First ever winners of the FIFA World Cup™ but the last team to qualify for South Africa 2010, semi-finalists Uruguay are savouring their unexpected return to the limelight. It is 60 years since the erstwhile global titans stunned hosts Brazil to claim their second and last world crown, yet La Celeste are now the sole defenders of South American honour after Europe’s finest asserted their supremacy in the last eight. Never, in fact, have Uruguay enjoyed a better chance to cast off the burden of their own history.
Los Charrúas have been dining out on past successes for half a century, seemingly resigned to living in the shadows of their mighty neighbours Brazil and Argentina. Even their most loyal fans have held out little hope of the golden years returning, despite a total of 18 major international titles clinched down the years: including two FIFA World Cups, two gold medals at Men's Olympic Football Tournaments and no fewer than 14 Copa America wins.
Those Olympic triumphs date back to 1924 and 1928, when victory in the competition was taken to reflect global supremacy. As a result, the South Americans were chosen to host the maiden edition of the FIFA World Cup in 1930, when Jose Andrade and his colleagues stormed to glory by signing off with a 4-2 win over Argentina in the Final.
Unable to hit the same heights as the tournament switched to Europe for the next two editions, Uruguay worked their way back to the summit on 16 July 1950, when star performer Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia found the target in a 2-1 success against heartbroken hosts Brazil. “Only three people have managed to silence the Maracana: the pope, Frank Sinatra and me,” explained Ghiggia recently, the 83-year-old happily signing autographs in the streets of Montevideo.
That win marked the last of Uruguay’s four most notable achievements, the quartet of stars on their shirts also echoing their pair of Olympic wins. Indeed, tough times lay ahead for the world champions, as writer Juan Sasturain had the foresight to predict. “The Uruguayans will forever carry around with them the glory and ill fortune of having been great,” he explained.
Uruguay’s small population of 3.5 million inhabitants slowly became accustomed to failure after 1950, but not before talented generations in 1954 and 1970 masked the general decline by sealing semi-final spots. Schiaffino grabbed the headlines at Switzerland 1954, helping his side down England 4-2 in the quarter-finals, and 16 years later it was Ladislao Mazurkiewicz who stood out, the country’s most reliable goalkeeper of all time steering a solid line-up through to the last four, where they fell 3-1 to eventual winners Brazil.
Hot and cold
The story of the next 40 years and nine FIFA World Cups before South Africa 2010 was one of recurring disappointment, La Celeste falling short of the final tournament on five occasions. Their form during these preliminary phases varied greatly, with much dependent on the intermittent emergence of gifted players such as Victor Esparrago in the 1970s, Enzo Francescoli, Ruben Sosa and Ruben Paz in the 1980s and 1990s, Daniel Fonseca in the latter decade, Alvaro Recoba around the turn of the century and Marcelo Zalayeta at the start of the new millennium. In 2002, they needed a play-off with Oceania winners Australia to advance after finishing fifth in South America, and worse came four years later when they failed at the same hurdle with the Socceroos this time turning the tables.
Few believed in their chances this time around when their struggling side was pitted against North, Central American and Caribbean hopefuls Costa Rica, but Uruguay narrowly prevailed thanks to a 1-0 away win and 1-1 draw in Montevideo. “The qualifiers are very difficult in South America,” said forward Diego Forlan. “We play matches against very strong teams like Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. We play at altitude, in the heat, in the cold and on all different types of pitches. Before qualifying for the World Cup, we had to concentrate on every game without looking ahead to the future.”
“This is a very united squad and most of the players have been together for four years now,” added coach Oscar Tabarez. “That’s an important factor. Perhaps we lack a little experience as we have several younger players, but this team still hasn’t lost and it possesses certain qualities. These guys have shown me two things: that they give everything on the pitch and that they’re capable of turning a situation around.”
El Maestro, as the coach is known, has played his part as well, shedding Uruguay of their reputation as a combative, workmanlike team devoid of flair. A new crop of players has come to the fore, epitomised by striker Luis Suarez – who will be suspended for the Netherlands game – and with those emerging talents proving their worth, the future looks promising for Los Charrúas beyond their current campaign. The fact that confidence has been mounting with every passing game only adds to the impression too, and no one displayed the team’s belief better than Sebastian Abreu in the penalty shoot-out against last-eight rivals Ghana, El Loco coolly lofting his spot-kick down the middle to secure victory.
“The Netherlands have a great team with great players, but we need to believe in our chances,” said Tabarez, looking ahead to Tuesday’s test. “There’s hope and we have to hold on that.” The prize on offer for Forlan and Co is so much more than simply a FIFA World Cup decider, of course. They will be playing to lift themselves up from under the weight of past achievements – and if they manage to pull that off, expect the bus drivers of Montevideo to put down their calabash gourds of mate and clap with both hands.