The Buenos Aires locals did not know what they were looking at. The British man’s bag contained several flattened leather objects. It confused the residents of the Argentine capital. What, they wondered, was this strange man doing? They assumed that the bag was filled with some exotic type of hat. Or perhaps they were wineskins. Regardless, the objects were dismissed as “items for the crazy English”.
But they were not hats or wineskins. The contents of the bag looked unfamiliar to the residents of Buenos Aires because they had not yet been introduced to this particular British custom. The bag, so the story goes, was filled with deflated footballs.
The man who carried them was Scottish. He was a friend of Alexander Watson Hutton, who in 1882 had arrived in Argentina with a steely determination. His background was in teaching but he preached the importance of sport. Football, he decided, should be brought to South America.
Watson Hutton was an interesting character. He was, though he might not have viewed himself as such, a football evangelist. He was born in 1852, in the Gorbals, to a grocer and his wife. Watson Hutton moved to Edinburgh with his family as a baby, but by the age of five both of his parents had died.
So he was raised by his maternal grandmother and later at the Daniel Stewart Hospital School in the Scottish capital. The school had pledged to provide free education to those in need: Watson Hutton was, tragically, now one of them. He had been orphaned and would later lose both of his brothers to tuberculosis.
At school, Watson Hutton began to appreciate the importance of education. He had been given a chance in life, rescued from inevitable destitution, and he pursued his studies in the hope of bettering himself and others. He attended the University of Edinburgh and, after a long, arduous nine years, graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1881.
Watson Hutton had financed his studies by teaching. George Watson’s College had employed him as a ‘general teacher’: he taught, amongst other things, shorthand, and his class was described by the principal as a “model of excellence”.
In 1880, Watson Hutton was offered a job at St Andrew’s Scots School in Buenos Aires, and the position intrigued him. He was curious. A new climate, a new continent, appealed greatly. Watson Hutton wanted to complete his studies first, though, so his arrival in Argentina was delayed until February 1882 – after a long journey from Liverpool across the Atlantic by boat. His decision to emigrate was made, too, with his health in mind: Watson Hutton saw the prospect of playing football in Argentina’s climate as one that could prevent illness. He had not forgotten the fate of his brothers.
Watson Hutton not only aimed to teach football. He was also a keen player himself. “A photograph from around 1880 depicted him as a thin but athletic man with a high forehead and a luxuriant, if droopy, moustache,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in Angels with Dirty Faces. He saw the sport as a means of expressing religious faith, and of instilling discipline in the youth. It was an inherently British traditionalist view of the game.
When Watson Hutton arrived in Argentina, he found that rugby was the sport of choice. He was vehemently opposed to this; to him, it was positively blasephemous. At first, those he tried to convert to football dismissed it as an “animalistic game”, and board members at St Andrew’s School were equally reluctant to embrace it. They suggested that Watson Hutton remove the sport from his teaching curriculum, but he was insistent. When his requests for a gymnasium and playing fields were rejected, he resigned.
Watson Hutton might have given up; he might have headed home disheartened. Instead, typically driven, he chose to pursue his goals independently. He set up the Buenos Aires English High School in 1884 and within two years had 500 pupils regularly attending. Football was at the centre of everything.
“It spread through the schools and the British had a huge influence in Argentina,” said Wilson in a documentary on Watson Hutton released last year. “It was never a formal part of the Empire, but it was a de facto part of the Empire. The British ran the banking system; they ran the trains.”
Both British aristocrats and the Argentinian elite attended Watson Hutton’s school. It was an undisputed success. Watson Hutton thrived in this new environment, overseeing the rapid development of football and introducing a new sporting culture.
He had not forgotten his Scottish roots, though. In 1885 he married Margaret Budge, a former teacher at George Watson’s College, and a year later their first child, Arnold, was born. More people from Watson Hutton’s previous life began to make a reappearance as time passed: William Waters, the son of Watson Hutton’s former landlady, came to work at the English High School. He was joined in 1891 by a group of Scots, who set about creating five football teams: Old Caledonians, Buenos Aires and Rosario Railways, Buenos Aires Football Club, Belgrano Football Club and St Andrews Scotch Athletic Club. They were to play in the Argentine Association Football League, a division which continues to this day. The teams were, though, originally made up solely of British players. The locals were mere spectators, many of them bemused by this strange foreign game.
“The AAFL eventually evolved into the Argentinian FA in 1903, the same FA of today and he was appointed the first president,” Richard McBrearty of the Scottish Football Museum said in a 2003 interview with the Scotsman. “Watson Hutton was really the first successful administrator of the game in the country.”
Watson Hutton continued in his role until 1896, attempting to nurture a nascent league into something more significant. Occasionally, he refereed games, while maintaining his duties at the English High School. This was his life’s work; there would be no neglect.
By 1898, physical education had been made compulsory in all Argentinian schools. Delighted at the news, Watson Hutton purchased a pitch in the north of Buenos Aires and there set up a team for pupils and ex-pupils of the English High School. They were named Alumni, and for the next decade they dominated Argentinian football.
Watson Hutton’s legacy in Argentinian football is unmatched. His influence continued to be felt long after his death in 1936. His son, Arnold, played for Alumni as a left winger. The first Scottish settlers remained in Buenos Aires and set up a community. As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, players such as Jose Luis Brown and Carlos Javier MacAllister played in Argentina.
It seems pertinent to reflect on the beginnings of Argentine football at a time of such disarray in the current national team. Those who embraced the sport after Hutton’s arrival sought to move away from the anglicised roots and forge a distinctly Argentine identity. With that came La Nuestra – a style based on skill and extravagance and romanticism. Argentina longed for a unique footballing culture, and they had found it. It is ironic, then – as Wilson put it in a recent piece for the Guardian – that in their desperate attempts to avoid humiliation at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, “Argentina resembled nobody so much as England”.