Restoring days of grandeur

Luis Suarez (right) and Diego Forlan... shining brightly for Uruguay.-AP Luis Suarez (right) and Diego Forlan... shining brightly for Uruguay.

Until their recent conquest by an easy 3-0 margin in the COPA America final against Paraguay, Uruguay hadn't won anything for a great many years. But they always had a rich tradition to draw inspiration from. Over to Brian Glanville.

“Other countries have their history,” Ondino Viera, manager of Uruguay's 1966 World Cup team in the English version, told me. “Uruguay has its football.” Soon afterwards, his Uruguay dourly but capably held their English hosts to a goalless draw at Wembley.

Right now, however, Uruguay are celebrating their success in the Latina in Argentina: Their first for decades in that long-lasting tournament which started back in 1916, fourteen full years before the World Cup itself which the hosts won when initiated in Montevideo by Uruguay themselves. Until their recent conquest by an easy 3-0 margin in the COPA America final against Paraguay, (who reached all the way there without winning a single game) Uruguay hadn't won anything for a great many years.

En route to the final, they knocked out their eternal rivals from the River Plate Argentina, the hosts, on penalty kicks. The much lauded Carlos Tevez missed for the home side. As for the other major force in South American soccer, Brazil, they staggered out wretchedly against the Paraguayans despite their numerous supposed stars, to miss four penalties in the shoot-out against Paraguay who had, it is true, looked the shakiest of the two through most parts of that game.

A somewhat saddening but all too indicative aspect of the Uruguyan triumph, however, was that not a single member of their squad came from either of their two famous Montevideo clubs, Nacional and Penarol. There was a time when Penarol were arguably the best club team in the world, winning not only the South American COPA Libertadores but also the Intercontinental Cup against the European champions as well. Though it is true that the star of that Penarol side was the dazzling Ecuadorian centre forward, Spencer.

Nowadays, however, the best South American players can never stay long in their own sub-continent: The high salaries of the major European clubs take them irresistibly across the Atlantic. What is sauce for the goose, you may say, is sauce for the gander, since you'd have looked in vain in the Argentine squad for players from those illustrious Buenos Aires clubs, River Plate and Boca.

Under the shrewd and patient managership of the 64-year-old Oscar Tabarez, the maestro, Uruguay have made surprisingly fast progress over the past few years. In the South African World Cup of 2010 they took an honourable fourth place only by Luis Suarez's far from honourable handball on the goal line against poor Ghana and this after entering, you might say, the finals narrowly, since they could finish no better than fifth in the long drawn South American qualifying tournament, which condemned them to playoffs.

But in South Africa, the team came vigorously to life, thanks to its two outstanding attackers, Suarez himself with his strength, low gravity, pace and finishing power, playing just behind the ultra versatile Diego Forlan, then already 31 years old but slicker, more versatile and he seemed fitter than ever. Manchester United, several years ago, bought him, but never got the best out of him. He seldom scored, never seemed at home, and he found his way to Spain, where he has become a major star with Atletico as both scorer and creator. Perhaps it wasn't surprising to see his evident enthusiasm when his Atletico teammate, Sergio Aguero of Argentina joined City, the other Mancunian Club. Forlan's father was a seasoned international, playing a much deeper, more defensive, role and being something of a hard man, where as his son relies on pace and skill.

Hard men, however, have been plentiful in the story of Uruguayan football. Although they were seldom to be seen in the gloriously gifted Uruguayan side that won the hotly contested Olympic tournaments of 1924 in Paris and 1918 in Amsterdam and following these up with the World Cup, first ever staged of 1930.

Those were Uruguayan teams which played supreme football, with a powerful emphasis on technique, resolute defenders, such as Andrade, whose nephew played a heroic part in the beating of Brazil in Rio in the decisive game of the 1950 World Cup (thanks to the daft dispositions of the tournament, not officially final but, officially, a final group game). And with splendid, elusive forwards such as Petrone and Scarone, it seemed astonishing that such a tiny country (now its population is only 3.5 million) could produce effervescent teams.

In the 2010 tournament, Uruguay began as they had in London, with a goalless draw, this time against France in Cape Town, but they and the incisive Suarez quickly got into their stride, thrashing the hosts, South Africa, in Pretoria, 3-0, two goals for Forlorn, one from the spot, 1-0 against Mexico with Suarez scoring as he did in the next knockout game against South Korea. Next, so controversially, came the quarterfinal against Ghana who were all set to get the winner when Suarez on the goal-line handled and showed not an ounce of contrition afterwards. Insult bringing injury when Gyan, Ghana's effective star striker whose shot had been punched, missed the consequent penalty. A narrow 3-2 defeat in the semi-finals followed with Forlorn getting another goal, as indeed he did in the third place match against the Germans which was also lost 3-2. But the COPA Latina final saw him score twice and Suarez just once.

Suarez, who joined Liverpool late last season from Ajax, is not the most placid of players; in his later days with Ajax, he was punished for biting an opposing player. But though that gloriously defiant 1950 World Cup winning side inspired by his versatile and ubiquitous giant veteran centre half Obdulio Varela played a sportsmanlike game, as did its talented successor in England four years later, when it was most unlucky to go out to the Hungary's splendid game, violence and Uruguayan football are hardly strangers.

In the 1966 World Cup, the Uruguay team seriously lost their head losing in Sheffield to West Germany in the quarterfinal. Neither side blameless, but it was two Uruguayans who were expelled: and Helmut Haller German inside forward destined to score the first goal in the final against England, bled copiously after his testicles were seized.

In Mexico's World Cup in 1986, the Scots were seriously maltreated. Omar Borras, then Uruguay's manager and Vieira, manager in 1966, men I knew well and respected. In New York in 1967, when they had charge of the Cerro Montevideo in an official tournament to launch league soccer in the states they were courteous, civilised, mature men with no evident violence in their bones.

Away back in 1930, the “River Plate” final between Uruguay and Argentina evaded elasticised colossal passion, fears of dreadful riots taking place. The final supremely well refereed by the Belgian John Langenus, and won dramatically 4-2 by Uruguay, all passed off peacefully.

As it did in Rio twenty years later when 200,000 fans at Maracana Stadium saw another superb referee, in charge, George Reader, a Southampton schoolmaster, take calm control of a situation as it was won 2-1 by a gallant Uruguay.