Former World Cup Winners Uruguay

Football, football, football!

Twice winners of the soccer World Cup, in 1930 (as hosts of the competition) and in 1950 (when the national team overcame Brazil in the final), football has for generations been at the heart of how Uruguayans see themselves. It is a matter of intense national pride that they are by a long way the smallest nation in the world to have won football’s biggest prize.

And in the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa, Uruguay reached the semi-finals, against all expectations, becoming arguably the great surprise of the tournament. As all soccer fans know, Luis Suárez, who plays his club football at Ajax of Amsterdam, made a deliberate and highly controversial handball on the line in the quarter-final against Ghana in the last seconds of extra time. The missed spot kick took the game to a penalty shoot out, which Uruguay won.

Uruguay's next opponents were Holland and the mood in Montevideo on the day of the semi-final was excited and nervy. The city made preparations: The main Registry Office in the Old Town closed its doors at 3 pm so that its staff could get home for the big game in good time. This meant that a number of weddings scheduled for the afternoon had to be rushed through in the morning (leaving some brides rather angry, no doubt). Meanwhile, there was a run on tranquilizers in local chemists and city hospitals were primed for a spike in heart attacks. Uruguay lost, but some say as many as half a million supporters cheered them on the streets when they returned from South Africa.

In the months that followed striker Diego Forlan – whose Twitter messages from the team's camp had been eagerly followed at home – became the new face of Uruguayan tourism, meaning in practical terms that a life-size cardboard cut-out of Diego was hauled from one international tourism fair to another. More relevantly for football, Uruguay and Argentina got a welcome boost from Uruguay's fourth position in South Africa for their nascent bid jointly to hold the centenary World Cup in 2030.

But how did the country's infatuation with soccer begin? “At the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, the population of Uruguay grew exponentially," says Juan Carlos Luzuriaga, historian and author of a book (see below) on the origins of football in Uruguay. “Football gave many new immigrants their own identity, bringing them together and serving as a kind of common denominator. In the 1920s and 1930s football, together with tango and the traditions of Carnival, was the glue that held society together."

British railway workers, importers and ranch owners integrated into a society of criollos (native Uruguayans) and Italian and Spanish immigrants in good measure thanks to soccer. When Uruguay played Argentina in a match in 1909, both teams fielded players of British origin. A Uruguayan newspaper report of the game (published in Spanish) was nonetheless full of English football terminology: “half-time", “shot" and “goal".

During this period the rivalry between Peñarol, the team of the British, their friends and local workers (who tended to feel at odds with wealthy criollos), and Nacional, the club of Italians and monied native Uruguayans, set in.

The Uruguayan league was set up in 1932 following the successes of the national team. From its formation until 1986 Peñarol and Nacional won all but two of the league titles. When the Copa Libertadores (South America's Champions League) started in 1960, Peñarol won the first two trophies. They and Nacional were regulars in the early years of the tournament, with one or the other featuring in all but two of the first 12 finals. But the last time they featured was in 1988 when Nacional lifted the trophy. Since then, globalisation has had a massive impact in such a small country and has made it nearly impossible for Uruguay to keep their best players.

“The rivalry in the early days was intense but it was purely sporting. It was only from the 1980s onwards that things seemed to change decisively. Supporters certainly became more ostentatious," says Mr. Luzuriaga.

Indeed: when Nacional and Peñarol play each other in the local derby (called the clásico) one side of the stadium is a sea of yellow and black replica shirts, the other side is a sea of blue, white and red. In British terms, it is an acute, even bitter rivalry that is more like that which exists between Rangers and Celtic (in Glasgow, Scotland) than the relatively good-humoured stand-off between Liverpool and Everton (in England). Violence outside soccer grounds has also become a serious problem in Montevideo. Experts from England have visited Uruguay to advise on how to combat football hooliganism.

So, the 2010 World Cup notwithstanding, local supporters can hardly be blamed for dwelling on past glories: On 16 July 1950 some 175,000 spectators, the great majority Brazilian, filed into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium. Brazil took the lead but, in possibly the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup, Uruguay equalised and then scored the winner. The French newspaper Le Monde reported a near complete silence in the stadium at the final whistle. Hundreds of Brazilian supporters had to be treated for shock.

In Uruguay, meanwhile, the government declared a day’s public holiday and the party began. But here, too, there was disbelief. Three people died of heart attacks listening to the radio broadcast; five more lost their lives accidentally during the festivities that followed the game. Uruguay’s World Cup winners were feted as national heroes. The rivalry between Peñarol and Nacional was temporarily put on hold.

Factfile: El football del novecientos by Juan Carlos Luzuriaga is published by Ediciones Santillana. The book is available at all major bookshops in Uruguay. Price: $450. The best place to see a match is the graceful Estadio Centenario, the national stadium, which is used regularly for domestic games. Nacional’s Parque Central stadium in Montevideo’s Cordón neighbourhood is also a good option. Expect to pay between US$5 and US$18 for a ticket. There is a small football museum at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario. Opening hours: Wednesday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am to 2.30 pm.

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