A native of the Punta Gorda borough of Montevideo, Fernando Morena made his first impact on football at Racing Club before moving on to River Plate de Montevideo in 1969, and finally to C.A. Peñarol in 1973, aged 21.
With 230 goals in 244 games, Morena remains the all-time highest scorer in the Uruguayan A League. His ruthlessness in front of goal, technique, positioning, awareness and heading ability made him the ultimate forward despite a relatively diminutive frame (5ft 9in).
Uplifting Uruguayan football and destroying Peñarol’s rivals, Morena was the league’s top scorer six consecutive times between 1973 and 1978. In 1978 he broke two scoring records too; that of the highest number of goals scored in one season (36 in 22 games) as well as in a single game (seven against Huracan in July 1978). Critics would argue Morena did it all in a poor league, but that would discount his incredible record in the Copa Libertadores where he collected the highest scorer accolade three times, standing second in the competition’s all-time rankings to this day with 37 goals in 77 games.
The echo of Morena’s talent soon reverberated across the Atlantic and he arrived at Rayo Vallecano for a record-breaking $650,000 in 1979. Coached by his countryman Hector Nuñez, Rayo narrowly avoided relegation that season thanks to a scintillating spell from Morena who ended the season just three goals short of the Pichichi trophy which eventually landed in Gijon striker Quini’s hands.
Buoyed by a successful debut season in Europe, Morena moved on to Valencia. Partnering Mario Kempes, Morena racked up 16 goals in 31 games including a Super Cup decider in the second leg against Nottingham Forest in December 1980. He finished the 80/81 season as the club’s top scorer.
The continued rise of Morena was a sharp contrast to the slumber in which his former side Peñarol descended since his departure. The champions of 1978 lost the league to arch-rivals Nacional in 1980, with the additional pain of seeing their rivals triumph on a continental basis. Nacional clinched a historic Libertadores – Intercontinental Cup double the same year, their victims in the latter being none other than Nottingham Forest, just three months after Morena had taken the European Super Cup from Brian Clough’s side.
As Peñarol’s 90th anniversary approached, the club’s board decided to call Valencia to see whether they could get their iconic striker back. Morena made it clear he was keen to return, opting to slash his wages by 85% to suit his former club. The Spanish side, reluctant to lose their new talisman, set an outrageous $1.5m price tag; well aware that Peñarol’s annual turnover was around $1.2m.
It is at this point that one of the greatest stories in Uruguayan football unfurls as Peñarol fans began collecting the money needed to get their idol back. Within a few months, $500,000 had been raised, half the amount Valencia required in order to sell Morena, having revised their estimation of the player downwards to £1m in light of his eagerness to return home.
With the necessary funding raised, Peñarol secure an agreement to pay Valencia half a million up front – the money collected by fans – while the other half will be paid over the next two seasons. The impossible dream comes true. Fernando Morena is back at the club that made him.
The impact is immediate; Peñarol win the league in Morena’s comeback season in 1981-1982, adding the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup to their tally after beating Tony Barton’s Aston Villa in December 1982. Back to his old ways, the player collects the top scorer accolade in both the Uruguay A League and Copa Libertadores, netting the winner in the 89th minute of the return leg of the competition’s final against Chile’s Cobreloa.
In 1983, Morena leads Peñarol to another league title as his side comes second best in the Copa Libertadores – won for the first time by Gremio, despite Morena scoring in both legs of the final.
In September 1983, Morena joins the Uruguay national football team for the Copa America. High expectations surround a side that also includes Enzo Francescoli and Carlos Aguilera. Uruguay’s opening game in the group stage comes against Chile, a 2-1 victory with Morena scoring a penalty. Three days later, another win, this time against Venezuela with Morena scoring another penalty in the 51st minute. But the goal is bittersweet. It is Moreno’s last international strike as he is stretchered off minutes later following a horrific tackle by René Torres which breaks the striker’s leg.
Although Uruguay go on to win the competition, every football fan in the country, even those beyond the Peñarol faithful, is saddened by the sight of their best player missing out on a medal due to injury.
Morena never fully recovered from the tackle and after two other South American spells, one at Flamengo and another at Boca Juniors, he, fittingly, retires as a Peñarol player in 1985 aged 33.
Travelling to Uruguay twenty-one years later in 2006, René Torres is stopped by a customs officer in Uruguay. Recognising the name on his passport, the officer looks the former Venezuelan defender straight in the eye and asks only one question; “Why?”
With a career ratio of 0.85 goals per game, the fourth best in football history as recorded by IFFHS, Fernando Morena remains one of the best strikers to grace South American football and perhaps, since Pele never even made the trip to Europe, the finest South American striker to grace European football.
By Igor Mladenovic
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona