Daniel Willington, the legend
After the unveiling of his magnificent statue last friday, @VelezinEnglish looks back at the greatness of Daniel Willington.
El Daniel, El Famoso Cordobés, El Daniel de los Estadios or simply Daniel Alberto Willington. Born in Santa Fé in 1942 and four years after he would move with his family to Córdoba, a land he would embrace and reciprocally embraced him, giving him fame a new identity. His father Atilio was a professional footballer for Talleres but it became evident quickly that his son would not only follow his steps but go further, making his debut for Talleres at the age of sixteen and although he wouldn't really reach the heights of world football, he would have an impact big enough to make himself a legend for the teams he played for and an ineludible reference in the history of argentinian football, a player unforgettable for those who were lucky to see him in a football pitch and becoming one of the first players to mesh with celebrities off it.
Willington arrived to Vélez in 1961 thanks to the recommendation of club legend Victorio Spinetto after he spotted Daniel on a Youth National Team tryout. Spinetto wasn't the first one to see Willington's talent. Everybody was aware of it, but the character he had was the reason that made big teams doubt about him: A languid playmaker with questionable body language and low work rate (even for those times standards) on and off the pitch. Vélez took a chance on him anyway and legendary chairman José Amalfitani quickly realised he had to build a protective environment if Willington's obvious talents were to blossom: He adopted Willington as if he was his son, but he was stern and strict when Daniel strayed out of the line. Amalfitani gave him accomodation under the stands of the stadium and would give him the money he needed for food only, putting aside the rest in the knowledge that Daniel would recklessly spend it otherwise: Very soon, he could buy a house for his parents and a house and car for him. Willington would be forever grateful to Don Pepe. On the pitch, Willington showed progress as well, becoming the archetypical no. 10, cutting a distinguished figure, dribbling gracefully with his 185 cms and showing a vision that allowed him to make the best of his prodigious long range passing skills eventually becoming the creative hub of the team that won the National Championship for the first time in the history of the club in 1968. Some people would relate his style to Riquelme's, he would compare it with Zidane's, no one ever argued against it. He played 212 games with 65 goals during two spells in Liniers, the first one finishing in 1971 and returning in 1978 for one more year to finish his playing career. He also played for Tiburones Rojos de Veracruz, Huracán, Instituto and Talleres inbetween. For all his talent, he never found himself comfortable in the National Team setup and only played eleven times for the Albiceleste. He had a hand at coaching and had a crack at the Vélez helm, but his success was limited.
He forged his legend as time went by. Team mates who played up front, like Carone, Wehbe or Carlos Bianchi revered him due to his creativity and passing skills that made them score plenty of goals. If you ask them, many white haired Vélez fans will happily recall those sunny afternoons where Willington would stay in the shade and dictate the flow of the game safe from the sun rays. When Pelé visited the Amalfitani stadium with Santos for a friendly for the inauguration of a new lightning system, called Willington (who had a great game as per reports) "The best player in the world". Legendary coach Renato Cesarini said that "He was at his 100% when he had the ball on his feet but gave only 60% off the ball, that made me realise he wasn't an alien. I always want him on my team, never on the opposition". World Champion Jorge Valdano recalled when he faced Willington in one of his first professional games: "When saw him for the first time, I thought we were on different jobs. He had a free kick 40 metres far from the goal. He initially was going to hit it with the right foot but ended up smashing the bar with a thunderous left fotted shot. I said to myself that if this is the level of professional football I would have to work hard if I wanted to make myself a name in football. Then I understood that there were very few players like Willington". Iconic writer Roberto Fontanarrosa dubbed him "The Exorcist", due to his talent. Poems and songs were written, but apparently no words could do justice to his talents.
Off the pitch, there was also an aura about him. His witty character so typical of Córdoba and humilty apparently made him easy to approach and his lust for life made made him a mainstay for a while in the night circuits. A Tango aficionado, he befriended figures like Pugliese and "El polaco" Goyeneche. He also befriended heavyweight boxer and celebrity "Ringo" Bonavena, who was said to fund Willington's return to Argentina to play for Huracán, the team he supported (He later denied it). He had success with woman too: He was said to date many dancers and actresses of the time including the legend that he dated Mirtha Legrand, who was a star at that time and still has a relevant TV show in prime time (To his credit, he always was reluctant to give credit to this stories on the grounds of gentlemanship). In his own words: "I was a bit wild, I liked to to drink a glass of wine, smoke a cigarette and hang out with friends. If I didn't drink a gin with Cola, when I went out to dance with a girl, I wouldn't know what to tell her". I know these stories have nothing to do with football, but the truth is that they have done their bit to create to the myth of Willington, specially coming from an era in which was unusual for football players to be seen among celebrities. Vélez and Talleres have always paid tributes and homages to him specially when both clubs faced each other. One of the ends in the Mario Alberto Kempes was named after him. Now, he will get his statue in conmemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first Vélez championship. He was never forgotten by fans in Córdoba and Liniers. And he will never be.