As if a glamour game against the reigning South American champions Olimpia Asuncion wasn’t enough, Sunderland fans attending the match were also hoping to see an intriguing guest star pulling on the red and white stripes. Things did not pan out as expected however, and the man whose ‘baby’ it was, the recently installed scout Oscar Acre, paid the price.
Manager Ken Knighton had been keen to widen the net in search of new talent to boost the promotion hunt. Prior to the start of the season what would have been a club record deal for Yugoslavia international Bozo Bakota fell at the final hurdle due to work permit issues, but it didn’t put Sunderland off from appointing the Argentinian Acre as international and domestic chief scout.
Using his contacts Acre was able to fix up a friendly with the Paraguayan outfit Olimpia, who were on tour in Europe as part of their preparations for the Intercontinental Cup first leg in Sweden against Malmo a month later. Talking before the game, Knighton was enthused by the prospect of seeing his men take on a top ranked team and confirmed that they would be joined by some guest players with a view to them moving to Sunderland permanently.
With Knighton initially keeping his cards to his chest so as not to alert other clubs to their availability, the names of the three players Acre had lined up were eventually revealed. Two of them were to be his compatriots Hordon Palmeira and Alcides Giordano, and whilst the latter had received a full international cap four years earlier it was the third face that really caught the imagination.
Alves Gil had been a star for Brazil in the previous years’ FIFA World Cup and was now expected to be playing up front for the Lads ahead of a transfer from Botafogo. Suggestions that poor weather would affect his travel plans were at first allayed, but amidst some confusion the game kicked off with Gil supposedly stranded in London. Sunderland won the match comfortably without him but there was still some explaining to do for Arce, who had been responsible for all the arrangements.
One familiar Brazilian name that did make it onto the pitch was Carlos Alberto, although technically it was not the famous World Cup winner but in fact his namesake Carlos Alberto Kiese. He was the man that put Olimpia ahead but after 35 minutes Pop Robson levelled from the spot when popular local referee George Courtney gave a penalty for a foul on John Hawley.
Knighton made several changes at half time and two of the substitutes were soon into the thick of things, with Bob Lee putting the Lads ahead with a shot into the far corner and Barry Siddall saving the second penalty of the evening low to his left. Olimpia did level just after the hour mark through Mauro Cespedes but Gordon Chisholm’s calmly nodded header from a Tim Gilbert Cross, Shaun Elliott’s close range blast and Hawley’s well placed effort from outside the box took the game away from them and gave Sunderland a 5-2 win.
Whilst on the face of it the victory would seem encouraging, Knighton spoke to the press after the game and was clearly underwhelmed. Although Olimpia’s two goals were well taken the side were extremely lacklustre in defence and the Sunderland boss suggested they lacked any commitment to the game. As a result, he felt unable to truly judge Palmeira and Giordano and so confirmed that both potential moves were now off.
Palmeira had featured in what was described by John Richardson of The Journal in a solid role and had seemed useful, whilst according to Alan Oliver of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle Alicies had appeared quite skilful. Whether they could have done a job for Sunderland at that point is hard to say, but Arce’s eye couldn’t have been too bad – Olimpia’s left winger Hugo Talavera, who he identified in the match programme as being the dangerman, did perform well for his side and created their second goal.
Despite that insight whatever Arce said to Knighton about the evening’s events didn’t wash. As well as bemoaning the level of competition provided from Paraguay Knighton felt that both the club and its supporters had been let down by the no show from Gil, telling the press that he had dismissed his scout on the spot as a result. When pressed on the matter Knighton simply replied that he would not be welcome back on the premises.
Sometimes referred to as Oscar Fulloné, Arce soon began a successful management career but the full story about Gil was never properly disclosed, nor was the nature of his conversation with Knighton, whose only reference to the events in his programme notes for the following home game four days later was to thank the fans that had attended the Olimpia match.
Later that autumn Sunderland did finally bring in a foreign import. After arriving to great fanfare though Claudio Marangoni struggled to adapt on Wearside and despite featuring in a team that did achieve Knighton’s aim of promotion, he left the following season. He was later named Footballer of the Year in back in Argentina and Olimpia perhaps knew the feeling – they too had failed to live up to expectations at Roker Park and yet still went on to beat Malmo and stake a claim at being the best club side in the world.
Sunderland fans saw little evidence of that on this date in 1979, when after less than two months in the job Arce was out.