Uruguay: A different Liverpool lead the way

IN URUGUAY, football clubs have a busy schedule and there’s scarcely a moment’s pause for the players after the end of the 15-round Torneo Apertura. The Torneo Intermedio has just got underway after the first stage of the season in which Montevideo’s Liverpool came out on top.

The Negriazules (black & blues) finished four points clear of Nacional and five in front of Deportivo Maldonado and Boston River. In some ways, they were surprise winners for Liverpool do not have the most packed trophy cabinet having previously won a single Clausura in 2020 in their 107-year history. They also won the Intermedio in 2019.

It may sound unusual to see a club in Uruguay named after an English city, but it is a reflection of the seafaring history of Montevideo, which would receive ships at its port from places like Liverpool. The influence of British seaman left its mark in a number of ways and some sporting institutions took on Anglicised names, such as Wanderers, Albion, Uruguay Athletic and Bristol.

Although Uruguay was a progressive football nation and won two World Cups in 1930 and 1950, it has become something of a breeding ground for young talent. In 2021, there were around 300 players from the country playing abroad. The latest Uruguayan star to emerge is Darwin Núñez, who has joined the English Liverpool from Benfica for a huge fee.

Rising from a poverty-stricken start in life in the city of Artigas, Núñez moved from Peñarol to Spain with Almeria when he was 20 and then joined Benfica in 2020. He has scored 48 goals in 85 games and with the fee from Liverpool touching € 100 million, the real winners in the transfer are Benfica, whose prowess at finding talent, developing it and selling it on to bigger clubs has come to the fore once more. Another name to attract European interest is Peñarol’s Agustin Àlvarez who has joined Sassuolo in Italy for a record € 11 million, while Barcelona’s centre back Ronald Araújo had an excellent season under coach Xavi.

However, there is a growing feeling that a golden era for Uruguay is coming to an end. The star names of the past decade, players like Edinson Cavani, Diego Godín and Luis Suárez are now veterans, but the national team qualified for Qatar 2022, although their squad for the finals is not likely to include many players from domestic football, a far cry from 1970 when 16 of the 22 came from the Montevideo giants Peñarol and Nacional.

Peñarol didn’t have a particularly happy Apertura and finished fifth although they did beat old rivals Nacional and inflicted a rare defeat upon Liverpool. As well as losing Àlvarez, they may have had to say farewell to leading scorer Pablo Ceppelini, who is returning to his club, Cruz Azul of Mexico, following a loan spell. Nacional, meanwhile, finished runners-up and were the top scorers in the Apertura with 28 goals in 15 games.

The performance of Uruguayan teams in the Copa Libertadores this year has been very disappointing and there is not a single representative from the Primera División in the last 16. In fact, their record is abysmal over the past decade, just three teams (Nacional, Wanderers and Defensor Sporting) reaching that stage of the competition.

Peñarol last made the last 16 in 2011 when they were runners-up to Santos. Uruguay’s last win was in 1988 when Nacional were champions. Less celebrated countries such as Paraguay and Ecuador have had more last 16 sides than Uruguay. Nacional finished third in their Libertadores group and have the consolation of playing in the Copa Sudamericana, where they will face Club Atlético Unión of Argentina in the last 16.

Montevideo completely dominates Uruguayan football but in 2022, Albion FC made its bow in the top flight for the first time in the professional era. Albion were founded in 1891 by students from the English High School and is the oldest football club in Uruguay. They play in the Carrasco neighbourhood of Montevideo at the Estadio Charrúa. They found it hard going in the Apertura, winning just two games and finishing one off the bottom of the table. They were only two points behind Montevideo City Torque, the club that is part of the City Football Group.

The Intermedio kicked off on June 10, comprising two groups of eight. Liverpool started with a game against Wanderers and suffered two sending offs and lost 1-0. Also in the same group, Peñarol were beaten at home by Torque 2-1. This competition is a prelude to the Clausura, which starts in July and finishes in November. Whether Liverpool can continue their first stage form remains to be seen, winning both the Apertura and Clausura is a big ask and has happened just twice, in 1998 (Nacional) and 2006 (Danubio). If they are anything like their English namesake, Liverpool Fútbol Club will relish the challenge.

Despite their debts, Brazilian clubs dominate the Copa Libertadores

THE 2021 Copa Libertadores final is an all-Brazilian affair for the second consecutive season, underlining Brazil’s leadership of South American club football. There were three semi-finalists and five quarter-finalists from Brazil. Palmeiras, the holders, will face 2019 winners and reigning Brazilian champions Flamengo in Montevideo on November 27.

It is a clash between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and a heavyweight encounter between two of Brazil’s richest and most ambitious clubs. Both are riding high in Série A this season, although they are unlikely to overcome leaders Atlético Mineiro, who are currently 11 points clear at the top.

Flamengo and Palmeiras will undoubtedly have been involved in the move to create a new league in Brazil owing to dissatisfaction among the clubs about the running of domestic football in South America’s biggest market.

Brazilian football has a desire to change. The clubs are financially challenged and heavily in debt. Earlier this year, Vasco Da Gama were ordered to settle wage debts of € 15 million, but they argued they could not pay immediately as it would prevent the club from function ning. Vasco Da Gama, in 2020, revealed debts of € 132 million of which more than € 50 million was due to the Brazilian tax authorities.

Consultancy firm BDO recently reported that Brazilian top flight clubs have combined debts of US$ 1.85 billion, with Botafogo, who won promotion back to the top division in November 2021, topping the list at US$ 270 million.

A new law was recently created to introduce a new corporate entity model, an anonymous football society, Sociedade Anônima (SAF), which provides new rules around governance and finance. Most Brazilian clubs are run as non-profit association, but the new laws aim to harness and foster the football industry’s potential for growth. This also creates a model more aligned to European football.

Yet Brazilian clubs already have significant advantages over many of their South American rivals. The most valuable clubs in the region are Brazilian and only Argentina’s Boca Juniors and River Plate can compete with, for example, the big clubs from Säo Paulo and Rio. The Brazilian football institutions also have huge fanbases at home and worldwide – Flamengo, for example, have over 40 million fans in Brazil alone.

Brazilian clubs’ domination of the Copa Libertadores is underlined by their record against their Argentinian counterparts over the past three seasons. Argentina had just one representative in the last eight of the competition, River Plate losing, emphatically, to Atlético Mineiro. Brazilian clubs have won 45% of games between the two countries, Argentinian clubs have won only 20%, including just one in 2020-21. 35% have ended in a draw.

There’s another factor to consider and that’s the rise of Major League Soccer (MLS) as a destination for South American players. There are almost 200 South Americans playing in MLS and Argentina accounts for around 25%. Money is an attraction, but players also appreciate the level of patience that can be found among MLS fans. Argentina is still a prime market for the production of talent, witness the broad interest in River Plate’s young striker Julian Alvarez and defender David Martínez.

Doubtless, both Flamengo and Palmeiras have players who can use the Montevideo final as a shop window. Palmeiras beat fellow Brazilians São Paulo and Atlético Mineiro in the quarter finals and semi-finals, but also disposed of teams from Chila, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina on route to the final. They narrowly won their semi-final on away goals, but lost just once in 12 Libertadores games. For the second successive season, 26 year-old Rony has been instrumental in Palmeiras campaign, scoring five goals in the competition. Raphael Veiga, who has netted 17 goals this season and Dudu, who scored the vital away goal in the semi, are also men to watch.

Flamengo still have Gabriel Barbosa in their line-up and the 25 year-old has scored 27 goals this season, including 10 in the Libertadores. Bruno Henrique was the match winner in the semi-final, scoring all four of Flamengo’s goals over the two legs. They had a slightly easier run to the final, beating Ecuador’s Barcelona in the last four and former winners Olimpia of Paraguay in the quarter final. They won nine of their 12 games and were unbeaten on their journey to the final. Flamengo also have former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz in their squad.

The Libertadores final represents one of the highlights of the South American football calendar, but there are some small clouds hanging over the event. Ticket prices have been raised to unrealistic levels, there are crowd restrictions at the Estadio Centenario and there’s a controversial alcohol ban. Regardless, Montevideo will enjoy being back in the spotlight and the fans that make it to Uruguay will find a way to enjoy the occasion – Brazilian style.

Gods in sky blue – the 1930 Uruguayans

URUGUAY has long struggled to live up to its football heritage, but then any country of just  three and a half million people battles against huge odds to win major competitions, especially with far noisier and more acclaimed neighbours on their doorstep. Yet two Olympic titles and two World Cups, along with 15 Copa America titles, make Uruguay football’s most successful country in terms of the number of major honours.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, Uruguay was a progressive football nation and envied by many of their peers. Right up until the 1970 World Cup, they were considered to be serious contenders, reaching the semi-final in Mexico and losing to the canonised Brazilian team of Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho. Uruguay won the first two World Cups held in South America, in 1930 and 1950 and satisfyingly, they beat their two main continental rivals in the process.

In the Olympic Games of 1924 in Paris, Uruguay had demonstrated a brand of football that was quite alien to European audiences. It was fast, skilful, precise and intelligent. Much of Europe was still devoted to long-passing and a more fundamental style based on commitment, blood and thunder and directness. Uruguay were, in some ways, ahead of their time. Four years later, they won Olympic gold again and it was this team that really formed the spine of the team that won the inaugural World Cup.

Of course, prior to their two Olympic victories in France and the Netherlands, Uruguay were an unknown quantity, but their succes prompted a number of European clubs to visit South America.

Evolution

The Uruguay team that played in the World Cup Final: (l-r from top) Enrique Ballestero, Jose Nasazzi, Ernesto Mascheroni, Jose Andrade, Lorenzo Fernandez, Alvaro Gestido, Pablo Dorado, Hector Scarone, Hector Castro, Pedro Cea, Santos Iriarte

The first World Cup in 1930 was awarded to Uruguay in recognition of their Olympic achievements, although there were another four nations interested in staging the competition: Italy, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Uruguay, who were also celebrating their 100thanniversary as an independent nation, were the de facto world champions, although they were not South American champions, however, after finishing behind Argentina in 1927 and 1929. In between, though, they had won the Olympics again, beating their close neighbours in Amsterdam. The assumption was that the teams on either side of the Rio de la Plata, collectively known as the Rioplatense, were the best in the world. It is not always recognised, but Uruguayan had its European influences, with Ferencvaros visiting the country in the late 1920s and two Bulgarian brothers establishing Danubio FC in 1932 in Montevideo. Moreover, Uruguay’s oldest club, Albion FC, was formed by students of the English High School.

There is another important aspect to Uruguay’s development as a football nation. It was the first country to include black players in their team, fielding Isabelino Grádin and Juan Delgado in the 1916 South American Championship. Both were descendants of African slaves, which upset some of Uruguay’s more sensitive opponents. When they were Olympic champions in 1924, one of the stars was another black player, José Leandro Andrade, a technically gifted individual who was also the son of an African slave. He was known as “maravilla negra” – the black marvel – and became the first black player to appear in the Olympics. Sadly, in the 1928 games, he collided with a goalpost and eventually went blind in one eye.

Uruguay retained their Olympic gold medal in 1928 after beating the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy on the way to the final. Argentina, who had refused to believe their neighbours could be so successful in 1924, were considered to be the best team in 1928 with a more measured approach, but after a 1-1 draw, they were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay. The official Olympic report noted that, “Football is a team sport and only the Uruguayans demonstrated this.”

There was a school of thought that Uruguay’s Olympic team was past its best by 1930. Certainly, the results were a little indifferent, but in the 1920s and 1930s, national teams didn’t play as many games and consistency was often a problem.

The Uruguayan government, led by president Juan Campisteguy, invested heavily in the first World Cup. A new stadium, the Estadio Centenario, was planned, a statement arena that could hold 95,000 people and became the biggest football ground outside Britain at the time. But the competition was largely ignored by European nations, the time and cost of travelling across the world by sea proving to be a deterrent, despite the fact that Uruguay had agreed to cover the travel and accommodation costs. The only Europeans who disembarked in Montevideo were Belgium, France, Romania, who all travelled together on the SS Conte Verde, and Yugoslavia.

Uruguay didn’t kick the competition off as the new stadium wasn’t quite ready. By the time Uruguay beat Peru 1-0 on July 18 1930, thanks to a goal from Nacional’s Héctor Castro, every contender had already started their campaign. Castro’s inclusion underlined his remarkable story. When he was just 13, he lost an arm following an accident with an electric saw. This earned him the nickname, “El Manco” – the one-armed. His disability didn’t hamper his football career as he scored 149 goals in 231 games for Nacional between 1933 and 1936.He won 23 caps for Uruguay, scoring 16 goals.

Uruguay secured their place in the semi-finals by beating Romania 4-0. The experienced and much-travelled Héctor Scarone, who made his first appearances for his country during the first world war, was on the scoresheet. Scarone scored 200 goals in 277 games for Nacional in his long career and went on to manage Real Madrid later in life. He was also something of a pioneer in the 1920s, playing for Barcelona and Inter Milan.

Yugoslavia, the only team from Europe to get past the group stage, provided the opposition in the semi-finals for Uruguay, but they were swept aside. The 6-1 win saw 29 year-old Pedro Cea, another Nacional player, score a hat-trick. Peregrino Anselmo of Peñarol scored twice, a player who was one of the first “false number nines” in world football. Argentina won by the same scoreline against the United States setting up a predictable final between the two Rioplatense teams.

Uruguay had reached the final without the celebrated Pedro Petrone in their line-up. He had appeared in their first group game but was now sidelined. Petrone was a member of the two Olympic gold teams and had spent time in Italy with Fiorentina where he topped the Serie A goalscoring list in 1932. He was renowned for his powerful shooting ability, earning him the nickname in Italy of “El Artillero”, replacing “El Perucho” which he earned in Uruguay. Petrone had to change his first name in Italy as Mussolini decreed all non-Italian names were forbidden. Pedro became Pietro.  There was no place for Petrone in the first FIFA World Cup final.

That final

The game captured the imagination of fans on both sides of the River Plate. Montevideo was invaded by 30,000 fans from Argentina and back in Buenos Aires, life came to a standstill. While Uruguay had the home advantage, Argentina were barely playing away. It was too close to call the outcome, but the general consensus was that Argentina had the more sophisticated team. They certainly had the tournament’s outstanding forward in Guillermo Stábile of Huracán, whose performances earned him a move to Italy with Genoa.

At the same time, Uruguay had the best defender in José Nasazzi, one of football’s first sweepers. Nasazzi could be an uncompromising opponent and was known as “El Gran Mariscal”, the Great Marshal, due to his organisational skills as Uruguay’s skipper. Throughout the final, Nasazzi teased and tussled with the Argentina players, prompting Jules Rimet to admit after the game that it had been a tough final.

It was played before a hostile, partisan crowd that unnerved the Argentinian team, who had also received death threats and abuse before the game. “We were afraid they would kill us,” said Varallo. Intimidation wasn’t restricted to Argentina, though, for there was an attempt to bribe Héctor Castro to throw the game, with the threat of death if he did not comply.

Uruguay opened the scoring on 12 minutes, Pablo Dorado receiving the ball from Castro and shooting past Juan Botasso. Argentina were level eight minutes later through winger Carlos Peucelle. Stábille scored his eighth goal of the competition in the 37th minute to give Argentina a half-time lead. Uruguay’s second half display turned the game on its head. “Uruguay beat us because they were more alive and courageous,” said Argentina’s Pancho Varallo some years later. “We should have won.”

Uruguay levelled in the 57th minute through Pedro Cea and nine minutes later, Santos Iriarte put the hosts ahead once more. The cup was secured with a fourth goal right at the end from Castro. Argentina’s players couldn’t bear to watch as Uruguay celebrated, kissing their light blue shirts. In Uruguay, a national holiday was declared as the country went wild with excitement. Argentina’s supporters turned nasty, throwing missiles at anything Uruguayan.

By the time the next World Cup came along, Uruguay had embraced p[rofessionalism and the country had endured a Coup D’etat (1933) and was heading for financial turmoil. La Celeste did not travel to Italy to defend their title, partly because they could not afford to travel. But they had already left their mark on world football and presented an innovative approach to the game that was missed by many insular Europeans. Uruguay’s 1930 victory was one of the first signals that the game was now well and truly global.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA