Skillful Peruvian centre-forward Valeriano López is one of only a very small group of players in the history of South American football to go through an entire top level career with a goalscoring rate of more than one per game. Despite a prolific 14-year career at club level, his opportunities at international level were surprisingly limited but he is nevertheless remembered as one of his country’s finest ever players.
Valeriano López Mendiola was born in Casma on 4 May 1926, where he grew up as one of eight children in a very poor family. As a teenager he lived in Huacho, where he began his junior career with local club Firestone. In 1945, he played for Firestone in a friendly match against top-flight side Sport Boys, greatly impressing the Sport Boys club president by scoring five goals. López was quickly signed up and made his debut at the top level at the beginning of the 1946 season.
Valeriano López impact was immediate. Sport Boys had finished bottom of the league in 1945 but were spared relegation and in 1946 improved to third place. López scored 22 goals in that first season, finishing as the league’s leading goalscorer. A strong and powerful centre-forward, he quickly developed a reputation as one of the finest headers of the ball in the game. López was blessed with a superb jumping ability and an incredibly powerful heading action which often left goalkeepers helpless. Observers at the time commented that his headers were so powerful it was as if he was kicking the ball with his head.
Valeriano López was the league’s leading scorer again in 1947, leading Sport Boys to another third place finish, and found himself called into the Peruvian squad for the South American Championship at the end of that year. In the tournament in Ecuador, López scored twice in defeats to Chile and Argentina but was sent off in the latter game and subsequently often found himself reduced to a substitute’s role. Ultimately, Peru finished in fifth place in what would prove to be López’s last appearance in the championship for a decade.
In the 1948 season, Valeriano López finished as top scorer in the Peruvian league for the third season in a row, having amassed a total of 62 goals in his 54 games for Sport Boys. Still only 22, he was the hottest property in the Peruvian game but his career took a sudden unexpected turn when he found himself in trouble with the national federation for breaching squad rules ahead of the South American Championship in 1949. Valeriano López was thrown out of the squad and hit with an indefinite ban, meaning he was not only unable to play for the national team but was also ineligible for Sport Boys.
He moved to Colombia, which at the time was not affiliated to FIFA and had become home to many of the top players in South America on bigger money contracts than they could hope for in their home countries. Valeriano López joined Deportivo Cali, where towards the end of his first season he went on one of the most remarkable goalscoring streaks in the history of the game. He found the net in twelve consecutive matches, but scored 23 goals in all across those games including two four-goal hauls and another hat-trick.
With 24 goals in total, he helped Cali to reach a championship play-off with Millonarios, which despite his goal in the second leg his team lost 4-2 on aggregate. After another good season in 1950, Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu tried to sign López, but he declined the opportunity to move to Europe as he did not want to be so far from his family. By 1951, his ban in Peru had been lifted and that season he returned home to rejoin Sport Boys for a second spell.
In the finest season of his career, Valeriano López scored 31 goals including three in a crucial last game title decider against Deportivo Municipal. Having finished as the league’s top scorer for the fourth time, he now had a first league title to show for his efforts and ended the season as top scorer in the whole of South America. The following year he appeared for Peru in the Panamerican Championship, where five goals in a 7-1 win over Panama helped him to finish as leading scorer. His performances earned him the opportunity to move to Argentina later that year, joining Huracán.
Valeriano López’s time in Argentina did not last long, as he returned to Peru ahead of the 1954 season to play for Alianza Lima. His first season brought a league championship, which was retained a year later after a play-off victory over Universitario. Alianza’s crown fell in 1956, after which López left to join second tier side Mariscal Castilla. In 1957 he was selected for the national squad for the South American Championship, some ten years after his previous appearance in that competition. He started the opening game, a win over Ecuador, but was not really first choice and would make just one further substitute appearance.
Valeriano López rejoined Sport Boys for a third spell in 1958, but his career seemed to be in decline. His somewhat wayward lifestyle and high alcohol consumption were beginning to take their toll, although he did win another league title that year with Sport Boys. He played on sporadically over the next couple of years, before leaving the club for the final time in 1960. With his career appearing to be over, Valeriano López made a surprising return to Colombia in 1961 when he rejoined Deportivo Cali, but he made just a handful of appearances before retiring from football at the age of 35.
In total, Valeriano López scored 207 goals in 199 league games, joining Argentina’s Bernabé Ferreyra and Brazilian Arthur Friedenreich as the only players to average more than a goal a game in top level South American football. Sadly, in retirement Valeriano López’s life began to fall apart. He drifted away from football, forgotten by his former clubs and growing ever more dependent on alcohol, a problem which may well have shortened his playing career. He ended up living in total poverty, and died in Sport Boys’ home city of Callao in 1994, shortly after his 68th birthday.