2015: Pedro Morales is the Messi of Vancouver. He is our Golden God.
My brother e-mailed me when the Vancouver Whitecaps signed Chilean midfielder Pedro Morales in 2014, asked me if I’d ever heard of him. I knew him, but only sort of, probably about as much as my brother did. We were reasonably avid fans of La Roja. We’d seen the team play twice in Chile. We road-tripped to Edmonton to watch the U-20 Chile play in 2007, a side that include Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Mauricio Isla—household names not just in Chile, but across the continent, everywhere soccer fanatics reside. But Pedro Morales? Not on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But not exactly off the radar either.
He’d come from Malaga, where he’d been brought by manager and compatriot Manuel Pellegrini. Pellegrini had brought Morales into the squad just the year before, and he’d done well, competing with Isco for the team’s creative midfielder role. But when Pellegrini left that same year for Manchester City, Morales’ days were numbered. The new coach, German Berndt Schuster—who lasted a single lacklustre season before being sacked—cared for Morales not at all. And so in 2014 there arrived in Vancouver, a creative forward who had, just the year before, scored against Barcelona and was at the same time a complete unknown, a curious phenomenon.
We drove down from the Okanagan, where we were living at the time, twice, just to see Morales play. He was a wizard. He was clearly the best player on the field, yes. But he was so much better, that he seemed to play a different sport entirely. He had that sort of languid quality about him—which I imagine may have infuriated Schuster. Morales always appeared not to be labouring, or even trying really, like at all, while, at the same time, singularly orchestrating all of the action on field. Morales didn’t just control the flow of the game, he produced most of the game’s individual moments of brilliance, too. He had tricks. He was always worth a road trip, he and he alone. He was so good, that I began to wonder how, and why, we’d got such a player in the first place. Why hadn’t another top European side signed him? Why wasn’t he directing traffic in Chile’s national side?
Mostly, these were just silent conversations I had with myself to make the drive back up the Coquihalla more quickly. I was surprised to find that there were actually answers, good ones, to this question. I think it breaks down like this.
In 2014 there was not a single top European team willing to try and play that kind of football, at least not with Morales as the one guy upon whom they’d be willing to bet the whole house. But this was the rule for players of his position—the rule, not the exception. Like Ronin, Chilean magicians have lost their place in the new world order. They are doomed to travel the lesser leagues of the world where problems are of a size they can still tackle, the men they oppose still mortal. Paradoxically then, many of the world’s most creative and individually visionary players, toil in leagues which few, outside local markets, watch at all. The Whitecaps are such a team in such a league. The tactical systems deployed in MLS aren’t particularly advanced. The base soccer knowledge of the North American player trails that of their Latin American and European counterpart.
For a year and half Morales ran the Whitecaps like Leonard Bernstein guest-conducting the VSO, somehow conjuring greatness not just from within himself, but instilling it also in those around him, teaching his teammates, each of them, how to play sweeter than they’d even thought of before. Morales was an unflappable genius through which all good things passed. Even when he was greedy it was with the greater good in mind. I liked watching the Whitecaps of 2014 more than I liked watching any European team: whatever the games lacked in athleticism and strategy they made up by showcasing the lost art of football wizardry, where a thing happens out of nothing, a thing that has never before happened anywhere and may never again. I prefer seeing that than seeing cleverly crafted plans practiced thousands of times come to perfection on the big stage. I know the virtues of practice and planning. They can take you a long way. The virtues of genius are less tangible, less obtainable and are therefore more mysterious. How would you teach someone to do what Pedro Morales does? Even Pedro Morales could not teach you this. Genius cannot reliably articulate itself through language.
At the time when Morales was teaching Vancouver for the first time what real soccer could look like if you wanted it too, he was maybe the fifth best Chilean at his position of his generation. The best of these, Jorge Valdivia, was a player so good that Pele said of his 2008 championship season for Palmeiras, in the Brazilian top flight, “Valdívia is the best player of all. He is the star of Brazil.” But Valdivia was not just a genius, he was an erratic one, prone to disciplinary problems and, therefore, too risky for the intense psychological demands and high stakes of a career in Europe. Thus Valdivia symbolizes the same tragic conundrum as Morales, only writ much larger. The best overall player produced by Chile was a player in a position obsolete across Europe.
In the 2015 Copa America—the prestige continental championship—Chile chose to revert to a football wizard behind three forwards, a system it had abandoned at the World Cup the year before. It worked. ‘By letting Valdívia work his magic in this tournament, Sampaoli restored an old South American mainstay to the Chilean team – the Enganche. Valdívia functioned as the clever link between midfield and attack who glued everything together.” At a tournament that included Lionel Messi of Argentina, Neymar of Brazil and James of Colombia, it was Jorge Valdivia who outplayed them all. Jorge Valdivia, who never had more than a cup of coffee with any team in Europe, was able to so impose his will on the course of the tournament that it was like watching a movie in which you know the hero, constantly imperilled, does not die.
Jorge Valdivia returned to the Chilean league in 2018, to run the midfield for Colo Colo, the country’s most popular team. The player he replaced? Pedro Morales, who had signed for Colo Colo in 2017, a few weeks after being released by the Whitecaps. As you can tell, I was, as I remain, a keen admirer of Pedro Morales. My dad knew this. The Whitecaps were a safe topic of conversation between us, one of a very few. The Whitecaps kind of kept our relationship going for awhile. When I learned that the Whitecaps were playing a pre-season friendly in Victoria against the University of Victoria Vikes, I was excited to tell my dad the news. The photo below is of a program he gave to me from the game. I hadn’t asked for an autograph, I was two decades too old for that shit. But he knew I would want one, and he knew he could get it.
Sometime during the game my Dad, as he told it, approached the player’s bench pulling what Chileans call a “CEACHEI”. Basically, Dad was single-handedly running a stadium soccer chant directly in front of Pedro Morales. That is some brave shit right there. Anyway, Morales was happy to oblige. They talked some about Chile and now the autograph of Pedro Morales stands on my bookcase reminding me, every now and then, not just of soccer, the way it was meant to be played, but also that my dad had a good deal of good in him. He meant well a lot of the time. Same as all of us.
The second signature is of Kendall Waston,