roberto Chery’s life was the most tragic of poems. Destined for a long future with football’s most successful nation, he could last only one game. Had he not been taken so early, he may well have been a part of the successes of the 1920s.
Uruguay reached the top of international football through its own unique footballing expressions. They created true football poetry. And in the cruelest of tragedies, their only poet couldn’t be witness to it.
Some say that Chery wasn’t really a poet. He probably wasn’t.
Still, I wonder what he might have written of Uruguay’s triumphs, and how far they’ve fallen.