In the days before their debut at the 1962 FIFA World Cup Chile™, Brazil had several training games against a young Santiago Wanderers side from Valparaiso, a seaport barely 10km from their base in Vina del Mar, where they were due to play Mexico in their opening game. During these sessions, one young Chilean stood out and left a lasting impression on Pele and Co – no mean feat, given that A Seleção had won the world title four years earlier in Sweden and would retain it just a few weeks later.
Fast forward to the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany, and that promising 15-year-old was by then a proven winner and every bit a man. So assured was he in fact, that he liked to tell people: “The area is my domain, and I decide who enters it.”
At that juncture in Elias Figueroa's career, few would have disagreed with the assertion. His anticipation and reading of the game was already beyond reproach, while his leadership skills, ability in the air and composure on the ball were recognised the world over. To give one example, at Germany 1974, he was hailed as the competition’s best defender and named alongside Franz Beckenbauer at centre-back in the tournament's Best XI.
"Figueroa is the best Chilean player of all time, and probably the finest central defender in the history of football in the Americas," Pele has gone on record as saying. That debate aside, no one could dispute that, from the centre of defence, he revolutionised football in his homeland, winning praise and personal accolades both with his country and the clubs he represented, where he invariably became captain.
Adversity as motivation
Born in Valparaiso on 25 October 1946, Figueroa had quite a happy childhood, notwithstanding persistent health issues. Up until the age of seven, he suffered from heart and asthma-related problems, which severely limited the physical activity he could do.
Then at 11, doctors diagnosed the onset of polio, which he would eventually overcome, but not before practically having to learn to walk all over again. “All that made me stronger,” he has always said of that experience. “I changed my mindset and set myself short-term goals. In the end I overcame all the challenges.”
By the time he was 14, he was already making a name for himself on the right side of midfield with Club Deportivo Liceo. The following year Figueroa sailed through a trial with local side Santiago Wanderers, where he first began playing in central defence.
Figueroa is the best Chilean player of all time, and probably the finest central defender in the history of football in the Americas.
After making rapid progress and impressing during that training game against Brazil, the player was soon pleading for first-team football. However, blocking his path was Raul Sanchez, himself a cornerstone of the Chile side that reached the semi-finals of the 1962 FIFA World Cup, so the teenager agreed a loan move to Union La Calera.
His eagerly awaited top-flight debut arrived in April 1964, and it was after a game later that season against Colo Colo that he earned the first of his many nicknames. Describing his performance, a local radio commentator said of the precocious defender: “We’re looking at a kid of 17 who plays like a seasoned top pro. After today we’ll have to call him 'Don' Elias Figueroa.” Unbeknownst to the broadcaster, the moniker would become known around the world.
First FIFA World Cup and a move to Uruguay
Figueroa rejoined Wanderers in 1965, the same year he made his senior debut with the national team. He was soon a regular in the squad that were preparing to compete at the following year’s FIFA World Cup in England, and he would eventually travel to the tournament. Despite being just 19, it was no surprise to see him win a starting berth at the finals. And though Chile failed to survive the initial group phase, Figueroa again stood out, justifying his latest nickname La Muralla Roja (the Red Wall).
On his return, a host of clubs were clamouring for his signature, but it was Uruguayan giants Penarol who won the race. The centre-back quickly made a first-team place his own in a squad replete with big-name stars. Playing alongside the likes of Ladislao Mazurkewizs, Nestor Goncalves, Alberto Spencer and Pedro Rocha, he helped Los Aurinegros lift back-to-back league titles in 1967 and 1968 as well as the Intercontinental Champions Supercup in 1969. Don Elias was especially effective in the final of the latter, seeing off the threat of a Santos side featuring Pele.
It was a time of uncompromisingly tough games, the type Figueroa revelled in. Reminiscing about the era several years later, the player said: “In one match against Racing de Avellaneda I intercepted a cross with a diving header but took a kick in the head from [Alfio] Basile in the process. I remember coming to in the showers afterwards and asking someone how the game had finished, only to be told I’d been out there the whole 90 minutes.”
Turning down Europe for the Beira Rio
In late 1971, Figueroa turned down a concrete offer from Real Madrid, opting instead to sign for Internacional de Porto Alegre. Many of the game’s finest players were plying their trade at the time in the Brazilian league and the Chilean star wanted to measure himself against them.
In 1973 Figueroa was instrumental in securing La Roja’s place at the following year’s FIFA World Cup in Germany. After seeing off Peru, Chile faced an intercontinental play-off against the former USSR, who had won bronze at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Munich the previous year.
Don Elias was simply magnificent in his side’s 0-0 draw in the first leg in Moscow, prompting his team-mate and goalkeeper Juan Olivares to say afterwards: “In the air he fought like a lion. If he jumped with two Russians, the ball would be his when he came down.”
With Russia declining to travel to Chile for the return leg, citing the political situation generated by the recent military coup, La Roja qualified for Germany without having to play a second game. At the finals themselves, the defender’s star rose even higher, this despite another early elimination. Perhaps the best tribute of that era came from Beckenbauer, who famously said: “I’m the European Figueroa.”
After being named South American Footballer of the Year in 1974, an accolade he would claim again the following two years, he enjoyed another landmark achievement by winning the 1975 Brazilian national championship as captain of Inter. In the final against Cruzeiro, a ray of sun famously found a gap in the clouds and illuminated the precise spot in the Beira Rio penalty area where Figueroa rose to head the title-winning strike.
A homecoming and goodbye
The legend of the Gol Iluminado, as it become known, earned the player near mythical status, which he sometimes found hard to handle. It was perhaps why in 1976, after another Brazilian championship title, Figueroa decided to return to Chile. He bade farewell to Brazil as a bona fide idol, as his former boss at Inter, Rubens Minelli, could attest: “If you asked me to compare Don Elias to someone, I couldn’t give you an answer," the revered coach once said.
His return home was not to one of his country’s big clubs, but rather to the modest outfit Palestino. With Figueroa marshalling the defence, Los Árabes won the Copa de Chile in 1977 and the league championship the following year, in the process going 44 games unbeaten – a record that still stands. In 1981 he signed for Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL, where he enjoyed a season alongside the likes of Gerd Muller and Teofilo Cubillas.
A year later he was back home for good, this time signing for Santiago powerhouses Colo-Colo. The decision to return had much to do with La Roja’s ultimately successful bid to reach the finals of Spain 1982, where Figueroa became the first, and to date only, Chilean player to take part in three FIFA World Cups. On 1 January 1983, after a 2-2 draw against Colo-Colo's arch-rivals Universidad de Chile, Figueroa finally called time on his playing career.
Personal awards and recognition of his standing in the game continued long after his retirement, but so too did the search for someone to command the penalty area with such distinction.
Did You Know?
In total, Figueroa contested nine games at FIFA World Cups, drawing three and losing six. During the qualifying campaigns for these, however, he featured in four wins, two draws and just one defeat, scoring two goals along the way.
Elias Figueroa is one of two Chilean footballers to feature in the FIFA 100, a list of the greatest living footballers compiled by Pele in 2004. The other was striker Ivan Zamorano.
Brazilian songwriter Regis Antonio dedicated an entire album to Elias Figueroa. The collection also has songs in honour of both club side Internacional de Porto Alegre and Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda.
In 1981, after a friendly against Argentina, a photographer asked Maradona if he would pose for a photo with Figueroa. “He'll need to come to me,” replied El Diez. When the same question was put to the Chilean, he gave the very same answer. The photo was never taken.
Over an 18-year career, Figueroa was sent off just once. The occasion was the 24 October 1979, the day before his 33rd birthday, in a Copa America semi-final against Peru.