For a country of just 3.2 million people, Uruguay have long punched above their weight when it comes to world football.
Their golden era began in the 1920s when they won back to back Olympic titles and also lifted the inaugural Jules Rimet trophy in 1930 when it was staged on home soil. Not having participated in 1934 and 1938 tournaments, again in 1950, they stunned the hosts Brazil in the final in Rio.
They have finished fourth on three further occasions, and were quarter-finalists four years ago in Russia.
Uruguay’s qualifying campaign
At one stage in their South American qualifying campaign, it seemed they were destined to miss out on 2022 World Cup altogether. They languished seventh in the table after four successive defeats to Brazil, Bolivia and Argentine (twice).
But the bold decision to fire long standing manager Oscar Tabarez and replace him with Diego Alonso paid dividends. The former Inter Miami boss oversaw a transformation in fortunes, and four straight wins helped ensure a third place finish and automatic qualification.
They are not among the favourites to win the World Cup but are a dark horse that other teams will want to avoid if they get out of the group stages. And another good finish at the tournament would still represent success for the South American nation.
Importance and History of football in Uruguay
As with many other colonised nations football was brought to Uruguay by émigrés and expatriates, who imported the sport as a reminder of home, and as a distraction from the difficulties they faced in carving out new lives for themselves.
After independence, the game became a symbol of national identity, a unifying force in a country where political divisions have often been bitter.
It also became a means for the country to celebrate its cultural and racial diversity. Uruguay became the first country to field black players in its starting line-up.
Development of the sport in Uruguay
In fact, football has a wider meaning for Uruguayans and has become synonymous with the country, helping put it firmly on the map, metaphorically.
Not that football needs to market itself to the people of Uruguay. The country is soccer mad and every child, male or female, grows up wanting to be a professional player. At one time children would play football at any time on any patch of ground they could find.
That is changing due to increased urbanisation, longer school hours, and the increase in traffic has made playing in open space areas more dangerous. Instead, Uruguay has responded by developing a rigid structure to hot house young talent.
Despite its small size, it has a very well developed league structure, with the majority of teams concentrated in and around the capital of Montevideo.
The rivalry between the country’s two best known sides Peñarol and Nacional is legendary and one of the most fiercely contested in South American football. Both have enjoyed continental success as well – Peñarol have won the Copa Libertadores five times and Nacional on three occasions.
Trophies won and Grassroots
Meanwhile, the national team has won the Copa America 15 times, level with Argentina, but six more than Brazil have ever achieved.
This is not by accident. Uruguay places a huge importance on grass roots development, and boys between the ages of six and twelve are all involved in leagues of various kinds, teaching them both the importance of team work but also inculcating in them a competitive spirit.
Annually, more than 60,000 youngsters from this age group take part in these leagues, with clubs all across the country.
To ensure their development, the boys are all given coaches, who attend courses first which are of a consistently high standard and are certified.
Schools also run their own programmes, with the two projects running parallel to each other.
As they get older, the better players naturally graduate to teams in the higher placed leagues, whilst those don’t make it end up in amateur leagues or graduate to playing indoor football or futsal.
This infrastructure compensates for the financial rewards on offer to top players. Uruguayan football is among the least rewarding in the whole of South America. Clubs cannot afford to recruit highly paid stars from abroad, and, therefore, the emphasis is on the development of young, local talent.
Inevitably, the better players end up moving abroad – principally to other South American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. The MLS has also become an increasingly popular destination for Uruguayan players, although the dream destination for almost all of them remains Europe.
That is the path taken by some of their most famous players past and present, including Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Uruguay at the World Cup
Not that Uruguay have always believed in the beautiful game. Their teams have become known more for defensive resilience and work rate and are not known for their flowing football. They are not averse either to indulging in the dark arts. It is no coincidence that the fastest red card in World Cup history was earned by a Uruguayan.
Jose Batista was sent off in the first minute in their group match against Scotland in 1986 World Cup. Yet, despite playing the entire match with a man light, Uruguay still held on for a goalless draw.
Meanwhile, few Ghanaians will forgive Suarez for his handball off the line at the 2014 World Cup to deny the Africans a certain goal. He may have been sent off but Ghana missed the resulting spot kick.
Economics mean that Uruguay will continue to work on youth development to build success at club and national level, and, at the same time, must reconcile themselves to the loss of their best talent abroad, sooner or later.
However, whilst it continues to produce results, Uruguay will believe that they have a blueprint that many smaller nations would do well to copy.
Hopes for the 2022 World Cup
Success for Uruguay at the World Cup means, in the first place, qualifying from a group that also includes Portugal, South Korea and Ghana. After that it may depend on who they face in the knock-out rounds, which may determine how far they get after that.
If they can manage another quarter-final, given how badly there were placed in the World Cup qualifying campaign at one stage that will represent an achievement in itself.
This article will be followed by a podcast episode with someone of Uruguayan descent to discuss coaching, recruitment, and the pathways to success in Uruguay. So look out for this via our podcast, and update on this article.
As with our podcast – like, comment, share and subscribe/follow. We’ll posting as usual vía social media keeping up with the stories as they unfold in the coming weeks. As always if you have any questions or queries. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet or DM us at @teamghanaeu on IG or Twitter.
Written by Shantanu Gupta
- Diego Alonso (https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/)
- Uruguay Copa America (https://www.bbc.co.uk)
- Valverde (https://www.sportbible.com/)
- Saurez (https://www.bbc.co.uk)
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