Uruguay: The little giant of World Football.

Uruguay is the smallest country in South America both in size and population. The Uruguayan nation as we know it today was predominantly built by immigrants from France, Italy, Spain and the British Isles at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. You can still see the influence of these migrants in the architecture of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, if you walk around the older areas of the city today; the railway station built by British Engineers, the French town houses and the Italian and Spanish villas. This migration brought with it not only architectural, social and cultural influences, but also football influences as well.

In 1891 the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club was formed by British railway workers and later changed their name to Peñarol (Los Carboneros – The Coalmen) who have gone on to become the most successful domestic football club in Uruguay’s history. Other clubs such as Nacional, Wanders and Liverpool all have strong historical connections to the migrant workers that visited Uruguay at or around the turn of the century.

The mix of different European cultural immigrants entering Uruguay, combined with the spread of association football globally, meant that Uruguay, as a nation, (along with their neighbours’ Argentina) created a new and unique style of football. They turned their back on the direct game brought across by the British and developed a brand of football built around short passes, player movement and attacking play.

FIFA organized their first World Cup in 1930 which was hosted in Uruguay between between 12 teams; 8 from the America’s and 4 from Europe (The British teams failed to attend the competition as they still had a notion of footballing superiority). The blended ‘new world’ football ethos, combined with a home advantage, helped Uruguay to win the first final against Argentina at the Centenario Stadium in the heart of Montevideo. At that moment footballing legacy, tradition and pride were cemented into Uruguayan culture.

The fourth World Cup, the first after the Second World War, was held in once again in South America. When Uruguay won this competition, at the expense of hosts Brazil, the nation celebrated two World Cup wins out of two as they had not entered the other pre-war competitions in Italy and France. It was this success, however, that went on to curse the Uruguayan national team on the World Cup stage.

The Uruguayan people expected and demanded success from then on; 4th place finishes in 1954 and 1970 were seen more as underachievement’s rather than the actual successes that they were.  In fact, every time La Celeste plays at home a huge sky blue flag is unravelled in the stand with “1950” in big black letters to remind them of those standards that were set for them in the past. The constant comparison with the glorious team of 1950 created a pressure and fear of failure among national team players and manager’s. This fear led to Uruguay forgetting their cultural roots and playing a breed of negative, aggressive, anti-football.

Uruguay fans expect – The 1950 flag

Don’t get me wrong, Uruguay have had success since 1950. They have won the sprint that is the Copa America on numerous occasions and at club level, both Peñarol and Nacional, have also been victorious in the Copa Libertadores (South America’s equivalent to the Champions League). However, when the game first became truly global in the early 1990’s, Uruguayan footballers started to leave the domestic league en masse and seek the wealth offered by European club football. This led to a decline in standards in the national league, which had a knock-on effect in adding greater pressure on the national teams’ stars when they returned home to play. No Uruguayan club has won the Libertadores since the 1980’s and the Copa America had only been won by Uruguay once in that time, until this Sunday evening.

So, what has helped change the form of Uruguayan football in recent times? It has not just been the emergence of quality individuals, like Suarez and Cavani, because they have come and gone in the past – more importantly there has been a transformation in the mentality of the players under the guidance of their softly- spoken leader Óscar Wáshington Tabárez Silva, nicknamed El Maestro (The Teacher). The 64-year-old Tabárez started his second stint as national team manager in 2006 and brought with him the experience of coaching at a host of different clubs around the world: Peñarol, Boca Juniors, Velez Sarsfield and A.C. Milan. Uruguay had just missed out on qualifying for the World Cup in Germany after a penalty shootout defeat to Australia in Sydney and a proud nation was hurting. Tabarez quietly set about planning Uruguay’s strategy for the following four years. He put more faith in younger players and gave them all roles within the group that would be integral to the way the team would play.

The playing style of the Tabarez team was built around a solid central defence, full backs that can push forward into attack, a strong, narrow midfield that can press the opposition and win possession for creative attackers who have license to roam into the channels and look for opportunities. Uruguay went on to finish 4th in the 2007 Copa America and to scrape into the 2010 World Cup via a play-off win against Costa Rica, after a mixed bag of performances in the CONMEBOL qualifying tournament. Tabarez named the expected squad for the World Cup in South Africa that included a host of players who, on a personal level, had just completed fantastic seasons for their respective club sides. 

At the start of the tournament the feeling of many Uruguayan’s was that they would struggle to get out of the group phase, but those sentiments started to change as they held previous runners-up France to a draw in their opening game and went on to win against South Africa, Mexico, South Korea and most memorably against Ghana on their way to the semi-finals. Uruguay had not only played well to get this far, but they had also played some exciting, free flowing football that had restored the pride of their three and a half million countrymen, tens of thousands of whom lined the streets to welcome them home after the tournament.

This new found self-belief and pride at national team level went some way to restoring self-belief to Uruguayan football, in particular club side Peñarol, as they had a fantastic run to become runners-up in this seasons Copa Libertadores. 

The biggest flag in the world. 'I can't see!'

Uruguay as a footballing nation had returned to the headlines for all the right reasons and naturally became a good outside bet for this year’s Copa America tournament. Again, Tabarez named an expected squad that was very similar to that of the World Cup, but he changed their tactical approach in the first game against Peru to accommodate their attacking talisman Diego Forlan as well as Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who had been stars at their respective clubs. The team struggled to find fluidity in that game and I strongly believe that the injury to Cavani in that match helped Uruguay in the long run. Tabarez was then able to return to his tried and tested formula in the next matches without having to drop a player.

Throughout this tournament the Uruguayan players, when interviewed, have talked about the group performance and the success of the team. The focus and pressure on individual talents was forgotten, individuals didn’t matter in the same way they seem to for Brazil and Argentina. This ethos, sprit and mentality was fundamental to Uruguay’s success and their fantastic victory against Paraguay in the final. It was highlighted on the pitch and in the dignified way team members spoke and celebrated after the final whistle was blown. In fact, it was only Forlan that discussed expectation after the game, but he proudly did so on a personal level, rather than a national level, as he had just become the third generation of the Forlan family to lift the Copa America.        

After lifting the cup, the Uruguay squad took the short flight back to Montevideo where they were greeted again by tens of thousands of people lining the 20km of streets between the airport and their home at the Centenario Stadium. They finally arrived at the stadium at around 3am, where they were greeted by more than 50,000 proud Uruguayans.

The World Cup in Brazil is only three years away and realistically all of Uruguay’s key players, with the possible exception of Forlan, will be at their prime. Is it to early consider this little giant as a favourite once again? We shall see, but one thing is for sure, Uruguay are back!

Make sure follow Nick @TheCarbonero  on Twitter

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  1. eggsoakley says:

    Uruguay play football the old fashioned way. They get on with it. They play as a team and play for each other. The complete opposite to England’s National side. And in Forlan & Suarez they have an unbelievable paring. I’m concerned that Liverpool will be automatic title contenders with having a player like Suarez.
    And as for the 2014 World Cup they have every chance. I had them in my work sweepstake last year. And I’d have them any day again. They won me a few quid with their heroics last time out.

  2. Nick says:

    Eggs,
    Thanks for your comments, I agree with all of them. I can see Uruguay going all the way in 2014, with Cavani taking over from Forlan, and Forlan in term taking on the roll in the squad of “Senior Pro” that is currently held by Sebastian “Loco” Abreu (of chipped his penalty in the World Cup fame). Suarez has said he will cut his holiday short so he can get back to Merseyside and lead from the front in the first game. He is ready to go and the rest of the league do need to watch out, he is pretty much unstoppable at the moment!

  3. Martin says:

    I am from Uruguay, and this article have some errors. Local team Nacional is the biggest team from Uruguay and South America with 21 international titles, including 3 Copa Libertadores and three times Wolrd Champions, same as Penarol. It is also the team with more national titles with 43 since 1900, an Penarol has 41.
    Nacional is also the oldest team, born in 1889, while Penarol was founded in 1913.

    • Nick says:

      Hola Martin,
      Thanks for your positive comments about the blog. The other comments were spoken like a true Nacional Fan!
      Lets not open the debate about who is the most successful club in Uruguays history, I think that argument would go on for a very long time with neither side looking to back down.
      In terms of the oldest club, the name Nacional may have come before Peñarol, but the roots of the Peñarol club were put in place with CURCC in 1891.
      For those of you reading this outside of Uruguay, these two arguments have been going on for 100 years between Peñarol and Nacional fans. They are the foundations that the rivalry between the two greatest clubs in Uruguayan history have been built on.

  4. Martin says:

    I forgot to congratulate for this article. As a uruguayan I feal proud of what football has given to our country. Considering we have only 3 millions of habitants, it is cientifically ridicullous to have all the titles we have. But if you come to Uruguay perhaps you may notice that this happens beacause we ALL play football here and the way we feel the game give us an advantage when competing.

  5. Gee says:

    Great article. Congratulations to Uruguay. I enjoyed watching them in the last World Cup and they surpassed my expectations in the Copa America. Love watching Suarez play – he shows a hunger with or without the ball which is shared with his national team-mates. I believe Kenny Dalglish is re-instilling the same sort of characteristics to the Liverpool squad.

    A question with regards the idea that Uruguay ‘turned it’s back’ on the traditionally ‘direct game’ ethos of the Europeans. I was wondering if there was a particular decade this took place in? The pass and move style was, for example, brought to Brazil by Scotsman, Archie McLean c.1912, so I was interested in whether this influenced the Argentina and Uruguay styles.

    YNWA

    • Nick says:

      Gee,
      Thanks for your kind words. In answer to your question, ¨turned there back¨ was probably not the best terminology as it suggests they looked at the style of play one day and decided to make a change the next. I would correct myself by saying that it was more of an evolution from the game that original British workers brought over in the 1880´s and 90´s. This evolution took place over the next 10 to 20 years as people of different footballing cultures entered the country and brought their ideas into the ¨footballing melting pot¨.

  6. BrianC says:

    I think your comments about the British ‘direct game’ and ‘footballing superiority’ are lazy, derogatory and wrong. It’s well documented that successive British managers at CURCC/Penarol implemented a short-passing game and the primary reason for England’s (as well as most other European nations) non-appearance at the 1930 world cup was due to the logistical nightmare of getting to Montevideo. Without the significant 19th century English influence it’s very debatable that Uruguay would have achieved any subsequent footballing success.

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