As many an Argentinian will tell you, the city of Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe, is one of the country’s cultural and footballing hotbeds. Situated on the banks of the Parana River and with a population of over one million, it is famed for its imposing monument to the national flag and the beauty of its women.

It has also produced some of the nation’s best-loved personalities and institutions, among them a football club that has played a prominent role in the history of the sport in Argentina: Rosario Central.

Known popularly as La Academia, Central have the honour of being the first team from outside Buenos Aires to win an international title and have also attracted some illustrious fans over the years, including Ernesto Che Guevara, the comedian Alberto Olmedo and the cartoonist and writer Roberto Fontanarrosa. looks back at the history of a proud club and their ground-breaking sporting triumphs.

Birth of an institution
Like the rest of Argentina’s most venerable clubs, Rosario Central owes their existence to foreign footballing missionaries. Their roots can be traced back to 1889, when the workers of the Ferrocarril Central Argentino, led by the Englishman Thomas Mutton, founded Central Argentine Railway Athletic, the idea being for them to play the game in their free time. The only problem was that there too few teams for them to compete against, although that would change when the Buenos Aires and Central Argentino railway companies merged.

The merger brought a sudden influx of people of Spanish descent to the city, who soon showed an interest in forming part of the club. Following much debate, the institution’s founders agreed to let the new arrivals join them and to adopt a new Spanish name. And so Club Atletico Rosario Central was born. Running out in blue and yellow, the club would join the Rosario league in 1905.

The making of a legend
Though football was an amateur game at the time, it did not take long for Central and Rosario’s other big club, Newell’s Old Boys, to strike up a bitter rivalry. La Lepra, as Newell’s are known, dominated the local league in its early years, their hold eventually being broken when Central, or Los Canallas, to give them their nickname, won their first title in 1908. That initial success was the prelude to a golden decade for Central. Between 1910 and 1920 they emerged as the pre-eminent force in the city and became the first side to win the local title four times in a row, from 1914 to 1917.

Ups and downs would follow in the Rosario championship, interspersed with the occasional success in national cup competitions, before, in 1939, Central finally joined the Argentinian Football Association’s national tournaments, the stage for their greatest triumphs. After enduring the frustration of relegation in 1941 and again in 1950, Central would come into their own in the late 1960’s, backed by the support of more than 40,000 members and a restructuring process that put a strong emphasis on the club’s youth set-up.

That far-sighted policy was rewarded with the emergence of talented home-grown players and some hard-won silverware. In 1971 Central won their maiden title of the professional era when they defeated San Lorenzo in the play-off final to become the first provincial side to lift the national league crown.

The highlight of that golden campaign came in the semi-final against city rivals Newell’s, played at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires and won by a solitary goal from Aldo Pedro Poy, a diving header that became known in Rosario as “the most celebrated goal in the world”. The game was played on 19 December and every year the goalscorer and Canallas’ fans meet on that same day to commemorate his memorable strike, their celebrations taking place as far afield as the USA, Chile, Uruguay and, in 2007, Cuba, where the son of Ernesto Che Guevara even joined in.

“That goal was the defining moment in my career and it’s given us a reason to come together and be happy for a little while every year,” said Poy recently, his face wreathed in a big smile. “We’ve been making a lot of people happy for over 30 years now.”

The departure of title-winning coach Angel Labruna did not stop Central, with Carlos Timoteo Griguol guiding them to another title in 1973, paving the way for the club’s four appearances in the Copa Libertadores over the remainder of the decade.

The 1980s brought triumphs and failures. Dubbed La Sinfónica, the gifted side coached by Angel Tulio Zof won the 1980 league title. Disaster followed only four years later when Los Canallas were relegated once more, though that demotion would ultimately result in another of the club’s unique achievements.

“Us Central fans always say that we’re the first in everything, outside Buenos Aires at least,” the late Roberto Fontanarrosa once commented. “We were the first provincial team to win the Argentinian championship, the first to qualify for the Copa Libertadores and to win an international trophy. On top of all that, though, we are also the first and only team to win the league the year after coming up from the second division.”

The title triumph in question came in 1987, when Canalla idol Omar Palma inspired them to one of Argentinian football’s most noteworthy championship wins.

The highlight of the following decade was Central’s heroic victory in the Copa Conmebol (the predecessor of the Copa Sudamericana) in 1995, their last trophy to date. Beaten 4-0 at Atletico Mineiro in the first leg of the final, Central, coached once more by Zof, levelled the aggregate score in the return thanks to a last-minute goal by Horacio Carbonari. The seal was set on an amazing comeback in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, sparking delirious scenes at the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito.

The present
The fortunes of Los Canallas have waned since the turn of the century. Aside from a notable run to the semi-finals of the 2001 Copa Libertadores, Central have suffered numerous setbacks in recent years, among them the loss of their 41-game unbeaten home record against foreign sides, Brazil’s Internacional ending that run with a 1-0 victory in the 2005 Copa Sudamericana. Worst was to befall La Academia five years later, when they lost a relegation/promotion play-off game to All Boys and were demoted to the Nacional B, Argentina’s second tier.

The stadium
Opened in October 1929, the Gigante de Arroyito is one of Argentina’s most characteristic stadiums. It was refurbished for the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™, providing the venue for the host nation’s 6-0 defeat of Peru, which took them through to the Final against the Netherlands. Also the setting for the South Africa 2010 qualifying match against Brazil, it has a capacity of over 40,000.