When Hungary lost to Malta last year in a European Cup qualifier, the international press was full of stories on the dramatic decline of Hungarian football since its heyday in the 50s.
Much less attention has been paid to the similar free-fall of Uruguayan football, which in the 50s achieved even more glory than Hungary after winning the World Cup in 1950 against the hosts Brazil, arguably the biggest upset in the tournament’s history.
It may be that less attention is paid to the sad state of Uruguayan football because overall results have not been as negative as they have in Hungary, even though in 2004 Uruguay embarrassingly lost a World Cup qualifier in Montevideo’s legendary Centenario stadium against Venezuela 3-0. In 2005 Uruguay also failed to make it to Germany after losing a play-off to Australia. Even so, Uruguay is placed 30th in the FIFA ranking, making it the fourth best South American team.
However, results such as reigning champion Danubio’s defeat last week in a Copa Libertadores qualifier, which saw it knocked out of the tournament by Argentina’s Vélez Sarfsielfd on a 0-5 aggregate score, are cause of concern in the tiny Atlantic nation. It is unprecedented for Uruguayan club champions to miss out on the Libertadores group stage.
Uruguay’s problems are not exactly unique. The recent unconvincing form of the English national team has given rise to a barrage of comments from pundits who believe English football is suffering from the impact of too many foreign players blocking the emergence of local talent. Similar arguments have been heard in Spain and Germany over recent years.
Uruguayan football suffers from a similar syndrome: too little homebred talent plays regularly in the top flight before being whisked off to far off lands where the pay is better.
The same can be said of Uruguay’s two neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. But Brazil’s population of 190m and Argentina’s 40m people feed professional football far better than Uruguay’s of less than 3.5m. Also, the two continental powerhouses have the advantage of strong economic backing, mainly from television, which allows a large number of young stars to ply their trade on local pitches until at least their early 20s. The low economic revenues in Uruguay barely allow two teams, Peñarol and Nacional, to keep in decent competitive form.
Like all South American footballers, Uruguayan players have always dreamt of moving from their country onto powerful European leagues, mainly in Spain and Italy.
However, it also used to be that the top-of-the-Uruguayan-crop flourished next door in Argentina, where local fans are always happy to open their arms to a Uruguayan. The terrace chant “U-ru-gua-yo, U-ru-gua-yo” was a fixture at many clubs for decades and evidence of the love affair between Argentine fans and Uruguayan footballers can still be found at the likes of River Plate, where the face of Enzo Francescoli - the last great Uruguayan player - looks down on the pitch from several banners even though he retired ten years ago.
The finesse of Francescoli’s playmaking had little to do with the gritty game Uruguay is known for, a style sometimes physical enough to make the toughest Argentine or Italian teams quiver. This style is known as the “garra Charrúa,” “garra” meaning literally “claw” but implying tireless courage. The Charrúas were an indigenous community massacred in the 19th century, though not before acquiring a reputation as legendary fighters.
The “garra Charrúa” was traditionally backed by the presence of two or three talents such as Francescoli and defensive players capable of reacting coolly when the ball reached their feet. It was “garra Charrúa” that helped Uruguay win the Copa América 14 times, one less than Argentina and seven more than Brazil, the last of which was at home in 1995. With eight victories, Uruguay’s clubs rank third in winning the Copa Libertadores. It has been 19 years since Nacional won the last Copa for the country, however, a year after arch-rival Peñarol had done likewise.
The “garra” is still there but the talent is lacking. The most talented players today are arguably Diego Forlán, who nonetheless failed to make a large impact at either Argentina’s Independiente or Manchester United, Marcelo Zalayeta, a substitute striker with Juventus in Italy’s Serie B, and Alvaro Recoba, the inconsistent Inter Milano playmaker.
It is all a far cry from the glory days of a half-century ago and local fans are beginning to wonder if the once healthy flow of Uruguayan football talent has irreversibly dried up.