“It’s a little bit crazy. Sixteen months ago we were fighting to stay in the second division, and we knew that if we went down to the third none of us would be able to keep our careers going.”
Plaza Colonia goalkeeper Kevin Dawson could barely contain himself as he uttered those words. He was speaking as his jubilant team-mates ran around the pitch at the Estadio Campeón del Siglo, the glittering home of the mighty Penarol, where the rank outsiders had just pulled off the most stunning of achievements by winning the 2016 Uruguayan Torneo Clausura.
That feat was made all the more amazing not just by the fact that Plaza Colonia were fighting against the drop to the third tier only 18 months ago, but because they were playing local-league football as recently as 1999, because this is only their fifth season of top-flight football since then, and because their coach gave up his day job as a carpenter to save the team from relegation to the third. And to cap it all, they clinched the title with a 2-1 win at Penarol.
Eduardo Espinel is the man who took this unfancied team from the small tourist resort of Colonia del Sacramento in south-western Uruguay and shaped and fashioned them into national league champions. Plaza had tried to appoint him coach several seasons ago but were unable to match his salary as a carpenter.
Making ends meet
Nicknamed El Patablanca (“White Foot”), Plaza were finally able to meet the cost of his appointment at the end of 2015, when they lay bottom of the second division. A former player at the club, Espinel had little in the way of coaching experience, but he had his badge and was working as a coach at the academy and decided to accept their offer, despite having to make a 200-kilometre round trip to take training every day.
“I use the time to think and work out how I’m going to set the team up,” he told Argentinian newspaper La Nación a few weeks ago. He certainly made the most of his time at the wheel, ultimately masterminding an 18-game unbeaten run that saw the team promoted to the first division.
Their aim on getting there was to consolidate their new-found position, all on an estimated budget of $60,000, 20 times lower than that operated by domestic giants Nacional and Penarol. Part of their funding came from the roasting of 400 chickens, which the club’s youth players then sold around the city.
Former Uruguay captain Diego Lugano did his bit too. According to national newspaper El Observador, the central defender answered the call of his one-time team-mate Espinel and went to Colonia to speak to the squad and explain to its less-focused members what being a professional footballer was all about. It was, as he explained, a question of attitude, even if many of them travelled to training by bike or motorbike or had to eat rice and hot dogs on occasion because they did not have the money for more suitable food.
The spirit of the Foxes
Throughout this last season, in which Plaza were tipped on many an occasion to trip up, Espinel spoke to his players about the example set by Leicester City. “We identified with them and the idea that work comes above all else,” he told La Nación.
Yet though Sunday’s victory lap was emotional and historic, and was achieved by a well-knit, compact side capable of playing good football, Plaza are hungry for more. Just a few months short of their centenary, the club, whose first president was none other than Alberto Suppici – the man who coached Uruguay to glory on home soil at the inaugural FIFA World Cup™ – are now aiming for an even bigger achievement: to become the very first team from outside Montevideo to become overall national champions.
It has yet to be decided who will contest the season-ending grand final. Penarol won the Torneo Apertura (the first half of the season) and Plaza Colonia the Clausura (the second). One round of games remains in the Clausura, which will decide who finishes on top in the Anual, the standings in which the two halves of the season are added together.
Penarol lead the way at the moment, and if they stay there, they and Plaza will face off for the title. Nacional currently lie three points off the pace in second in the Anual, however, and if they take top spot, then Plaza and Penarol will pay off to decide who plays them in the championship decider.
“You only have to watch them train and play and see how they approach every game to realise that they can do it,” said a hoarse Espinel as the players passed the Clausura trophy around behind him. Even if the national title does not come their way in the end, Plaza have already made their little piece of history.