History of Uruguayan Men’s Football – A Big Lesson to Learn!

Soccer & Human Development

Uruguay’s performance at the 2010 World Cup comes as little surprise to many people who have followed its wins and dreams. The Uruguayan team’s, a fierce competitor, took a quantum leap forward in 1997 as they came close to winning the FIFA World Under-20 Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, finishing ahead of Ghana and Ireland. Since then, the national side did not win the tournament, but they paving the way for the Uruguayan World Cup soccer team in South Africa in June 2010.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s eyes were focused on Uruguay. Why? The national side -made up largely of unknown players– became one of the world’s top four squads, knocking out the bookies’ favorite, Brazil -made up of world-famous footballers. Upon beating four squads: South Africa, Mexico,South Korea and Ghana, the nation- which had traditionally been a leader in the first half of the 20th century– has become the first Latin American country in 8 years to reach the men’s semi-finals.

Uruguay’s achievement came despite a serie of obstacles: a small nation of about 4 million of people, exodus of players, lack of sponsors and traditional rivals (Brazil and Argentina). In addition to these obstacles, the country holds one of the lowest sports budget in the Western Hemisphere.Nonetheless, two factors have contributed to development of soccer: human development and determination.

1)- Human Development: Due to its notable human development – healthcare, nutrition, education and recreation–Uruguay is widely considered to be one of the developing world’s most respeted democratic countries -the envy of many Spanish-speaking republics in the region– since the mid-1980s. By the mid-1990s, the UNDP’s Human Development Index ranked Uruguay – which does not have mineral resources such as oil, gas, silver and gold– 32nd out of 173 nations and dependencies. In other words, one of the government’s first priorities is to improve the lives of Uruguay’s children. In fact, these policies have contributed to improve the country’s athletic performance, as well as the national pride. As a result, the under-17 national football team won the right to compete in the 1991 World Junior Championships, a participation that it repeated in 1999, 2005 and 2009.

2)-Determination and Passion: If one word could ever describe the Uruguayan team it is “determination”. Despite being made up of unknown players, the national side did not feel intimidated by world-famous squads such as France (which failed to measure up to predictions), Germany and the Netherlands. At the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay, one of the smallest republics geographically in the Western Hemisphere, had earned the respect of fans and experts by their determination and passion. Since then, they, the Uruguayan squad, were aware of the nation’s history as one of the greatest pioneers of soccer.Without a doubt, theseplayers are a symbol of hope and courage.

Dictatorship & Soccer

Following the 1973 auto-coup, the nation’s then Head of State José María Bordaberry, an anti-Marxist strongman, established a de facto dictatorship, whereupon Uruguay was marked by several poblems. The country’s international image had been damaged by the rule’s poor human rights and anti-democratic projects. Under this atmosphere, sport was not one of the priorities of the Uruguayan dictators, unlike other tyrants in the region, including Argentina’s Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1981) and Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975).

Year after year, the military regime reversed most of the Olympic policies. In fact, football, which had fostered national identity in the first half of the 20th century, entered a period of decline. After Uruguay’s participation in the World Cup in West Germany in June 1974, where it came in 14th place, the nation, for example, lost the chance to win an Olympic medal as it refused to send soccer players to the 1976 Summer Olympic in Montreal (Canada). Yet, its most unsuccessful year was 1977 when Uruguay lost 1-0 to Bolivia and could not compete in the 1978 World Cup. Without a doubt, the Uruguayan players, which once had defeated Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, were plagued by poor morale.

By July 1979, surprisingly the national side did not compete in the Pan American Games in San Juan de Puerto Rico (where they were the heavy-favorites). But it was not for lack of talent. Prior to this multi-sport meet, the Uruguayan players claimed the 1979 South American Under-20 Tournament. By the early 1980s, it decided not to participate in the Continental Olympic Tournament in Colombia. What’s more, despite lifting the Golden Cup in Montevideo, the team, once again, failed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup as was not able to win the South American Elimination.

Amid economic stagnation, corruption and human right abuses, up to 200 soccer players left the nation. On the other hand, in 1984, the anti-Communist dictatorship stepped down after 11 years.

Once Upon a Time In Uruguay…

Over the first half of the 20th century, Uruguay – slightly smaller than Missouri- wrote one of the most notable chapters in Latin American history as the country won praise from the international community for backing the democracy, human rights and human development. As a result, Uruguay, which had one of the highest per capita incomes in the Western Hemisphere, had been compared to Switzerland and other European nations. Parallel to this, the Spanish-speaking republic boasted one of the most important Olympic projects on the American mainland.

In fact, sport, along with education, was a high priority of the Uruguayan rule. It was during this time – considered the “Golden Age” in Uruguayan history– that the national team was a leader in soccer on the Planet. Since then, the football stars, including Obdulio Varela -who led the national team to win in the 1950 FIFA World Cup– José Nasazzi and Pedro Cea -who led the gold-medal winning Uruguayan Olympic football team in Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928– were known in schools, universities and factories.

At their peak, Uruguayan squad –a great Latin American pride– won consecutive Olympic football gold medals in 1924 – at that time no other Latin American country had even won the Olympian trophy– and 1928, as well as winning the first-ever men’s World Cup title in 1930. These wins,on the other hand, are considered among the soccer’s most notable stories, which had inspired Brazil to produce world-class teams. Yet the most outstanding performance occurred in 1950. In that year, Uruguay’s national football team made glory as it defeated Brazil, host country, and lifted the global title, an event which was held at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The country’s win is a milestone in the history of soccer.

These achievements gave the South American nation a prestige in the world disproportionate to its size and population. Certainly, the democratic system did much to win international meets. Unfortunately these wins did not continue as the military dictatorship was established in the early 70s.

Uruguay – A Country of Sports Lovers

Since the 1970s, the governments have not given high priority to sport. Despite to this, Uruguay -with a population of 4 million– has had extraordinary champs, including Ana Maria Norbis (aquatics), Fiorella Bonicelli (tennis), Sergio Lafuente (weightlifting) and Ricardo Vera (track & field). Meanwhile, its basketball players were particularly successful as well. At the FIBA Colombia World Championships in the early 80s, Uruguay’s athlete Wilfredo Ruiz was the first top scorer. Two years on, in 1984, for example, the basketball national team beat Canada and earned the right to compete in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics (where they finished sixth). Previously Uruguay became the only Latin American squad to take two consecutive Olympic basketball bronzes.

Apart from soccer and basketball, Uruguay has won praise for its international cyclists and rowers. In the 80s, the country’s rower Jesús Posse came close to winning the gold medal in the World Championships, an international meet dominated by East Europe. At the 2000 Summer Games in Oceania, cyclist Milton Wybnants was first runner-up, behind Juan Llaneras of Spain.

Finally, the Uruguayan government should design an ambitious program to put Uruguay –sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of the Americas”- in the top ten countries in the sporting world in this century. Like South Korea, one of the world’s most successful Olympic nations since 1988, this Spanish-speaking republic should think big.

Amelia J. Bell

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