(Originally written for These Football Times)
In the 50 or so years leading up to the First World War, Argentina’s Growth Domestic Product had increased at an annual rate of 6 percent, which was greater and faster than any other country in the world at that time. The country was counted amongst the richest in the world and often walked hand in hand with developed economies like Australia, Canada, Germany and France.
It was a magnet for European industrialists, businessmen and even farmers who sought after the fertile pampas to grow their crops. The country’s huge size, fertile lands, oil and mineral resources, educated population, long coastlines and the lack of threatening neighbours made Argentina a proverbial goldmine for anyone who went after adventure or treasure.
In the 20th century, Argentina went through several coups d’état, beginning with General José Félix Benito Uriburu’s charge against President Hipólito Yrigoyen in 1930 and ending with Jorge Videla’s coup against Isabel Perón in 1976. The country was ruled by a military junta for an overwhelming part of the century. A quote in the British magazine, The New Statesman, in 1978 read: “The failure of Argentina as a nation is the biggest political mystery of this century.”
That sense of utopianism that was imagined in the minds of 19th century Europeans was now a far cry from the political atrocities that were rampant in South America’s second-biggest nation.
While Argentina failed – or to put it mildly, didn’t live up to the expectations as a geo-political superpower – excellence in sports bestowed provisional respite. As European immigration into the country increased in the 19th century, particularly from Britain, so did European divertissements.
The birth of football
On 26 October 1863, likeminded individuals from 11 schools and football clubs had drawn up the first official set of laws of football at the Freemason’s Tavern on Great Queen Street, London in what is believed to be the first formal meeting of the Football Association. And by 1867, the FA rules had made their way to Buenos Aires.
Thomas Hogg, the son of a Yorkshire textile factory owner, was one of the first people in Argentina to make a legitimate attempt at popularising football in the country. So on 6 May 1867, he put the following advertisement in The Standard.
“FOOT BALL: A Preliminary Meeting will be held on Thursday evening next at 7:30 p.m. in Calle Temple, opposite No.46, for the purpose of making rules and regulations for Foot Ball Matches, to be played on the Cricket Ground, during the winter. All persons interested are requested to attend.”
But it was Alexander Watson Hutton, the Scotsman who is considered the father of Argentine football, and his meticulous work in the following years of 1867, that saw football’s popularity soar to an unprecedented level.
By 1880, the British population in Buenos Aires numbered around 40,000 – the largest anywhere outside the Empire. Finally in 1891, with the help of another Scottish immigrant named Alec Lamont, representatives from five clubs – Buenos Aires and Rosario Railways, Buenos Aires Football Club, Old Caledonians, St. Andrews Scotch Athletic Club and Belgrano Football Club – founded the Argentine Association Football League.
In the same year, in Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires, Englishmen Thomas Dodds, John Cowes and James Gibson with the assistance of R.L. Goodfellow and W.W. Hayward, directors of the Lomas Academy School, founded the Lomas Athletic Club. Dodds also served as the club’s first president.
Alumni of Lomas Academy School, where Hayward taught the students how to play football, would later go on to play for Lomas Athletic Club. The club initially catered for a variety of sports like cricket, tennis and rugby but it was in football that it gained unparalleled success.
Meanwhile, the AAFL disintegrated in 1892 due to a lack of funds and proper direction. But Watson Hutton’s grit and desire saw it relaunched in 1893. The Argentine Football Association (AFA) was created that year, presided over by Watson Hutton, and an annual league competition in Argentina has continued ever since.
Lomas entered the brand new league created by the AFA and finished as Argentina’s first official league champions. Five teams – Lomas, Flores, Quilmes Rovers, English High School (founded by Watson Hutton) and Buenos Aires & Rosario Railways – contested the championship that year with each team playing eight games. Lomas finished five points clear of Flores. It is said that more than 500 people turned up to watch Lomas play Flores – an outstanding number considering the era and the relatively new sporting country. Lomas would go on to win five of the first six league titles.
A timeline of the glory years
1894: The league now consisted of six teams. Lomas retained their title by winning eight and drawing two of their 10 games and finishing four points clear of Rosario Athletic Club, who made their debut in the tournament. The English High School team dissolved that year and did not take part in the tournament but its players joined Lanús Athletic Club and Lobos Athletic Club who along with Retiro Athletic, joined Rosario as debutants in the tournament.
St. Andrews, the team made entirely of Scotsmen that won the inaugural AAFL championship, registered with the AFA to enter the tournament. Buenos Aires and Rosario Railway left the tournament soon after it began without playing any game.
1895: Lomas retained their title again by winning eight and drawing two of their 10 games and finishing five points clear of Lomas Academy – their reserve side.
1896: Lomas failed to retain their title for a third time as Lomas Academy finished top of the table relegating its elder brother to third on the table behind Flores. For reasons unknown, Lomas Academy would never play a tournament again. That season also saw the debut of Belgrano Athletic Club into which the Buenos Aires and Rosario Railway team had merged.
This was the year when Lomas settled on new club colours: green, gold and scarlet.
1897: Lomas won the title yet again. The league was now seven teams strong. Lanús Athletic Club, Banfield and Palermo Athletic Club made their debuts while Belgrano also registered their B team in the championship. Lomas and Lanús finished level on 20 points each having played 12 games. The league was decided with the help of not one but three playoff games; the first two finished 1-1 and 0-0, but the third game was won 1-0 by Lomas thanks to a goal from a certain Willie Stirling.
1898: Lomas won the last of their five league championships. The team finished level on points with Lobos Athletic Club but the title itself was decided by a playoff, which Lomas won 1-0. The game, however, was annulled by the AFA following a request from Lobos. The second game a fortnight later gave Lomas a 2-1 victory and the league title.
In the first six full seasons of Argentine league championship, Lomas played 60 games drawing 12, winning 44 and losing just four. But the club’s hegemony over football was soon coming to an end.
The following year, in 1899, the AFA made a few changes to the league system. The teams were reduced to just four in the Primera División to accommodate a Segunda tier. Lomas finished third in the Primera. The same year, on 10 April, Lomas, along with Belgrano A.C, Buenos Aires A.C and Rosario A.C founded the River Plate Rugby Championship – a primogenitor to the Argentina Rugby Union.
Lomas won the inaugural championship. There was a definite change in priorities at the club. In the following years in the football league, Lomas never finished higher than second; and that happened the one time in 1900.
The year 1909 was a landmark one in Argentine football. Lomas finished bottom of the table with just eight points from 18 games. So dreadful was their campaign that they suffered heavy defeats at the hands of San Isidro and Alumni, who won 7-1 and 8-1 respectively.
The heaviest of defeats, however, came at the hands of Estudiantes de Buenos Aires in 1909 in the Copa de Competencia Jockey Club. The winners of this tournament used to play the Copa de Competencia Chevallier Boutell or the Tie Cup against the winners of the Uruguayan version of Copa de Competencia. It was one of the earliest international football competitions. Lomas lost 18-0.
The club contested in only 17 league championships winning five titles. They still remain the ninth most successful club in Argentinean football history.
While rugby was gradually eclipsing football as the premier sport at the club, its cricket ground hosted a three-day test between Argentina and the Marleybone Cricket Club, who were on tour in 1912. The match was umpired by Lord Martin Bladen Hawke, former Yorkshire captain and Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year in 1909.
Argentina won the toss and opted to bat making a paltry first innings total of 171 and losing all their wickets in 52.2 overs. Left-handed batsman Harold Garnett made a respectable 51 runs coming at sixth-down. Rockley Wilson picked up three wickets for Marleybone. The visitors’ reply was an unflattering 169 all out in their first innings, which allowed Argentina to bat in the second innings with a two-run lead. But they were bowled out for 98. Marleybone narrowly snatched the victory by scoring 102 for 8.
In 1913, Lomas won their second and last rugby championship.
In addition to winning the inaugural football and rugby championships, they had also won the first Primera División cricket competition in 1887 and have a grand total of 21 titles, the last of which came as recently as in the 2012-13 season.
Lomas’ influence also spread over other sports. They were one of the founding members of the Asociación Argentina de Tenis, Unión Argentina de Rugby, Asociación Argentina de Golf, Asociación de Cricket Argentino, and Asociación Amateur Argentina de Hockey sobre Césped.
By the 1930s Lomas had given up football altogether. They were now a club predominantly focusing on rugby, cricket and field hockey. The Lomas women’s hockey team has won 17 Metropolitano Primera Division (Buenos Aires) titles – joint most with Quilmes.
Lomas’ legacy in football was invariably lost – hardly anyone outside the realm of Argentine football knows of the pioneering giant of a club that laid foundations to almost every other major sport in the country. Although it would be prejudiced to suggest that the whole sporting fraternity in Argentina owes Lomas a significant debt, it cannot be denied that the club’s influence and vision was one of the paramount factors in bringing Argentina’s immense sporting impetus to the forefront. It paved the way for future clubs and organisations to practice their sport freely and sincerely.
Somehow, Lomas’ story holds some uncanny parallels with the place where I grew up and its local clubs. I was born and grew up in a very tiny little town called Cuttack in one of the poorest and least developed states in India. Our town does not have much but it hosts a very good cricket stadium that is often used for international cricket matches.
In the years leading up to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the then-30,000 seater stadium was often jam packed during the local football league ties. The teams often consisted of three or four ex or current national level footballers, while the rest was made up of people working in the government sector and by people who had a keen interest in football. They were not as stellar as their Calcutta counterparts like East Bengal or Mohun Bagan but they were everything our little town had.
My father, who was part of the team, fondly recollects the atmosphere at the time, saying people couldn’t find an empty seat back then. And that was a phenomenon that was prevalent all over India. Football was a very popular sport. But then live television and Diego Maradonahappened.
After watching Carlos Bilardo’s dazzling world beaters, the interest in local football dropped dramatically. Why would you go to watch a team that cannot put a string of four passes together after witnessing a diminutive Argentine, on the grandest of stages, walk past the England national team to put the ball in the net?
That was Argentina’s sporting legacy. It brought about a paradigm-shifting change in the footballing landscape and our cognitive understanding of the sport.
Despite lamenting over the fact that Argentina as a nation could not rich the heights of its sporting revolutionaries, it is still steeped in rich history, romanticism and unremitting cynicism – the later two often intertwining with each other as the years went by.
Similarly with Lomas, the sporting excellence of clubs like Alumni, Boca Juniors and River Plate over the years has completely overshadowed their role in aggrandizing football in Argentina in one of the most vital periods in the country’s illustrious past.
Nevertheless, the club still exists. The rugby team plays in the Torneo de la URBA, which is the premier rugby union competition in Argentina. The successful female hockey side that played in the Metropolitan league in Buenos Aires were relegated to the second division after drawing a game with Club Italiano in 2014. Tennis, golf and cricket have yielded little success and there is not a football in sight. Argentina’s first football giants are dead