If you were to read the countries’ history books, you could well imagine that Brazilians and Uruguayans have more than enough reasons to live uneasily alongside each other. After all, when the 176,000 km2 territory in the Southern Cone concluded its independence process in 1828, it was only after freeing itself from Brazilian occupation – a nation which shortly before, in 1822, had gained independence from Portugal. Indeed, what today is Uruguay was formally Brazilian territory between 1817 and 1825, under the name of the “Cisplatine Province”.
Moving on from this turbulent geographical relationship and navigating the waters of the two nations’ shared footballing history, even clearer reasons for discord emerge. How would you expect Brazilians to feel, for example, about the country which inflicted on them their most painful defeat of all time – the infamous Maracanazo in the final game of the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™?
Even so, however much the pasts of Brazil and Uruguay are filled with episodes of rivalry and tension, the countries’ peoples insist instead on a relationship based on friendship and admiration. Thus, despite having motives aplenty to produce angst-filled on-the-pitch encounters, it is simply not the case between A Seleção and La Celeste.
“I was crying more than the Brazilians. It made me very sad to see them suffering like that,” said Uruguay’s Juan Schiaffino, scorer of his side’s equaliser in that fateful 2-1 win on 16 July 1950, in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana, which handed Los Charrúas the world title. “When we were waiting to receive the cup out on the pitch I felt like running off to the dressing rooms. We were all overcome with emotion.”
It is as if sharing one of the largest outpourings of collective emotion in FIFA World Cup history has created an inextricable bond between Brazil and Uruguay. Nor can it be mere coincidence that so many Uruguayans have not only crossed the border and enjoyed success in the Brazilian game, but have also gone on to gain genuine iconic status at the clubs they played for.
There is no better example of that trend than Sao Paulo Futebol Clube, whose history is so liberally sprinkled with Uruguayan heroes – with four particularly notable cases – that in 2012 the club launched a commemorative jersey mixing the red, white and black of O Tricolor Paulista with the sky-blue of the Uruguayan national team. What is more, there is a whole book dedicated to that phenomenon: Luis Augusto Simon’s Tricolor Celeste.
It all started with two signings Sao Paulo made from the great Penarol team of the early 1970s, Pedro Rocha and Pablo Forlan, while that side’s keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz also moved to Brazilian soil to join Atletico Mineiro. Rocha was an intelligent creative presence and accurate passer, one of those performers with a rare knack for controlling the tempo of a game.
Considered by O Rei Pele as one of the five best players he had ever seen, El Verdugo found in Brazil the perfect stage to unleash all his class. “Brazil is the country where the best football is played,” said the man himself on the day of his unveiling. “I hope to prove that the club have done good business by signing me.”
Rocha was as good as his word. After years of on-the-field disappointment, during which Sao Paulo had focused their finances on building their Morumbi stadium, Rocha and Forlan helped make O Tricolor Paulista great again. In 1970, shortly after Rocha’s arrival, the club ended a 13-year title drought and, with the Uruguayan pair both on board, were crowned Paulista champions in 1971 and 1975 and put together a remarkable 47-game unbeaten streak in 1974.
If Rocha was the brain that made that Sao Paulo side tick, countryman Forlan was the heart, lungs and much more besides. The right-back was good on the ball, but it was not his technical ability that earned him the devotion of the Morumbi faithful. That came courtesy of his insatiable appetite for covering every blade of grass, his full-blooded determination to win every challenge and even a willingness to deliver a swift kick or two if required.
“I’ve never felt prouder than when [former club President] Henri Aidar said that the history of Sao Paulo should be divided into before and after Forlan,” said the player, who for Brazilian football fans epitomised the phrase ‘raça uruguaia’ (Uruguayan grit). “To this day, I still wonder whether I should ever have left the club,” he added.
Setting a trend
After that sensational duo, it is easy to understand why Sao Paulo have favoured Uruguayan imports ever since. Next to leave his stamp was Dario Pereyra, who touched down at SPFC in 1977. Brought in having made his name in an excellent Nacional de Montevideo side, he, like Rocha and Forlan, was a born winner.
This trait can potentially be traced to Uruguay’s relatively small population, with the country’s very best players constantly finding themselves competing against each other for silverware. Suitably battle-hardened, centre-back Pereyra swiftly helped Sao Paulo win their first ever Brasileiro championship in his first season at the club.
“It was only later on that I realised just how difficult it was to win the Brazilian title,” said the defender, who had been used to domestic success at Nacional. “The 1977 title was Sao Paulo’s first Brasileiro and the second took nearly another decade to arrive,” added Pereyra, on two of the highlights of his memorable 11-year spell at the Morumbi.
Pereyra’s class and determination no doubt helped lay the foundations for fellow centre-back and another man endowed with raça uruguaia in spades: Diego Lugano. The undoubted peaks of Lugano’s time with SPFC came in 2005, when he played an integral part in the club’s triumphs in that year’s Copa Libertadores and FIFA Club World Cup.
“I like it when people call me a ‘caudillo’ (Editor’s note: a term usually associated with an authoritarian military leader),” said the Uruguay captain. “In football you need character to win and that’s something I’ve got.”
Winning and showing character. Those are two traits that Gremio fans will always associate with another Charrúa star, Hugo De Leon. What is more, there is a photo that personifies De Leon’s never-say-die attitude: the Gremista skipper lifting aloft the club’s first ever Copa Libertadores trophy, following victory over Penarol, with blood pouring down his bearded face.
Curiously, and detracting slightly from the warrior-like portrayal, nobody seems sure how De Leon cut himself. Some naysayers even suggested that the centre-back – born in the Uruguayan town of Rivera, which is literally a street away from the border with Brazil – caught himself on the head when lifting the sizeable trophy.
No matter. What really counts is that the image cemented De Leon’s legend, helping fuel his mystique and that of Uruguayan players in Brazilian football at the time, a situation also buoyed by keeper Rodolfo Rodriguez’s feats between the sticks at Santos.
That same mystique surrounded well-travelled striker Sebastian Abreu when touching down at Botafogo in 2010. This aura was accentuated even further after the final of that year’s Carioca championship, when he scored the decisive goal against Flamengo via an outrageous chipped penalty kick.
“The biggest thrill of my time at the club was seeing my face on the wall in front of the Botafogo headquarters,” said El Loco Abreu to FIFA.com. “All those iconic figures and me there, crashing the party.”
A party-crasher by no means, Abreu’s story is just another chapter in the success story of Uruguayans in the Brazilian game. Why do Los Charrúas fit in so well? It could be a case of opposites attracting: players from a small nation thriving in a large one, or gutsy performers with raça savouring life among virtuosos.
Uruguay’s squad at Brazil 2014 may well feature Brazil-based performers like Sao Paulo’s Alvaro Pereira and Botafogo’s Nicolas Lodeiro, who are sure to feel right at home. As should the rest of La Celeste contingent: a major chunk of the history of Uruguayan football is, after all, tinged with a distinctly Brazilian flavour.