In the small rural village of Sueca just outside Valencia the inhabitants had never seen a television before. Until that day the radio was the medium in which they were connected to the world. On days with important football matches the villagers put them in their windows turning to the street where they gathered. Usually to listen to the matches of Valencia CF. But the last few weeks it had been the World Cup in Brazil where the Spanish national team had done well. And on that team their own lad had made them proud. Now the World Cup was over. But it was still a special day since ‘Tonico’ had returned. With him he had a television set running on batteries. Hence the entire village came out to greet him and see this new technological wonder. And for the next years the TV set was set up in the street where the villagers sometimes could see the one who brought it do what he did best – mesmerize the Mestalla crowd with his commitment.
Years before, in the street Bernat i Baldoví de Sueca, Antonio Puchades was born and raised. Raised like most sons of the rice farmers in the village, where they had to work in the fields as soon as they could stand up. Stand up with water to their knees while tending the crops in back breaking work. In the time away from this work, Antonio and the other kids had to attend the disciplinary tough school where catholisicm and Franco worshipping was the curriculum. And after eating supper, where paella was the staple food, it was off to bed. Often with the horses, as most houses also served as barns or stalls.
But Antonio also had a passion for something else. In the school courtyard he saw for the first time a football, and quickly became the protagonist among the players. His family wasn’t too happy at first. His frowning and of few words father opinioned that football was a waste of time. Only the rice fields mattered. And his sister more than once threw his rudimentary football and boots out the window. But Antonio was as stubborn as most ‘campesinos’, and just went on playing until the sun went down on the other side of the Albufera lagoon. By the time he was eighteen years old, he starred in the Sueca team that won their regional division and got promoted to Tercera División. The entire village celebrated while Antonio wept tears of joy. Even his father and great sister had to aknowledge his merits.
Winning the division also meant that Sueca participated in the Copa Federación. And the Valencian villagers went all the way to the final in Madrid. But Puchades struggled to get there since he by now had to serve in the military. But by ingratiating himself to his superior officer in the artillery battalion in Cartagena, he got his leave, and went to Madrid. And in the Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid against the historic Deportivo Alavés, and with half of the little town of Sueca in the stands, Antonio Puchades played his heart out in characteristic style. Still, he couldn’t help Sueca losing 2-3 to the favourites.
Antonio cried his bitter tears this time. But not for long, as there also was scouts from Valencia CF in the stands that day. They had been impressed by the stocky fighter, and offered him a professional contract. This also meant that he could leave his army service, and after a few friendlies, he debuted away against Celta Vigo in 1946. The day before the match Antonio did his best to persuade coach Pasarín that if it rained, he had to play.
– I am used to slippery surfaces after working in the rice fields!, Antonio pleaded, and continued arguing that the Galician autumn climate for sure would make for a rain drained pitch the following day. Pasarín hardly understood the rural accent, but took a long look at Puchades’ beefy legs, and promised that if it rained, he would play.
Antonio couldn’t sleep that night, listening in agony for the slightest sign of thunder or rain drops falling. And indeed it started raining, Puchades played, and Valencia won 2-1. Much because the Sueca youngster marked the Celta striker Pahiño brilliantly, never slipping on the wet grass. By time, the Mestalla crowd would appreciate his ability to never get his shirt dirty even in very muddy matches. Because ‘Tonico’ was impossible to topple.
In that first season Antonio shared room with the seasoned basque goalkeeper Iñaqui Eizaguirre, who took care of the ‘chaval’ like he was his own son. Puchades payed back with running like a mad man to stop attacks in the making, trying to leave Eizaguirre with little to do. And he didn’t do too bad, since Valencia won the league that year.
It was a golden era for Los Che, and slowly Puchades became a known player in all of Spain, especially as the perfect partner to Paseiguito in Valencia’s midfield. In so much that he was selected for the national team in 1948. But he didn’t play, since he arrived late for practice. The reason? He was busy helping his father harvesting the rice! But after Valencia won the cup the next year, he finally debuted against Portugal in Lisabon. It was Antonio’s first trip abroad. Quickly followed matches in Dublin and Paris, where Spain won 5-1 and 4-1 respectively against Repulic of Ireland and France. When Puchades came back to Sueca after these friendlies, the entire village was covered in flags, a band was playing in his honour, and all the women were out dressed in their overly elaborate ‘fallera’ dresses. Antonio was carried to the town square, and a mass was held to celebrate his exploits. He just shook his head afterwards.
– The village has gone crazy!, he told his father, before asking which horse to bring to the field next morning. Because Antonio spent almost all the time in the fields helping his father when he wasn’t in training or playing matches.
In the spring of 1950, Valencia ended up third in the league and got knocked out in one of the most epic semi finals in the cup. Athletic Bilbao had won the first match 5-1, but Valencia heroically won 6-2 at Mestalla in the return match. Back then, no away goals counted double, and an extra quarter of an hour was played. Ultimately, Gaínza settled it 8-7 globally for the basques, and Puchades, who had played an epic match, was left devastated. But again his agony turned to bliss as he was selected to go to Brazil a few days later.
On the way to the World Cup, Puchades’ first airplane trip, the Sueca midfielder was terrified og crashing into the Atlantic. He made his teammates promise to hold a mass if they survived. And after touching safely down in the samba land, everybody turned up as Puchades gave his thanks to the virgin of the defenceless, the patron saint of Valencia.
Antonio struggled at first in what was to him a strange land. It was too hot, and the local food never made friends with his palate. He could lose three kilos after a match, and vomited continuously. The teams’ medic tried to get Puchades on to a diet of various medicines and local bread. But Antonio was adamant that the only thing he needed was paella. Of course, they hadn’t brought any rice from Spain, and the local one didn’t do. After searching high and low, they did eventually find canned paella.
-It wasn’t very good, but it did the trick!, the player later stated.
It did the trick, allright. Puchades went on to play all the matches for Spain. In what turned out to be a very tough group with USA, Chile and England, Spain won all their matches. Against fancied England, who was desperate to improve their image after their shock loss to the Americans, Puchades’ mission was to mark the famous Stan Mortensen out of the match. Spain coach Benito Díaz said before the encounter that if he succeeded, Spain would win. Puchades left Mortensen invisible, and it was the Iberians who went on to the playoffs. FIFA member and referee Pedro Escartín, who later wrote a book about his experiences in the World Cup, described Puchades as “an angel on the field, neutralizing the best football player on the planet without comitting the smallest foul!”
By now hosts Brazil was already proclaimed champions, but their coach Flavio Costa was nervous. While spying on Spain before the tournament he had said that Puchades looked strong as an ox, but was nothing compared to the flair of the Brazilians. Now he might have to eat his own words. Spain had been winning against a similarly tough Uruguayan side before an inspired Obdulio Varela, the captain and with the same role as Puchades, equalized for 2-2. Meanwhile, Brazil had thrashed Sweden 7-1.
But despite a good performance by Puchades against Brazil, where he was marking the ubiquitous Zizinho, the hosts had no problems and won 6-1. Spain now had no chance to lift the trophy, and Puchades himself said the Brazilians were so good that it seemed impossible to even come close to the ball. But Zizinho himself, who years later would play at Mestalla when his team Bangú was on tour, said that he never had a more noble and fierce man mark himself than Puchades, not doubting for a second that the Suecan could have had a great career in Brazil hadn’t he been so attached to the rice fields of home.
Spain went on to lose against Sweden in their final match on the same day that Uruguay shocked Brazil at Maracanã. It was a tired squad who came from a grueling season before departing for Brazil, and often had to train on fields worse than the rice fields Antonio treaded at home. But it’s still Spain’s best World Cup performance ever, apart from when they won it in 2010. And of course, among the best XI of the tournament in 1950 was Antonio Puchades as the number six.
Puchades went on playing for Valencia through the fifties, winning the cup again in 1954. The year before he won the first edition of Trofeo Monchín Triana, a prize given by journalists and club directors to players who had excelled both on and off the pitch (the award lasted only until 1968). He was bound to represent Spain in the 1954 World Cup when the Spaniards inexplicably lost out to lowly Turkey in the qualifiers. Spain had won 4-1 at home, but surprisingly lost 1-0 in Istanbul. Goal difference was yet to matter, and a third match on neutral ground in Rome had to be played. Again, Spain played horribly, only managing a 2-2 draw. A lot draw by a random, blindfolded local boy sealed Spain’s World Cup fate, and sent the Turkish to Switzerland. Puchades instead spent the summer fishing and working the fields with his father.
‘Tonico’ retired only 33 years old, his legs not holding more in an era when football was at its toughest. The final decision came on holiday in Hawaii, where he was invited by Valencia team mate Faas Wilkes. Ironically for a man who had ran on windy, soaked pitches and stood knee high in the cold water of the rice fields, he catched a cold there. It wasn’t serious at first, but as he confessed in an interview with the Valencian newspaper Las Provincias decades later, the cold never left his back. The doctors said they could cure it by taking a bone out of his leg, but Antonio would have none of it.
– Alto la botifarra!, Puchades exclaimed in valenciano, meaning the doctor should just keep his sausage fingers away. And with that a great football career was over.
Puchades went back to live in his village, where he later served in the city council. And there he died, just days short of his 88th birthday, in May 2013. In the subsequent match at Mestalla against Granada he was honoured with a great tifo, and in the sixth minute, the number of his jersey, the entire stadium sang his name. At gate six in the stadium, pictures along with candles and flowers were laid down. Two months later, Mestalleta, the stadium at Valencia’s training facilities in Paterna where VCF Mestalla plays their matches, was renamed after the legend from Sueca. So are streets in Benidorm and his natal town of Sueca, where the municipal stadium also bears his name.
Antonio Puchades was never a technically gifted footballer. It was all about guts, grit, relentless running and never say die mentality. He was the opposition playmaker’s worst nightmare. But none of them ever called him a dirty player. With his modest, almost naïve countryside mentality and with a work hardened, almost brutal physique, he epitomizes what the Valencia fans wants in their players. The ones with ‘huevos’, dedication and pure, never ending love for their club. David Albelda is perhaps the only number six at the club to eclipse ‘Tonico’, and Javi Fuego is the current one to fill his role. But in this era of modern football, we are unlikely to ever see someone like Puchades again.