Although only a relatively small country, Uruguay has an impressive footballing pedigree, boasting two World Cup titles. But recently Uruguayan football has been dwindling in the doldrums. FIFA Magazine explores...

By Angel V. Ruocco
Uruguay is regarded as a special case on the international football scene. Despite a population of barely 3.3 million inhabitants, they have managed to reap the most coveted laurels of the world’s most popular sport. Their fearless sporting exploits once splashed the name of South America’s smallest republic onto the map of the world and gave a huge boost to Uruguayan national pride.

But nowadays their instinct for breathing and living football – a spontaneous product of playing in the streets of Montevideo – is wilting, as Fernando Morena, a former Peñarol and Uruguayan international star, reports.Only memories remain of the glittering exploits way back in 1924, when a group of young Uruguayans sported the first-ever South American colours at an Olympic Games football tournament - and captured gold. European sports critics were bowled over by the Uruguayans’ unruffled supremacy, built on technique and tactics that would revolutionise the game.

Eighty years ago, the Colombes stadium in Paris was the backdrop to the Uruguayan exhibition football that thrilled both fans and experts alike with the leading protagonists having learned their football skills on the streets: the first great black footballer, José Leandro Andrade, dubbed “the black marvel”; possibly the best defender of all time, José Nasazzi, and two formidable strikers, Hector Scarone and Pedro Petrone.

In 1928, these football wizards reaffirmed their dominance of the game, combining fighting spirit with innovative tactics and athletic prowess, by beating neighbours Argentina in the Final of the Olympic Football Tournament in Amsterdam, which, four years previously, had been raised to world championship status by the then President of FIFA, Jules Rimet.

With two Olympic titles under their belt, Uruguay was the obvious choice for the first FIFA World Cup in 1930. Fielding a star-studded line-up with Nasazzi, Andrade, Scarone and Petrone, they again beat Argentina in the Final in the pristine Centenario Stadium.

Although missing from the World Cups in 1934 and 1938 for political reasons, Uruguay continued to be a football powerhouse dominating the South American scene. Alongside rivals Argentina, Uruguay top the Copa America ranking with 14 titles to their name, whereas Brazil can boast only 6.

Years later, in 1950, the Uruguayans overwhelmed favourites Brazil 2-1 in the Final of the fourth World Cup in the Maracana Stadium. Their victory was no great surprise to pundits, as Uruguay had given a warning shot some three months before when they beat Brazil on home ground with an equally sensational line-up including Juan Alberto Schiaffino, Alcides Ghiggia, Obdulio Varela, Julio Pérez, Víctor Rodríguez Andrade and Omar Míguez, who, like their predecessors, were all graduates of street football.

In the World Cup semi-finals in Switzerland in 1954, these and other players of the calibre of Julio César Abbadie were the protagonists of one of the biggest thrillers in the history of the game - against Hungary, the then undisputed kings of football. Previously, they had demolished Scotland 7-0 and destroyed England 4-2, but after equalising 2-2 at the end of 90 minutes, they then fell to Hungary in an exhausting period of extra time, despite a sensational display. In the eyes of the experts, the match was the true Final of the 1954 World Cup. Scarred by their semi-final battle, Hungary then succumbed to Germany in the Final itself whereas Uruguay, depleted by injury and exhaustion, ended up fourth behind Austria.

Uruguay’s run of success at World Cup finals eventually came to an end in Mexico in 1970 when they again landed in fourth place. At club level, Peñarol and Nacional rubbed shoulders with the elite in the 1970s and 80s, winning a host of honours in the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup. Meanwhile, the national team was in limbo. The gradual disintegration of street football in favour of so-called “baby football” had brought about the downfall of the Uruguayan game - and the spiralling economic crisis delivered the final deathblow.

It is interesting to surmise why such a small country (compared to Brazil with 50 times and Argentina with 11 times the population), was a tower of strength on the international scene. A fortunate coincidence of social, political, economic and geographic factors had helped to form what was generally considered to be a thriving country up to the late 1950s and early 60s. The influence of the Creoles, descendants of European immigrants who now make up 90% of the population, and their interpretation of a sport introduced to Uruguay by the English towards the end of the 19th century was an equally important factor.

Uruguay’s first footballers transformed a sport, which in Great Britain and other European countries was primarily a show of strength, into an art form replete with refined technique, beautiful expression, intelligent play, clever twists, ingenious improvisation combined with physical commitment, athletic elegance and team spirit.

But this metamorphosis, which many people had believed was the reserve of white men, would not have come about without the input of the African Uruguayans (who now form 6 per cent of the population). Officials at the Chilean football association once protested that Uruguay had fielded two “Africans” when they won the first South American Championship in Buenos Aires in 1916. These so-called “Africans” were none other than homegrown Uruguayans Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín. The latter was a brilliant forward of such breathtaking skills (and South American champion 400m sprinter to boot) that Peruvian poet Juan Parra del Riego was inspired to pen a poem in his honour. It was Gradin who served as the inspiring role model for Andrade, Eusebio and Pelé.

Just like Nasazzi, Andrade, Scarone, Petrone, Schiaffino, Ghiggia, Obdulio Varela and many other later players, Gradín had learned to duck and dodge, be in the right place at the right time, win the tussle for the ball and read his team-mates’ thoughts by kicking the ball about the streets of Montevideo.

It was improvising on the cramped fields of play, with two pairs of shoes or four bundles of clothes as goalposts and bouncy rubber balls or bundles of rags stuffed into old socks that had forged the finesse and polish of the budding champions who would later grace the world stage with their classy football. The secret to their future triumphs was, to quote Argentine reporter Dante Panzeri, the practice of “dynamic improvisation” on narrow streets or makeshift pitches, which engendered ingenuity and spontaneity. The advantage of playing football in the street is that it breeds skills that later prove indispensable for the organised game. And when this dexterity disappears, as is now the case in Uruguay, the beautiful game gives up the ghost.

The ill-fated “baby football” scheme, often taught by people devoid of any technical or teaching skills, stifled spontaneity, technique and natural talent in youngsters. Spurred on by fathers who dream of watching their offspring play first-division football or, even better, embark upon a European career, youngsters are no longer encouraged to play, but to compete.

Added to this is the rapid deterioration in Uruguayan society, economics and politics, reflected in high unemployment, dwindling salaries and a deplorable health and education system that have prompted masses of young people, including their best footballers, to flee the country. The result is that, in the past six years, 619 Uruguayan footballers have left for greener pastures. This exodus of the elite means that youngsters no longer have role models for artistic football, and local tournaments reveal a dearth of technique.

Uruguayan football, which, up to 1981, had won seven out of ten U-20 South American championships, has not pocketed gold in that category ever since (although they claimed second place in the 1997 world championship in Malaysia). At the recent U-20 South American championship in Montevideo, they scraped into fifth place, so, for Uruguay, the World Youth Championship (U-20) had ended even before it had begun.Only a few clubs, armed with meagre funds and few precious resources, are trying to save a sport suffering its final throes.

The situation is exacerbated by extreme poverty in vast sectors of society, with attendant signs of deteriorating nutrition and physical and mental health. Until recently, hunger in Uruguay was unheard of, but now undernourished children are roaming the streets – not to play, but to beg or steal. Deprived of education, they are being pushed to the brink of society and, of course, marginalised in sport.

Amazingly, one or two good footballers still manage to emerge but, unless a miracle occurs very soon, international football in Uruguay will one day give up the ghost altogether.