After Francescoli helped Uruguay win the 1983 Copa América, he joined River Plate later that year for $310,000. In his first year, he didn’t get many chances to show his skills, sharing playtime with other players. Towards the end of the season, he played more as River Plate reached the Argentine final but lost 3-0 to Ferro Carril Oeste. Despite this, Francescoli was chosen as the best South American footballer of 1984, recognized for his performances for River Plate and the Uruguay national team, playing alongside notable players like Nelson Gutiérrez and Antonio Alzamendi.
Eager to succeed with River Plate, Francescoli turned down an offer from América de Cali, a strong team that later became the runners-up in the Copa Libertadores between 1985 and 1987, even though they were well-performing at the time. Although River Plate didn’t win the championship in 1985, Francescoli was voted as Argentina’s best player, a first for a foreign player.
He finally clinched the Argentine title with River Plate the next season, in the 1985-86 Championship, ending the season as the top scorer with 25 goals, including three crucial goals in a 5-4 win against Argentinos Juniors. This victory helped River Plate qualify for the Copa Libertadores. In January 1986, he scored his most famous goal, a spectacular bicycle kick that led River Plate to triumph over the Poland national team in a friendly tournament organized by the five largest Argentine clubs.
Following his success in Argentina, Francescoli moved to Europe, signing with Racing Paris, a French Second Division promoted team. Nantes was ready to pay $2.5 million for his contract, but River Plate’s president, Hugo Santilli, believed Francescoli could fetch a better price.
In 1994, at 33 years old, Francescoli had a less successful season with Torino and decided to return to River Plate in Argentina, the team where he had previously performed exceptionally well. Although he was older, he was determined to show he could still play at the highest level. He had a strong performance in the Apertura championship that year. River Plate also achieved an undefeated champion status for the first time during that season.
The following year, the team didn’t perform as impressively, finishing tenth in the Clausura and seventh in the Apertura. They were also eliminated in the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores by Colombia’s Atlético Nacional. Francescoli played as a striker during the team’s journey, and his efforts earned him the South American Player of the Year award and the Argentine Player of the Year title, a decade after he first received it.
After retiring from the national team, Francescoli focused entirely on River Plate, where he recaptured his top form, scoring a total of 19 goals in the 1996 season. This was a significant year for him as he led a young and talented River Plate team, including players like Ariel Ortega, Matías Almeyda, Juan Pablo Sorín, Hernán Crespo, and Marcelo Gallardo, to win the 1996 Copa Libertadores title and his second league title. This briefly tied the record set by their rivals, Boca Juniors.
However, the season ended with a defeat in the 1996 Intercontinental Cup final against Juventus. River Plate missed the chance to equal Boca Juniors with two Intercontinental Cup titles. Zinedine Zidane, who was a fan of Francescoli, once said, “when I saw Francescoli play, he was the player I wanted to be. He was the player that I saw and admired at Olympique de Marseille, my idol when I played against him when I was at Juventus… Enzo is like a god.” Francescoli came out of retirement at the end of the year to help Uruguay qualify for the World Cup in France.
In the following season, River Plate faced disappointment, being eliminated in the round of 16 of the 1997 Copa Libertadores by Racing Club at the Estadio Monumental after a penalty shoot-out. Despite this setback, River Plate experienced significant success domestically, winning the Clausura, Apertura, and the Supercopa Libertadores in a fortunate treble.
After not being able to help Uruguay qualify for the 1998 World Cup, Francescoli declared he would retire in early 1998. Despite being offered around a million dollars to continue, he turned it down because of ongoing struggles with injuries, feeling he couldn’t continue for another year. Poor sleep caused by stress had led him to seek therapy since 1996.
His last two matches for River Plate were remarkable. Within four days, they won two titles. The first victory, on December 17, 1997, was the decisive second leg of the Supercopa Libertadores against São Paulo. This win was historic as River Plate had never won that tournament before. The Brazilian team, who had drawn in Brazil, were defeated 2-1 at the Monumental of Núñez. Then, on December 21, River drew 1-1 with Argentinos Juniors at the Estádio José Amalfitani, securing the 1997 Apertura championship. This concluded the Argentine treble, having won the 1996 Apertura and 1997 Clausura, with their arch-rivals Boca Juniors as strong contenders for the title.
On August 1, 1999, Francescoli had a farewell match at the Monumental, attended by 65,000 spectators, including the Presidents of Argentina and Uruguay, as well as some Boca Juniors fans. Peñarol, the club he had dreamed of playing for as a child, won the match 4-0. After the game, Francescoli and other players signed autographs for thousands of children, playing and kicking the ball around with them.
As his retirement approached, Argentine composer Ignacio Copani dedicated his song “Inmenzo” (a play on “Enzo”) to Francescoli, with the crowd requesting an encore at the end. After his retirement, River Plate faced challenges, struggling to achieve the same international success as in previous years. This eventually led to an unprecedented relegation in 2011, exactly 15 years after the team had won the 1996 Copa Libertadores with Francescoli. He remains the team’s seventh highest goalscorer, with 115 goals in 198 matches, and is the third highest foreign goalscorer in the history of Argentine football, behind only Paraguayans Arsenio Erico and Delfín Benítez Cáceres.