The amazing tale of two boys’ journey from the west of Scotland to Boca Juniors
IN a vestibule area at a Scots American social club a short drive from the centre of New York City, there is an anonymous black- andwhite picture of two neatly attired young men in rival strips smiling for the camera. The caption below i ndicates the scene: Rosario, Argentina. The year: 1964.
The smiling subjects are no mere tourists. One is decked out in the shirt of the mighty Boca Juniors, the other in the kit of their Argentine Primera Division rivals Rosario Central. The pair are posing prematch, two old friends and former team-mates reacquainted for the first time on the field since parting in Buenos Aires the previous season.
The picture, hidden in the bowels of this Scots retreat in Kearny, New Jersey, belies the remarkable journey of two little-known Scottish footballers who from the humble semi-professional ranks of American soccer chanced upon a trial for one of the most storied clubs in the world – and made it.
In Boca’s famous yellow and blue is Peter Millar, briefly of Kilwinning Rangers before emigrating to the United States in 1959 at the age of 16. In a Rosario shirt is Bobby Waugh, who had made a handful of appearances for East Fife in the early ’ 60s before he too crossed the Atlantic Ocean for New York.
More than half a century later, from his home in Kearny, Millar recalled their nonchalant reply the moment he and Waugh, who died some years ago, were offered the chance in Buenos Aires: “‘Sure, we’d love to go for a trial at Boca Juniors,’ we said.”
How the opportunity arose is a meandering tale involving a colourful cast of characters. A referee with a keen eye for a player. A quirky Italian American football club owner who fancied a Scottish player or two. An Argentine boxer. And then the boxer’s manager.
It was head-spinning stuff for a young man from Saltcoats who believed he had hit the heights playing in the Ayrshire juniors with Kilwinning. “I thought it was fantastic. I was getting £3 a game,” he said. IN New York, Millar quickly joined an amateur team who played in the local German American Soccer League. It was dominated by Scots who had played junior football back home.
“While playing in Kearny in a charity cup a referee in one of the games came up to me in the Scots club and said, ‘ What are you doing on Sunday’?” Millar recalled. “I said, ‘Nothing really.’ He said, ‘You’re coming with me, I’m going to take you for a trial with somebody.’ He took me over to a team called New York Inter, who played in the American Soccer League, and I ended up being signed by them at the end of 1961.”
Now semi-pro, Millar found himself playing with experienced players from South America. Crucially, there were Argentinians.
“Once I got used to playing with these older players things started to work out,” he says. “I was scoring goals and in the meantime there were more Scottish players coming to the team. Jimmy Murray, he was from Edinburgh, and then later on Bobby Waugh came. At one time we had four or five Scottish players playing for us. [The founder of Inter] Enzo [Magnozzi] liked the players coming from Scotland. He liked the work ethic. He brought them over and got them jobs.
“A couple of the players had friends who used to come and watch the games. One was a boxer by the name of Victor Zalazar. His manager came with him to watch one of the games. After seeing a couple of games, he approached myself and Bobby Waugh and asked us if we’d be interested in going for a trial to Argentina for Boca Juniors.”
After the shock, they quickly issued their cool response.
“The Argentine players, they told us, ‘Sure, go take a chance.’ They thought that we’d do OK. Mr Magnozzi was not very happy with it because at that time we were in the running for winning the league. So we went to Argentina in January 1963, we had a trial and both of us got signed.”
The transition was monumental on and off the pitch. At first Millar and Waugh were put up in a plush hotel before moving on to digs in Barrio Norte, a wealthy part of Buenos Aires far removed from the working class confines of La Boca, home of their new club. It was the sort of place where if you wanted to go out and eat at night, you had to don jacket and tie.
“Growing up in Saltcoats we didn’t have things like that,” Millar said.
But that did not stop the political strife of 1960s Argentina, a time of military coups and weak government, interrupting their idyll.
“We were there during one of the revolutions,” Millar said. “We went to practice and you could hear the guns going off. So they told us to wrap up and go back to where we were staying in the hotel.
“Bobby and I had nothing to do so we were going to go for lunch. We’re standing on the corner and we see these trucks coming down with all these troops sitting on the back like in the movies. This truck goes round the corner and one of the guys comes with a gun in his hand, and he goes, ‘Vamos!’
“Bobby and I took off running, ran into the hotel half a block away, ran into the elevator, up to the room, locked the door and pulled the sheets over our head.”
In April 1963, there was a naval uprising in opposition to new presidential elections. One night while out for a car ride, Millar and Waugh encountered a checkpoint.
“It was, ‘Everybody out of the car.’ Then one of the guys told them that this is the two Scots that are here playing for Boca, and they let us go. It was scary not being used to that.”
As for the football, the squad they joined was stocked with top-level talent. Brazilian defender Orlando, a World Cup winner in 1958; Argentina internationals like the forward Norberto Menendez and midfielder Antonio Rattin; in goal there was Antonio Roma, another Argentina cap and there was prolific Argentinian goalscorer Jose Sanfilippo.
Waugh had some big-game experience playing in Scotland with East Fife, but the two wingers had arrived in Buenos Aires direct from glorified playing fields in New York. The US was not exactly a hotbed of top-drawer football and the Bombonera stadium was of a different order.
“It was very hard to break into the first team,” Millar said. “I played outside right. We had Omar Corbatta, an Argentinian international, and I was his back-up. He was a player I admired. He taught me a lot. Playing in the reserve team was like playing in the first team because all the players that were around you were big names.” STILL aged just 20, Millar spent his first season at Boca playing in the under 21s with occasional forays in the reserves and in first team friendlies, including a memorable run-out against a touring Stoke City.
Waugh, a year older, was mostly used in the reserves.
“The quality of play was way higher than we were used to, and a lot faster. We learned an awful lot, though, and fortunately I was able to score some goals. That helped.”
The pair also thought they were doing rather well on the financial front as full-time professionals, at least in an Argentinean context. While the average local worker would make about 5000 pesos a month, he and Waugh were collecting 40,000-50,000 pesos plus bonuses. He had come a long way since Kilwinning Rangers.
Millar got a taste of the raucous atmosphere that could envelope an Argentinian league clash. The under 21 matches were serious affairs, played in the stadium on a Sunday just before the first team’s fixture. There might already be 65,000 thronging the steep Bombonera galleries.
River Plate was the big one, “an adventure”. Even the youngsters couldn’t escape the coins being thrown and fans who would spit on them if they got close enough.
There were tasty encounters, too, with the likes of Independiente and Racing Club.
“All these games were treated like it was the cup final. There was loads of drama. You used to think that you were so close to the fans yet there was a moat separating the field from the stands. There was a big chain link fence to keep them out. When you were playing, when the stadium was packed, all you could hear was a buzz. You couldn’t distinguish what it was, it was just the buzz of the people. Believe me it was loud, very loud.”
After the initial 1963 campaign, Waugh was transferred to Rosario, some 300 miles away in the centre of the country. From then on, the pair’s contact was limited with telephones not yet prevalent.
By this time Millar had graduated from the under 21s and become a full-fledged squad player. The all-star Boca still meant competitive firstteam action continued to elude him but he continued to rack up games in the reserves.
It was before one of these reserve matches that he reconnected with Waugh and appeared attentively in the photograph displayed at the Scots club in Kearny. The two friends who had departed New York together hoping to star for Boca were to square off on opposing sides.
“Bobby played outside left and I played outside right so we had a lot of contact that game,” Millar laughed.
Then came the unexpected intervention of the US draft board. The war in Vietnam was raging, and as a green card holder, Millar was summoned for duty. Soon, Waugh, too, was called up. Just like that, the dream was over. The two unknowns, who had plotted an unprecedented trail from the west of Scotland to the cusp of the top of the Argentine game to little fanfare, would trade their playing uniforms for military fatigues.
“I had a decision to make,” Millar said. “I could either go or stay in Argentina and have the possibility of never seeing my family again because if I did not report, I would not be able to return to the United States.
“One of the things that helped me make my decision to go back was that Boca, like most of the teams down there in South America at that time, were notorious for being late paying the players. There were sometimes you were three months behind before you got paid. What they would do is pay you the bonuses and you would live off of that. I was saying to myself, ‘Is it worth it staying here and living day to day’.”
As fate would have it, Millar avoided the theatre in Vietnam, instead spending his active duty on an army football team in Germany, playing games in a string of countries across Europe as the side acted as a kind of goodwill ambassador for the US military. There were regular training matches against the local side Stuttgart, and a memorable victory over Eintracht Frankfurt.
Waugh, meanwhile, was sent to serve in Vietnam, and it would be some years before the pair would meet again. MILLAR would go on to spend a season playing in the new North American Soccer League with the Baltimore Bays under the former Queens Park Rangers manager Gordon Jago. That led to the US national team. Now a US citizen, he won 13 caps and scored eight goals for the Stars and Stripes.
“They call that the dark ages in this country, the 60s and 70s,” he said.
The US didn’t make a World Cup between 1950 and 1990, and Millar describes a disorganised setup in which few if any friendlies were organised between qualifying campaigns.
Then it was back to New York Inter where Millar and Waugh would share a field once more.
“When Bobby got back from Vietnam we got back together because he lived in the same town I lived in,” said Millar.
Waugh would go on to collect a couple of Most Valuable Player awards before giving up the game. In Vietnam, Millar said, Waugh had come into contact with Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the US military to clear forest cover.
“I used to see him every week when we were playing but then he stopped playing because he was getting sick.” THERE is another picture Millar still has in his possession. It is of Boca’s 1964 team, the one that would go on to win the Argentinian league championship that season, his final one with the club.
“It’s of all of the professional squad,” said Millar, who is now 76 and still helping to run his family sheet metal business, the trade he picked up when a part-time player in New York. “I’m actually in it. At just 21 years of age. That’s one thing I treasure.”
Playing in the reserves was like playing in the first team because they were all big names All these games were treated like it was the cup final. There was loads of drama
The photograph hanging up in a Scots American social club near New York, of Scots Peter Millar and Bobby Waugh meeting up prior to kick-off in a Rosario v Boca Juniors reserve game
Peter Millar, back row, second from left, with his Boca Junior under 21 side
Packed galleries in the Bombonera Stadium watch as Peter Millar strikes home for Boca’s under 21s against Rosario in 1963