Small nation, big feats

Uruguay has won two FIFA World Cups, but this unrelenting pursuit of success also caused the nation’s decline. Fourth place finishes in 1954 and 1970 were cast as ‘underachievements,’ and constant comparison to the glorious teams of the past caused undue pressure and the fear of failure. The team is now clawing its way back, its fourth place in the 2010 World Cup being its best finish in 40 years.

“There are countries with more footballers than we have people,” current Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez once said. With a population of just over three million, the nation has conjured up a remarkable sequence of international success over the years — two Olympic gold medals, two FIFA World Cups and a record 15 Copa Americas. An impressive resume! So, where did this wonderful football history begin?

Going as far back as the 19th century, the Uruguayan population was a mix of various European immigrants from France, Italy, Spain and the British Isles. This migration brought with it not only social and cultural influences, but football influences as well. With Association Football beginning to spread globally at the time, Uruguay developed its own brand of football built around short passes, player movement and attacking play, ditching the physical (and direct) game of the Europeans.

Hector Scarone, a forward, was Uruguay’s first star player and part of the golden generation which clinched the first ever South American Championships (now known as Copa America) in Argentina in 1916. ‘La Celeste’ (The Sky Blues), as they were known, retained the title the following year on home soil and added further victories in 1920, 1923 and 1924.

Asserting its dominance in world football at the time, Uruguay became the first and only South American representative at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris winning every single match en route to beating Switzerland for the gold. Scarone was once again influential four years later in Amsterdam, scoring the winning goal in the final against Argentina.

FIFA soon recognised Uruguay’s potential to host the inaugural World Cup in 1930, and it was no surprise when the host emerged victorious, coming from behind to beat rival Argentina 4-2 in front of 93,000 fans at Montevideo’s newly-built Centenario Stadium. It boycotted the 1934 and 1938 editions on the grounds that FIFA had backtracked on a promise to alternate the hosting rights between Europe and South America.

The Uruguayan team, which beat Argentina in the first-ever World Cup final in 1930.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Much of Uruguay’s success, historically, has been down to a principle called ‘La Garra Charrua’ – guts, ferocity and fighting spirit. This was shown in its truest sense in the 1950 World Cup final when it beat Brazil at the newly-built Maracana stadium — a match famously dubbed the ‘Maracanazo’ (The Maracana Blow) after many Brazilian fans had to be treated for ‘shock’ in what was regarded one of world football’s biggest upsets.

But it was this unrelenting pursuit of success which the nation ultimately fell victim to. Fourth place finishes in 1954 and 1970 were cast as ‘underachievements,’ and constant comparison to the glorious teams of the past caused undue pressure and the fear of failure.

After years of mediocrity at the world level, Uruguay underwent a steady revolution with the emergence of quality individuals like Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Fourth place at the 2010 WC was its highest finish in 40 years, and the Copa America triumph a year later (the first in 16 years) was a throwback to the glory days.

* * * Genially lethal

Aquick glance at Uruguay's 1930 World Cup-winning team and one face prominently stands out - Jose Leandro Andrade. A carnival musician, shoeshine boy and newspaper seller in his days prior to becoming a professional footballer, Andrade was the star of the inaugural World Cup, being the only black representative in his team, and also played an influential role in the Olympic victories in 1924 and 1928.

Legendary German international Richard Hofmann, a contemporary, best described Andrade. "Uruguay, then, was the best team in the world. Their star was Andrade. He was a football artist who could simply do anything with the ball. He was a tall guy with elastic movements, who always preferred the direct, elegant game without physical contact and was always ahead with his thoughts by several moves. Andrade was a noticeably fair player. He never reverted to the theatrical interludes of his teammates, who pinched or rolled on the pitch after fouls in order to achieve an advantage with the referees. Even during the match, Andrade always beamed friendly smiles." Nicknamed `The Black Marvel,' the wing-back was selected in 1994 by France Football magazine as No. 10 in its World Cup top-100 list.