Soccer City: Montevideo – a football heritage site longing for success

Estadio Centenario, venue of the first World Cup final in Montevideo. Photo: PA

IT IS the largest city of the world’s most successful and sometimes overlooked national football team. No, it is not Berlin, Madrid or Brasilia, but Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

Uruguay is the smallest country to have won the World Cup, it has a population of just over three million and Montevideo accounts for around half of them. According to the Mercer report on the quality of living in 2017, the city is the best place to live in South America. It certainly has a growing reputation as a tourist destination and for possessing a carefree atmosphere.

As a football city, Montevideo is something of a heritage site. It was, after all, the location of the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, which Uruguay won 4-2 after beating their neighbours from across the River Plate, Argentina. Uruguay didn’t attempt to travel to Europe to defend their title in 1934 or try and reclaim it in 1938, but they won the first two Latin American-based competitions, securing their second in Brazil in 1950 in somewhat dramatic fashion.

It’s has been easy to forget about Uruguay when you talk about South American football, and that’s largely because of its noisy neighbours, Argentina and Brazil, but Uruguay today has some of the world’s top players, notably Edinson Cavani of Paris St. Germain and Luis Suarez of Barcelona. Furthermore, the country’s record for picking up major prizes is eye-catching: two World Cups – 1930 and 1950; two Olympic gold medals (1924 and 1928); 15 Copa Americas (the last success in 2011 when Uruguay beat Paraguay 3-0 in Buenos Aires). The two World Cups and two Olympic titles represent the four stars on the Uruguayan national team’s badge.

Given the size of Uruguay and its proximity to high profile regional heavyweights, the importance of football to the country has perhaps been amplified by a quest for worldwide acceptance and credbility. In the 1966 FIFA World Cup film, Goal, scripted by Brian Glanville, Uruguay’s coach, Ondino Viera commented: “Other countries have their history, Uruguay has its football”.

A place in the world

There was a time when Uruguayan teams were certainly ranked among the best in the world. In 2009, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics named Peñarol as the top South American club of the 20th century and eighth overall in the same period. Montevideo neighbours Nacional were placed third in the region.

This shows the incredible strength of Uruguayan football in the 1950s through to the 1970s. Many people look upon Latin America as a perpetually emerging region, but there have been times in history when the economic and social state of some countries has been impressive. LatAm has always been rich in raw materials, but politics and a high percentage of poverty has often got in the way of sustained progress.

When Uruguay hosted the inaugural World Cup, the country was just about to tip into a dreadful recession after benefitting from a thriving cattle, hide and wool industries. Uruguay built a new stadium to be the centrepiece of their tournament, the Estadio Centenario. Designed by Juan Scasso, an architect and urbanist, as well as chairman of Peñarol, the stadium included an Art Deco tower that is as much a monument to Uruguay’s Olympic triumphs as it is the World Cup.

This arena, as the name suggests, was a monument to the centenary of Uruguay, South America’s first reinforced concrete stadium and a symbol of modernity – a statement for the nation.

In more recent times, Uruguay has been notable for its forward-thinking policies, and its society has benefitted from some very liberal thinking, such as the decriminalisation of abortion and the acceptance of gay marriage. The use of marijuana has also been legalised. Uruguay became known as a “mini Switzerland” owing to its emphasis on finance, but in 2002, the country had a savage banking crisis. The country was fortunate, however, to avoid the worst of the global problems of the 2008-10 period.

Time has moved on since Uruguay hosted that first World Cup and despite pleas for the country to stage the 2030 series, the centenary of Jules Rimet’s brainchild, the best that the city known as La Muy Fiel Y Reconquistadora (the very faithful and reconqueror) can hope for is being part of the joint bid involving Paraguay and Argentina. It would certainly be fitting and also return the World Cup to the place where it all started.

Clubs once feared

As mentioned, Montevideo was one of South America’s football hubs in the 20th century, with Peñarol and Nacional leading the way. The Uruguayan championship trophy has never left Montevideo and there have been just 20 occasions when a team other than the big two has won the title. Between them Peñarol and Nacional have won 95 championships – the last team other than this duo to be crowned champions was Danubio in 2014, a club founded in the 1930s by Bulgarian immigrants.

Peñarol were the first winners of the Copa Libertadores in 1960 and they then went on to face the mighty Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup, the forerunner of the current FIFA Club World Cup.

Between 1960 and 1971, Peñarol or Nacional appeared in 10 of the 12 Copa Libertadores finals, with Peñarol winning three (1960,61 and 1966) and Nacional one (1971). But an indication of how the game has changed is underlined by a distinct lack of success in the continental competition by Uruguayan clubs – the last team from the north bank of the River Plate to win the title was Peñarol in 1988.

The two clubs’ influence on the Uruguayan national team has also diminished, largely because the country’s top players seek their fortunes outside of their homeland. In 2014, just one player, Sebastián Coates of Nacional, came from this duo. Consider that in 1970, Peñarol and Nacional provided 16 of the 22-man Uruguay squad, including goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and Pedro Rocha (Peñarol) and Luis Ubina (Nacional). Since then, however, globalisation has meant that young talent leaves home at an earlier age.

The two Montevideo giants are the best supported clubs in Uruguay, but they are no longer forces on the continental stage. When Nacional won the Libertadores Cup in 1988 by Nacional it also coincided with the export of players out of Uruguayan football.

The lack of continental success has only served to make local rivalries even more intense, such as the Clásico del fútbol Uruguayo, Penarol versus Nacional. These two clubs form the oldest rivalry outside the UK in world football, so they know each other well. It’s a passionate affair and has often been marred by violence and even abandoned because of trouble. In Montevideo, there are plenty of derbies every weekend!

Today, Uruguayan clubs operate on very limited budgets and squads comprise promising youngsters hoping for a lucrative move to Europe and veterans whose best days are behind them. There has been criticism of the system in Uruguay which basically comprises members’ clubs that are not particularly well run. It is an outdated model that fails to keep pace with the demands of globalised professional football.

But change could be coming. Manchester City have set-up a base in Montevideo and the City Football Group has acquired Montevideo’s Atlético Torque, who are competing in the Primera Divison for the first time from the outskirts of the capital. With the unlimited wealth that City’s owners seem to have, and the financial state of most clubs in the Primera Division, Torque could possibly become challengers in the near future.

Not this season, though, at least not on the evidence of the opening few weeks of the season. Torque failed to win any of their first seven games, while at the top of the table, it’s the familiar names of Peńarol and Nacional. Both teams, along with another Montevideo club, Defensor Sporting are currently in the group stage of the Libertadores, but none have won a game yet.

Can Uruguayan club football rise again? The same question was asked of their national team and to some extent, it has been answered positively. But it would seem unlikely that the likes of Peńarol and Nacional will reclaim the place they won 50 years ago among world football’s leading names.