Meet the World’s Biggest Soccer Player, Maybe – Wall Street Journal

BUENOS AIRES—Argentines are fond of making superlative claims. Their country produces “the world’s best beef,” offers “the world’s widest avenue” and, in compatriot Pope Francis, has provided “the best pontiff ever.”

Now they have something new to tout: a statue some assert is the world’s tallest bronze of a soccer player.

On Nov. 6, a 22-foot-high 6.3-ton likeness of Ángel Labruna, a mid-20th-century striker, was unveiled in the capital next to Monumental Stadium, home to Argentina’s River Plate soccer club, which many here call “the best soccer club ever.”

Argentines laud Mr. Labruna, a River Plate player, as the domestic league’s greatest goal scorer ever.

The big bronze was the brainchild of Carlos Trillo, a plastic surgeon who is perhaps the world’s most dedicated soccer fan.

His goal: to top the statue in San Marta, Colombia, that previously claimed the tallest title, and thereby help kick his team out of a slump.

The 48-year-old Mr. Trillo, who helped fund the Labruna statue, specified that it surpass Santa Marta’s bronze of Carlos Valderrama, the curly-yellow-haired Colombian midfielder whose career ran about two decades from the early 1980s.

The Colombian colossus is officially 6.5 meters tall, a little over 21 feet. The Labruna likeness stands 8 inches taller. Mr. Trillo says there is no doubt it is the world’s biggest bronze soccer player.

As with some of Argentina’s other claims, it is hard to confirm the statue’s stature. Guinness World Records, which does confirm the widest-avenue title, says it has no category for soccer-player statues. FIFA, the international soccer federation, says it doesn’t track statues.

Mr. Trillo concedes there may be bigger soccer statues made of cheaper materials somewhere.

But the Labruna is undeniably big. It stands nearly twice as tall as the Michael Jordan statue at the United Center in Chicago. Its cleats are almost the size of a human head.

Mr. Trillo spent nearly two years lobbying River Plate fans to donate keys and other metal to melt for the sculpture. Beyond those donations, Mr. Trillo says it cost more than $150,000 to make, of which he paid about 20%, the rest coming from local businesses and fans.

“It is only because of a crazy guy like Carlos, surrounded by many crazy people who love River,” said River Plate President Rodolfo D’Onofrio at the unveiling, “that it was possible for us to donate all these keys and end up with a statue like this of a giant.”

For many Argentines, Mr. Labruna is unquestionably the best player in River Plate’s 114-year history. He holds the record for scoring by a countryman in Argentina’s domestic league: 293 goals. Mr. Trillo lowers his voice when acknowledging that Arsenio Erico, who played for another Argentine team, also scored 293; but he was Paraguayan.

Mr. Erico, who retired in the 1940s, for decades held the scoring title, besting Mr. Labruna’s 292 goals. But in 2008, after studying newspaper accounts of a 1941 game Mr. Labruna played in, Argentina’s Soccer History Research Center determined he had scored one more, tying him for first. River Plate fans were ecstatic, as if their Ángel, who died in 1983, had scored from heaven.

Mr. Trillo, since moving to Buenos Aires from rural Argentina almost a quarter century ago, says he has been to all but a dozen of River’s games. He has given free surgeries to River players for things like broken noses. “If you took an X-ray of him,” says Dario Debayle, a lawyer and River fanatic, “you’d find a River jersey inside.”

The statue harks to a dark time. In 2011, River lost so often it was relegated to the minor leagues for a year. “The descent,” as Argentines called it, was devastating and provided fodder for hated crosstown rival Boca Juniors.

The descent inspired Mr. Trillo and other fans to help the team recover its glory through some superlative symbolism.

In 2012, they aimed to create the world’s biggest soccer-team flag. They used social media to gather donated red and white fabric, the club’s colors. Two tons of cloth later, they sewed a nearly 5-mile-long flag that some 150,000 fans carried across town that October.

Mr. Trillo believes it was the world’s biggest soccer flag, although there is no way to know. Guinness says it has no such category.

Sculptor Mercedes Savall takes a break from working on the 6.3-ton statue of Argentine soccer legend Ángel Labruna.
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In 2013, he tackled the statue. He and Mercedes Savall, a well-known Buenos Aires sculptor, first crafted a marble Labruna bust. After the club museum displayed it, luck turned: River won the league title and cup for South American soccer clubs.

That convinced Mr. Trillo he was on the right attack. He urged fans to donate bronze, and about 6,000 pounds of keys, crosses and picture frames poured in.

Máximo Jurcinovic, a Catholic priest and River fanatic, says he donated keys and a bell. “This underscores the best of Argentine soccer fans,” he says, “which is their passion and good spirit. It shows that small things can lead to greatness.”

As Mr. Trillo was trying to help erect the statue in February, part of it collapsed, cutting his face and fracturing his shoulder and five vertebrae.

They spent another eight months getting the statue right. Ms. Savall, who spent 27 months making it, says she sometimes worked day and night, partly because she was working on other statues, including of Bolivian revolutionary leader Juana Azurduy.

Ms. Savall, who says she once thought soccer was for the uncultured, tears up when discussing the statue. “Labruna taught me a lot about passion,” she says, “about dedicating yourself to a dream, about teamwork.”

Mr. Trillo donated the statue for 99 years. To ensure his descendants keep the faith, he put a time capsule in it with a letter to them. “I ask for only two things,” it reads. “First, that they be River fans. Second, that they donate the statue to River again for another 99 years.”

“We achieved this because of the values I inherited from my parents,” it reads, “above all, in one word: PASSION.”

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