Rafael Moreno Aranzadi: The Man They Called Pichichi

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Ferenc Puskas, Raul and Ronaldo are just some of the players who have won the much-coveted Pichichi Trophy, awarded to the top scorer in La Liga each season. When one looks down the list of winners of the award which has been running for more than half a century now, it is largely made up of footballing greats and household names. How is it then that the man the award is named after, Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, is virtually unknown to the footballing world outside of Spain? Well, for one thing, Aranzadi played his football almost exclusively in the 1910’s, an era of which there is virtually no surviving footage and one which long pre-dated the first World Cup or European Cup. Aranzadi was a diminutive but lethal Spanish striker nicknamed ‘Pichichi’, meaning ‘Little Duck’. His career lasted only 10 years, shortly followed by his tragic death aged only 29; but in just a decade, Pichichi became one of the early greats of Spanish football and a legend at Athletic Bilbao.

Born in Bilbao on May 23rd 1892, Aranzadi had a relatively comfortable upbringing. His great uncle was one of the great Basque writers and thinkers of the early 1900’s, Miguel de Unamuno, whilst his father was the Mayor of Bilbao. A bright but mischievous pupil at Catholic school, the young boy was forever in trouble in his early years. He showed no intent to follow in his great uncles footsteps and pursue a life of academia, with football absorbing his life from an early age. His small stature was sure to prove a stumbling block, at a time when football was a very physical game, but the youngster overcame the issue and in 1911, aged 19, he joined his boyhood club Athletic Bilbao.

It was here that the teenager first inherited the nickname ‘Pichichi’. The other players gave Aranzadi the name as he was by far the smallest in the group. Standing at just 5 feet and 1 inch tall, the young forward was the shortest in the league, and remains one of the shortest to have ever played professional football in Europe. He immediately began to thrive in the Bilbao first team, making his senior debut soon after joining the club and quickly making a real impression in Spanish football. Before the foundation of La Liga in 1929, the Copa del Rey was seen as being the national championship, and Pichichi would get his first chance to shine on the biggest stage in Spanish football at that time, the Copa del Rey final, in 1913, aged 21.

Pichichi had scored twice in a 3-0 win over Madrid FC (soon to become Real Madrid) in the semi-final, and despite his limited years, he was already considered Bilbao’s star player. He netted again in the final, a 2-2 draw with Racing de Irun (later Real Union), meaning the tie required a reply. This time Aranzadi failed to find the back of the net, and so too did Bilbao, eventually succumbing to a 1-0 defeat due to a 70th minute strike. The club had the chance to right their wrong’s only a matter of months later though, as they hosted Real Union on August 21st 1913, for the first ever game at their brand new San Mames Stadium.

The tie finished as a 1-1 draw, Pichichi the inevitable goal scorer for Bilbao, enshrining himself in club folklore, something he would later become very used to. In their new home, the 1914 season would mark the start of a new era for Bilbao, and one of immense success and domination in Spanish football over the next few years. Pichichi scored 4 goals in the first leg of Bilbao’s 1914 Copa del Rey semi-final, a staggering 11-0 win, and an overall 14-3 aggregate win booked their place in a second consecutive Copa del Rey final. This time success would be coming back to Bilbao, a 2-1 win in the final ensuring that, a rare game in which Aranzadi failed to score.

Two more Copa del Rey’s followed in 1915 and 1916, to make it three in a row for the Basque giants, who became only the second team to achieve such a feat. Pichichi’s greatest final, and perhaps his finest ever performance, came in the 1915 final. Bilbao faced Espanyol, who were playing in what was only their second Copa del Rey final. Bilbao provided a footballing masterclass at the Estadio de Amute, thrashing their opponents 5-0, with Pichichi scoring a wonderful hat-trick.

Along with their three Copa del Rey successes, Bilbao also won three Northern Championships, and were now firmly established as the leading team in Spain, with few doubts over who was their star player. Known as Pichichi to those in Bilbao, the national press had given him an alternative nickname, ‘el Rey del Shoot’, or ‘the Strike King’. The striker was immediately recognisable, and by far the most recognisable footballer in Spain at this time. Not only was he noticeably tiny out on the field with majestic ability and goal scoring prowess, he also insisted on wearing a white handkerchief on his head every game, which became a trademark of his and only served to make him more distinctive on the field.

Aranzadi himself claimed the only reason he wore the handkerchief was to minimise the pain of heading the stitching of the ball, a genuine concern in his era. Perhaps the most surprising element of Pichichi’s play was the number of headed goals he scored, despite being the best part of a foot shorter than most of his opponents. Pichichi was known to revel in scoring headed goals and humiliating opposition defenders, and his ego was something which some felt got the better of him. At the height of his fame, Pichichi was a major celebrity, particularly in Bilbao. Some of his teammates were said to be resentful of the fame and attention afforded to the individual in what was, after all, an excellent all-round team.

By his mid 20’s, Pichichi was one of the most highly regarded players on the continent. There was barely a major team in European football who didn’t attempt to sign Aranzadi at some stage during the 1910’s. It was an exercise in futility though, Bilbao would never let the player go, and whilst Pichichi may have enjoyed the flattery and adoration, as much as the people of Bilbao loved him, he too loved them and the city as a whole. He never had any intentions of leaving his hometown club.

Whilst questions may have been asked of Pichichi’s attitude with regards to his ego and being a somewhat selfish player, there could be no questions of his professionalism. Having naturally lacked size and strength from a young age, he had always tried to compensate on the training pitch. As a result, Aranzadi was an incredible athlete. His fitness was arguably his finest attribute, although his dribbling, shooting and ball retention were all noted as being outstanding. Pichichi also possessed lightning pace, and his engine allowed him to run defenders ragged for the entire duration of a game. With a low centre of gravity and excellent core strength, he was notoriously difficult to knock off the ball despite his diminutive size. The end result was a quick, industrious and lethal striker capable of scoring goals with both feet and his head. Essentially, a complete centre-forward.

Playing between the years 1911 and 1921, another factor which somewhat thwarted Pichichi’s worldwide renown was the lack of international football during his era. Spain were only the 28th nation to field an international football team, and that came just a years before Pichichi’s retirement, as the Spanish made their international debut at the 1920 Olympic Games. In a baptism of fire, Spain were pitted against Denmark, who had finished as runners-up in both of the last two Olympics. They were not overawed though, and ran out 1-0 winners in a tight encounter. Next up was the hosts, Belgium, which proved a task too far for the national team which was still very much in its infancy.

A 3-1 defeat in the Quarter-Finals would ordinarily have spelt the end of Spain’s Olympic adventure, but the 1920 Games were played using the Bergvall System, giving defeated sides a second chance. The hosts Belgium went on to win the Gold in controversial circumstances, as the Czechoslovakia team abandoned the game during the first half of the final. Meanwhile Spain grasped their second chance with both hands. A 2-1 win over Sweden, a 2-0 win over Italy and a 3-1 defeat of the Netherlands ought to have teed up a Silver Medal clash with Czechoslovakia, but their earlier forfeit meant Spain won the Silver by default.

The tournament represented not just a respectable debut on the international stage, but a triumphant one, and the Spanish team were celebrated as heroes upon their homecoming. Pichichi himself had featured in all five games, and struck once, against the Netherlands. These five games would prove the only games Pichichi donned the Spain shirt, as he would retire before Spain next played an international fixture, over a year later in October 1921. Aranzadi’s international record then stands at 1 goal from 5 caps, in an international career which lasted less than 2 weeks, despite playing in every game Spain played during his active career.

There was to be a crowning moment for this icon of Bilbao prior to his early retirement at the age of just 29. His last season at Los Leones was the 1920/21 campaign, and after their reign of dominance, Bilbao were now without a Copa del Rey trophy for four years, having lost to Barcelona in the previous seasons final. The Basque side were somewhat fortuitous in their route to the final, having suffered an aggregate defeat to Sevilla in the semi-final, only for their opposition to be disqualified for fielding illegible players. This by set-up a mouth-watering final which was to be held at Bilbao’s San Mames stadium, their first final at their own ground. The opposition, Atletico Madrid, were playing in their first Copa del Rey final, and they were put to the sword by a Bilbao side who did not disappoint their home supporters, winning 4-1.

It was a fitting way to bow out for not only a legend of Bilbao, but a legend of the game. His retirement at 29 came as a shock to most, but the criticism of Pichichi’s individualism had spilled over into his form, and perhaps fearing that his ability was no longer at the levels he would have liked, he hung up his boots. Pichichi was not the sort of character who would have dealt well with decline. His love of the game did not diminish though, and he moved immediately into officiating. He made his refereeing debut later that year, taking charge of a game at the San Mames stadium, in a turn of events that would surely prove impossible today.

Upon his retirement from playing the game, Pichichi had played almost exactly a decade of senior football, entirely for Athletic Bilbao. In 10 years, Pichichi played in 6 Copa del Rey finals, the pinnacle of the Spanish game at that time. Of those 6 finals, he emerged victorious from 4, including the great 1915 final, in which he became the first player to score a hat-trick in the Copa del Rey final, and only 5 other players have done so in the 113 year history of the competition. Bilbao also won three Northern Championships and two Biscay Championships whilst Pichichi was at the club, and one can also add an Olympic Silver Medal into the mix of Aranzadi’s achievements, having scored once and won 5 caps for his country. He retired with a record of 200 goals from 170 outings, making him the highest scorer in the history of Spanish football at the time of his retirement.

Not even a year after winning the 1921 Copa del Rey final and retiring from the game, Pichichi was dead. His death was sudden and tragic, and sent the city of Bilbao into a state of shock. Less than three months before his 30th birthday, Pichichi suffered a sudden attack of typhus, believed to have been a result of eating bad oysters. He died on the 1st of March 1922, leaving behind a wife and child. His death only served to further ignite his footballing legacy, but it also made him a cultural icon too. Aranzadi is immortalised by a painting of him and his wife by artist Aurelio Arteta. There is also a bust of the prolific forward, created by sculptor Quintin de Torre, which was erected in 1926 outside Bilbao’s San Memes stadium. It is considered tradition for fans on their first trip to the ground to offer flowers to Pichichi, and in return, he will bless you with a prosperous and goal-filled season.

When Spanish newspaper Marca decided to establish a trophy to award to the top scorers of each season in La Liga and the Segunda Division in 1953, there were a number of credible candidates. By this time, Spanish football had been in full flow for more than half a century, and even La Liga itself was a quarter of a century old. But it was Rafael Moreno Aranzadi who Marca chose to name the award after. The first recipient of the trophy, which is today known simply as the ‘Pichichi’, was rather fittingly Telmo Zarra, arguably the only Bilbao striker with the status and ability required to rival Pichichi.

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