Uruguay’s coach for the 2010 World Cup, Oscar Tabárez, addressed journalists at a press conference before the team’s match against Holland for the semifinals and declared “There are countries with more footballers than we have people.” He was right.
With a population of just 3 million, Uruguay is the smallest country to win a World Cup and has an impressive record when it comes to soccer. The small South American country holds the privilege of being the first Olympic champion in soccer (in 1924) and the first World Cup champion (in 1930). Uruguay’s record includes two Olympic championships, two World Cups and 15 Copa Américas.
Uruguay’s Colorful Soccer History
The sport has been a part of Uruguay’s life since the country’s earliest days. With British sailors and traders taking the sport all around the world, Uruguay was the first country, other than England, where a football (soccer) match took place. In 1901 the Uruguayan team beat its Argentinean neighbors in a rivalry that continues to this day. Soon, the Uruguayan football team became a legend to sport lovers around the globe.
The star at the time was Leandro Andrade, whose dad was 98 at the time of Leandro’s birth and who had been brought from Africa to Brazil as a slave, then made his way to Uruguay where slavery had been abolished in 1830. Musician, dancer and footballer, Andrade worked as a carnival musician and shoe shiner at the same time that he was enjoying the nickname of “Black Marvel” for his unbelievable football performance. Andrade mesmerized Parisians with his skills and challenged popular racist ideologies of the time.
For the first years of Uruguayan football, all teams were incredibly diverse. They included the first “criollo” team, Club Nacional de Football, which was founded in 1899, and the team of railroad workers, Club Atlético Peñarol. The teams are classic rivals at the local level. Uruguay’s teams welcomed European coaches, local players, immigrants, blacks and whites. By the time Uruguay defeated Chile in the first South American Championship game, Uruguay was the only country in the world to have black players on its national team.
Football is bound to Uruguayan history, with Nacional’s stadium built on the same grounds where the revolutionaries seeking independence from Spain had first assembled in 1811. The team’s red-white-and-blue colors were chosen to commemorate national hero José Artigas’ own flag in his struggle for independence.
With two Olympic titles under its belt, Uruguay hosted the first world Cup in 1930. The country enjoyed its golden era even in the midst of political turmoil, with a dictatorship from 1933 to 1942. A big milestone came in 1950, when Uruguay defeated the Brazilian team in its home venue of Maracaná Stadium. A quarter of a million people stood in awe, speechless, as the team lead by Captain Obdulio Varela, Alcides Ghiggia and Juan Alberto Schiaffino overturned every prediction in what became known as “Maracanazo,” roughly translated as “Maracaná Blow” and a synonym for any event that is supposed to go one way, and ends up going another way.
After its performance in the 2010 World Cup, where the team was ranked fourth in a quest which included some of the most exciting matches in the entire championship, Uruguay regained some of its past soccer glory.
Current names in the Uruguayan Hall of Football Fame include Diego Forlán, voted MVP in the World Cup and controversial Luis Suárez, considered by many the best striker in the British Premier League.
Soccer’s Place in Popular Culture
The Uruguayan passion for soccer is not reserved to statistics about matches or championships. The entire country lives and breathes football. Famous musicians compose songs for their favorite teams and some even record their fan experience on film. Such was the case of Jaime Roos, one of the most prominent musicians in the country, who shot a documentary about Uruguay’s performance in the World Cup.
3 million is a film in which Roos and his father, a photographer, follow the team throughout its South African adventure. Roos’ song “Cuando juega Uruguay” (When Uruguay Play) is one of the many unofficial anthems for the country’s passion. The 1992 official video footage shows 1950 legend Obdulio Varela “coaching” a team of children pretending to be the country’s national team, as well as real shots of Uruguayans meeting at bars to follow the matches on TV.
Coach Tabarez tried to explain the mystery of Uruguay’s performance despite all odds, saying “We haven’t played brilliant football, but we’re here and I don’t think luck is the only reason. History, too, might have something to do with it.” And it certainly does.
Uruguay just defeated France in a friendly international match. In its next major matches the team will face Venezuela and Peru in the qualification rounds for the upcoming 2014 World Cup in 2014, playing on June 11 and Sept. 6.
Pat Antuña Yarza is a freelance writer and translator based in Montevideo. Mom to three and a relentless juggler, she writes copy for digital agencies and creative studios as well as news and culture magazines. With an MA in Cinema & TV Production and 10-plus years’ experience in translation and advertising, she also runs a team of 30 audiovisual translators and blogs on media & subtitling at www.widdmedia.com. She loves films, advertising, music and parenting. You can follow Pat on Twitter @datcopypat.