The Return of the Combination: a Uruguay World Cup 2018 preview..

When one says ‘Uruguay midfield’ the first thing that comes to mind is probably the head of Egidio Arévalo Ríos. Who could forget that little human Pac-Man, hounding opponents alongside Diego Pérez at the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa América? That combative midfield has become symbolic of the current generation of Uruguayan football and a central, seemingly natural expression of the mythical Garra Charrúa. The country has had little option. So insignificant in size, Uruguay has had to fight for everything, stretching its resources to achieve near impossible feats.

But the caricature of a brutish and technically inept Uruguay could soon be lost in memory, with Óscar Washington Tabárez’s men heading to Russia with a completely new-look midfield. Juventus’ Rodrigo Bentancur will surely line up alongside the impressive Matías Vecino in the opener against Egypt. Throw in the technically gifted and distinct Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Boca’s Nahitan Nández, and Serie A revelation Lucas Torreira, and this Uruguay side boasts an abundance of young midfield talent. La Celeste’s midfield strength now potentially lies in a new game of combination play and possession, instead of a reactive, counter attacking style we are so used to. Importantly, Uruguay’s new generation of ball-playing midfielders retains the defensive qualities and combativeness required to drag them deep into tournaments. Perhaps Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani finally have the pedigree behind them to make Uruguay a threat in Russia…

While it seems that Uruguay finally caught up to the modern game with its regenerated midfield, this new look is in fact a return to a style of old. Indeed these changes hark back to an important process of transformation which began over a century ago, much of which is thanks to a young, Glasgow-born railway worker, who called Uruguay home at a critical moment in the country’s footballing history.

Aged only 19, John Harley arrived in Argentina in 1906 to work for the Buenos Aires Western Railway company. The Scot soon lined up for the club of the company’s employees, Ferro Carril Oeste, introducing a distinct, Scottish passing game from the position of centre-half. Contemporary match reports suggest Harley possessed an air similar to the lanky Rodrigo Bentancur. Though much shorter than the Uruguayan, the Scot stood out for a somewhat awkward physique and movement, his gangly leg work confusing opponents and teammates alike.

But it was with the ball where the Bentancur-Harley comparison becomes even more pronounced. Like Bentancur, Harley was graceful in possession and had an acute sense of awareness, with the ability to break up opposition moves and launch new attacks with ease. Such an ability extends beyond Bentancur to his fellow-Italian-based compatriots Vecino and Torreira, the latter especially impressive coming off the bench in Uruguay’s farewell friendly against Uzbekistan in Montevideo.

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Lucas Torreira

It was in 1908 when Harley caught the Uruguayan eye in a series of friendlies against Peñarol – officially called the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club. The Scot’s passing game was so different, so effective, that there was really no other option. Harley was made an offer he couldn’t refuse – a comfy job in the offices of the Central Uruguay Railways and a spot in one of the most popular teams in Montevideo.

Harley joined Peñarol in early 1909 and sparked a footballing revolution, replacing a largely disorganised, direct style with what came to be known as cortita y al pie, a game of short passes to the feet. Playing at centre-half, Harley offered a natural and effective link between defence and attack, reorganising his team into an intelligent unit based on the collective, with combination play the focus. The Scot’s arrival coincided with the entrance of a 19 year old forward called José Piendibene, the two forming what would become one of the most significant partnerships in Uruguayan football history.

Harley arrived in Uruguay at a critical juncture, with the national team coming off years of negative results against its Argentine rivals. This all changed following the late-1907 election of future CONMEBOL founder Héctor Gómez as Liga Uruguaya de Football president. Like today’s famed proceso overseen by el Maestro Tabárez, Gómez and his collaborators established a national team set up with a focus on the long term. A nucleus of young, enthusiastic players barely out of their teens – like Bentancur and Federico Valverde todaywere fast-tracked to the national team. Mirroring the importance Tabárez’s proceso places on youth teams from Under 15 to Under 20 level, these youthful elements were professionalised early on, with countless practice games and international competition crucial in developing a battle hardened and experienced group.

Despite its promising start, however, Uruguay’s first proceso was missing one key element – namely an organised, creative link between its already unforgiving defence and exciting group of attackers. Harley was thus approached and called up to the national team, making his Uruguay debut less than six months after his arrival. From there the national team’s transformation mirrored that of Peñarol, with players encouraged to keep the ball, play it along the ground and combine more with their teammates. In a marrying of two seemingly opposing philosophies, Uruguayan expressions of fast dribbling easily complimented this new passing game. Harley’s inclusion also brought about a more organised and purposeful game plan which, combined with more shifts in tempo, led to the development of a footballing style that became increasingly distinct and effective.

Uruguay’s process of transformation was consecrated in 1912 after a series of famous victories over Argentina. The year marked the game’s supposed nationalisation, in which a perfect mix of creole individualism, a Scottish passing style, and a supposedly distinct Uruguayan tenacity set the country apart from its neighbours. The team of 1912 then received those whose existence the nation denied, the black Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín, who went on to lead Uruguay to triumph in the 1916 Campeonato Sudamericano in Buenos Aires.

Uruguay’s rise owed much to Harley who, despite being Scottish, was adoringly named el inglesito, the ‘little Englishman’. He was so adored by Montevideo’s football-obsessed public that in 1913, a group of young fans founded a club called Harley FC, naming the Scot its honorary president. If that wasn’t recognition enough, in the lead up to the 1917 Sudamericano, to be held in Montevideo, Harley was offered the role of national team coach, leading Uruguay to a second straight South American title.

Seven years later the Uruguayans took Europe by storm, astonishing all with their unique blend of individual dribbling, dynamic passing combinations and fluid movement to win gold in Paris. Their European and North American opponents were lost for answers, so resorted to violence. Four years later they won gold again in Amsterdam, then in 1930, Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup, capping off a process which began less than two decades prior.

Almost a century later, and it seems that Uruguay has regained that mix of beauty and practicality that made it football’s first global power. Tabárez’s meticulous, long term proceso, with its emphasis on the importance of the national team and how it can represent a country, has finally added a new generation of ball-playing midfielders it was so longing for.

An air of optimism surrounds Uruguay’s prospects at the World Cup. The team has an accessible group, an almost unmatched Atlético centre-back partnership of Diego Godín and José María Giménez, Cavani and Suárez at the peak age of 31 years and a midfield now capable of playing football without losing the supposed essence of the Uruguayan game.

So, should the nation be confident? Maybe.. but they should remain cautious. While the re-emergence of a passing game gives hope to 3 million, the heat of tournament football and the country’s size means that a retreat to the old siege mentality we’re so familiar with is inevitable.

Whatever happens over the next month, this is just the beginning for this new generation. With the omitted Federico Valverde certain to return for the 2019 Copa America, and other youngsters in waiting, Uruguay is set to fight for important titles in the next decade.

But for now, if only for the group stage, we can enjoy Uruguay as protagonist…

 

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From Beauty to Duty

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin de siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon like a cat with a ball of yarn, a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not for play but rather to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee, and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

-Eduardo Galeano, Football in Sun and Shadow

RIP.

Óscar Míguez

Luis Suárez is just one goal away from equalling Uruguay’s all-time World Cup scoring record. If he isn’t already, he’ll soon be considered the greatest striker – if not footballer – in the country’s history. But most remain unaware of the player whose record Suárez is about to break, Óscar Míguez, who holds the record of 8 goals scored at two World Cups (5 in 1950 and 3 in 1954).

Míguez was a special player, and is long considered by many as Uruguay’s greatest ever striker. His achievements include 6 league titles with Peñarol, a Copa America in 1956, and most importantly – the Maracanazo triumph in 1950. Equally capable of magic and controversy, you could say Míguez was the Suárez of the 1950s, his World Cup experience defined by both euphoria and disgrace…

Óscar Omar Míguez was born in Montevideo in 1927. Of humble origins, a young Míguez would help his father deliver milk in the early hours of every morning. At all other times he played football, earning the nickname ‘El Cotorra’ – the Parrot – for the green cap that never left his head when he played.

Míguez shared with Suárez all the elements of the archetypical Uruguayan forward. He possessed a true football of the barrio, a fiercely competitive game of skill, imagination, and rebellion, honed in the makeshift campitos strewn across Montevideo.

Just like Suárez, Míguez wouldn’t have lasted had he played in England. Rejecting so-called proper sporting conduct, El Cotorra’s backheels, rabonas, bicycle kicks and ambitious shooting provoked excitement, frustration, and hate from fans. He was just one of the many creative and combative Rioplatense rascals Eduardo Galeano wrote about.

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Míguez began his career at Sud America, where he quickly gained the reputation of a pure goalscorer. Snapped up by Peñarol in 1948 alongside teammate Alcides Ghiggia, Míguez soon caught the eye of Scottish coach Randolph Galloway, who fast-tracked the twenty year old into the first team after only a few weeks in the reserves.

Míguez made an instant impact, almost immediately taking the place of Uruguay international Nicolas Folero. Spearheading Peñarol’s attack, Míguez brought his unique style to the country’s biggest team, exciting crowds and embarrassing opponents with his seemingly endless repertoire of tricks. But Míguez’s game was also one of substance, with El Cotorra finishing league top scorer in his debut season before the famous players strike triggered an abrupt end to Uruguayan football for the rest of 1948.

The following year Hungarian Emerico Hirschl replaced Galloway as Peñarol coach and helped construct the famous Máquina del 49. While it possessed the inspirational Obdulio Varela at centre-half, La Máquina – the machine – earned their nickname from the deadly forward 5 of Míguez, Ghiggia, Ernesto Vidal, Juan Hohberg, and Juan Alberto Schiaffino. In an almost perfect mix of creativity and intensity, La Máquina’s record spoke for itself. They destroyed all and embarrassed their rivals, finishing the season as undefeated champions and with Míguez again topping the scoring charts.

La Maquina
La Máquina- Ghiggia, Hohberg, Míguez, Schiaffino, Vidal

 

La Máquina formed the base of Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup squad, with 4 of its front 5 making up La Celeste’s attack in Brazil. Despite being overshadowed in popular memory by the heroics of Obdulio, Ghiggia and Schiaffino, Míguez played a crucial role in the tournament by scoring 5 goals with the number 9 shirt. While he scored a hat-trick in an 8-0 win against Bolivia, El Cotorra’s most significant contribution was a brace in the final fifteen minutes against Sweden, inspiring a come-from-behind 3-2 win and setting up a decider against the hosts. We all know the rest of the story…

Like Suárez, Míguez was also a thorn in England’s side. When the two countries met for the first time in Montevideo in 1953, Míguez was one of the standouts of the game, scoring the second goal in a 2-1 win and generally toying with the English defence.

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With Míguez at the peak of his powers alongside the bulk of the 1950 winning team, Uruguay went into the 1954 World Cup undefeated and high on confidence. The group stage was a breeze. Míguez scored his three tournament goals in the opening phase, once in a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia and then a brace in a 7-0 smashing of Scotland. A comfortable 4-2 quarter-final victory over England – which Uruguay won with only 9 players – set up a tantalising Semi Final against the great Hungarians. It was already being dubbed the Match of the Century.

Then, the shock. Only hours before kick-off, a stone-faced Schubert Gambetta gave Míguez the news – he would not be playing against the Hungarians. Unbelievable, one of Uruguay’s star players, a hero of 1950, banished from the team on the eve of the most important game in their history… Suárez would experience the same fate 60 years later.

While there was no official explanation, the reasons for the expulsion were clear. Míguez had long annoyed certain AUF officials, who saw his laid back approach at training as lacking the discipline and respect required of a Uruguayan national team member.

Míguez had done himself no favours in the lead up to the Hungary game either. First he had boasted that “no one can beat us now” after the Quarter Final win against the English. He was then involved in a heated exchange with an official during a practice game against a local Swiss team, after making a fool of the opposition goalkeeper with a characteristic act of trickery to score. The official involved in the subsequent spat was Luis Tróccoli, who would successfully campaign to have Míguez removed from the World Cup squad.

Míguez’s withdrawal proved fatal to Uruguayan hopes, with Hungary inflicting La Celeste’s first ever World Cup defeat after extra time in what was truly the World Cup match of the century.

The 1954 World Cup marked the beginning of the end of Uruguay as a global football power, and Oscar Míguez is perhaps the most potent symbol of their decline. Up to that point La Celeste reflected the idealised Uruguayan way of life, with Míguez’s freewheeling style representative of a prosperous and optimistic Uruguay. But this optimism was often confused with overconfidence, causing angst among some Uruguayan officials who, so desperate to meet the enormous expectations back home, turned to increasingly harsh disciplinary measures to keep the country relevant.

As an economic and social crisis engulfed Uruguay from the end of the 1950s, La Celeste experienced a parallel descent from prosperity, beginning a decades-long retreat characterised by mediocrity and violence..

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Six decades later and Uruguay seems relevant again, with Suárez perhaps the clearest symbol of the national team’s strengths and weaknesses. Just like Míguez, he takes us back to the beautiful and raw barrio game, where the joy of freedom and constant rebellion has remained so central to Uruguay’s footballing identity. Both straddled a line between imagination and ruthless determination, leading to excesses which cost them dearly. For Míguez, a supposed overconfidence led to castigation from within. For Suárez, the excesses of his competitive streak led to disgrace and banishment by outside forces.

Whether Suárez can equal or even break Míguez’s record is thus secondary in Uruguay’s World Cup journey. The real question is whether he can keep his head for once, to lead his nation to glory.

African professionals? Uruguay’s Black stars of the 1916 Copa America

Uruguay went into the 1916 Campeonato Sudamericano in Buenos Aires seeking not only redemption, but reaffirmation. Of course, they there to avenge the humiliating 4-1 defeat suffered against Argentina at the Revolución de Mayo tournament six years earlier. More importantly, however, the tournament was an opportunity for Uruguay to measure both their progress as a nation and to confirm their exceptional place in America. And reflecting this growing sense of Uruguayan exceptionalism was the presence of two Black players in their squad, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín.

Gradín’s appearance at the tournament capped off a meteoric rise for the 18 year old. As a youngster playing in Barrio Sur, Gradín’s raw talent caught the eye of Peñarol scouts who soon made a move for the 13 year old. Promoted to the senior team at 17, Gradín instantly made an impact. The winger’s pace and determined dribbling efforts combined with Peñarol legend Jose ‘el Maestro’ Piendibene to forge a devastating partnership. Gradín’s dominance of the Uruguayan first division was so great that he earned his first Uruguay call-up just months after his senior debut. The following year, he’d be among the first to be called up for the sudamericano.

The importance of international contests to Uruguayan football was reflected in the team’s preparation for the tournament. Weeks earlier, twenty two of the league’s top players were called up. Divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, a series of practice matches would ultimately decide the Uruguayan starting XI. While retaining a core of experienced players, the clear standout of the first team was Gradín, who dominated the first two practice matches. While respect was granted towards the veterans, young Gradín was the great hope.

Following a 3-1 loss to the B side, however, uncertainty surrounded Uruguay’s chances. The weak link of the side was Alfredo Zibechi of Montevideo Wanderers, who occupied the position of centre-half. Revolutionised by Scot John Harley, whose short passing and control of tempo complimented and strengthened the Uruguayan dribbling game, the position was arguably the most important in the national team.While he retained the confidence of the selection committee, Zibechi’s performances failed to convince both the public and the press. ‘Above all else, Zibechi is not mature enough to carry out such an important role’ wrote El Día, laying the blame on the centre-half for the failure of the A side.

The solution was found in the opposition. Juan Delgado was already a household name in Uruguayan football, having played for several clubs in Montevideo in addition to a brief stint at Boca Juniors in the second half of 1914. Upon his return from Argentina, Delgado rejected overtures from Peñarol, opting instead to play for Central Football Club of Palermo, a barrio with a significant Afro-Uruguayan presence. Capped at national level in 1913, and among the most experienced in the team, it was a wonder why Delgado had not been first choice from the outset.

Playing at centre-half for Uruguay B, Delgado’s superiority over Zibechi was clear. Zibechi couldn’t intercept a single pass, forcing his teammates to leave their positions to support him. Delgado was the opposite. The Central midfielder held his own, leaving star forwards Gradín and Bracchi impotent while saving his side from other dangerous moments. At 21, Zibechi was vastly inferior, lacking the confidence and experience of Delgado. Those present at the ground were convinced, applauding Delgado’s performance and calling on the selectors to include the Central player in Uruguay’s first team.

The press agreed with the popular call, with the inclusion of Delgado a no brainer. For El Día, the Central midfielder was at ‘the peak of his career, and it can be affirmed that none of our players can rival him’. Not only was Delgado unshakable in his defensive responsibilities, he was a threat in attack through his precise passing and organisation of his teammates. The Central player was a natural fit for the role of centre-half. After initial hesitance, the committee gave in to popular pressure and Delgado was given a starting place in the team. With the additions of the explosive Gradín and the ‘popularly consecrated’ Delgado, expectations in Montevideo were high.

Uruguay faced Chile in the tournament opener. From the very first kick off, Delgado repaid those who had called for his inclusion with a timely interception of Chile’s very first play. The centre-half imposed himself on the rest of the game, with Chilean attacks repeatedly broken up by what the Uruguayan press called a ‘formidable adversary, watching their every move’. Delgado was just as effective with the ball at his feet, starting multiple plays that elicited admiration and applause from the crowd.  The first half finished 1-0 with a goal to Piendibene.

The second half was all Uruguay, with Gradín the star as they relentlessly attacked their Chilean rivals. Eleven minutes in, the Peñarol forward controlled a Somma cross with ease, putting Uruguay 2-0 ahead with a strong finish. Soon after, Gradín once again received a cross from Somma, coolly heading the ball into the net for Uruguay’s third. Piendibene rounded off a dominant Uruguay performance in typical fashion, dribbling a series of opponents before beating the Chilean keeper with a fierce drive. The game finished 4-0 with Delgado pulling the strings and Gradín starring in attack.

The next day, controversy. The Chilean media, lamenting the loss to Uruguay, had ‘discovered’ the cause for such a loss. The adverse result was explained by the composition of the Uruguayan team, which had included two ‘African professionals’. Startled by the claims, the president of the Asociación Atlética y de Football de Chile sent a telegram to his country’s delegation in Buenos Aires, demanding a formal complaint if such allegations were true. In response to the furore, the Uruguayan press lashed out, rejecting the Chilean complaints as absurd. Referring to the Chilean officials call for calm, El Día responded by quipping ‘perhaps they fear that our ‘African’ players are cannibals, too!’

The reaction from Chile caused indignation among Uruguay’s officials, who demanded an official explanation. The head of the Chilean delegation, deputy Hector Arancibia Laso, immediately backtracked and apologised to the Uruguayans. Accompanying the apology was a letter of congratulations, the Chileans stating their extreme pleasure with the ‘gentlemanly attitude of the Uruguayans, who played the game fairly, winning because of their evident superiority.’ Overwhelmed by the result, but also clearly eager to smooth relations, the Chileans invited Uruguay to a practice game the following day to learn the superior ‘scientific football’ they had recently fallen victim to. The Uruguayans accepted, reciprocating with an invitation of their own to play a friendly game in Montevideo.

Two days after their official encounter, Chile and Uruguay played a practice game, one half of 45 minutes and a second of 30. The game was indeed a friendly, with three Uruguayans, including their captain, playing for the Chilean team. Despite fears that Uruguay’s star forwards would be targeted, the practice was deemed a success. It finished 3-2 to the Uruguayans, with Gradín scoring once again. While their compatriots back home remained in a panic over the scandalous presence of ‘African professionals’, the Chilean players were eager to meet and learn from the superior Afro-Uruguayans.

Gradín and Delgado continued to dominate the Campeonato. Two days after the Chile practice, Uruguay went out and defeated a tough Brazilian side 2-1 after trailing at half time. Gradín was again the standout, scoring the equaliser in the second half. Interestingly, another Afro-descendant was playing, with one Arthur Friedenreich scoring the opening goal for Brazil. Uruguay would now play Argentina in the tournament decider, needing only a draw to be crowned champions.

In what seems outrageous today, the Uruguayans travelled back to Montevideo the day after the Brazil match for a friendly against Chile in the middle of the tournament. Despite the first team being rested for the game, the entire Uruguayan squad made the trip back together. Present at el Parque Central were Delgado and Gradín, whose attendance drew most of the attention. Gradín, the undisputed star of the tournament, received an emotional ovation from the public, with a group of excited fans lifting him onto their shoulders, carrying him around the stadium.

The Uruguayans returned to Buenos Aires for the decider against the hosts, only to have the match abandoned due to crowd violence. The replay the next day finished goalless, and Uruguay were crowned champions. Uruguay’s Black players again received the plaudits, with Gradín in particular ‘a colossus in every sense of the word’ according to El Dia, undoubtedly ‘the best element of the forward quintet’ with his great runs and powerful shots on goal.

Uruguayans are proud that they were among the first to include black players in their football teams. Their inclusion is seen as a reflection of Uruguay’s policies of social justice under the influence of Jose Batlle y Ordoñez. Batlle strongly believed that the ‘masses’ deserved to be included in the national story, and football played a fundamental role. The inclusion of Delgado and Gradín was yet another celebration of the progressive, democratic nature of Uruguay, a country exceptional in both its football and its laws.

Afro-Uruguayan achievements in football, however, didn’t reflect their own place in society. By promoting the inclusion of the ‘masses’ through football, Uruguay merely obscured issues of race and national identity. The fact that Gradín was nicknamed ‘the black man with the white soul’ shows the extent to which Afro-Uruguayans were absorbed into the national story of a homogeneous, white Uruguay. Stripped of their blackness, Afro-Uruguayans were encouraged to forget the everyday cultural racism that had continuously left them on the margins of society. Despite starring above all on the football pitch, Afro-Uruguayan footballers maintained the roles of servants and entertainers, rather than citizens.

Although they were confined to the accepted space of the sports field, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín challenged racial ideas that had kept them in their place. The two resisted the confining nature of the pitch to show their true qualities, with Delgado exemplifying the intelligence, leadership and maturity needed for the important role of centre-half. Soon after the tournament Delgado moved to Peñarol, taking over from John Harley and making the position his own. He joined star teammate Gradín whose skill, explosiveness and efficiency won championships, gold medals and the imagination of football lovers.

Uruguay’s Black stars were not only entertainers, but hard workers, and by penetrating and dominating football, they would not be made invisible in this supposedly white nation.

Football and Revolution 

In 1964, Mario Benedetti described football as anesthesia. It was a social drug, co-opted and exploited by governments who encouraged the people to forget their problems. If only for ninety minutes, football was an escape from social and economic uncertainties that would otherwise control one’s life. Five years later, Benedetti’s words still held true. Continue reading “Football and Revolution “

The 1909 Tottenham-Everton tour of the River Plate

Uruguayans always looked to the British. Since those early days in the open spaces of Punta Carretas, the Uruguayan’s relationship with the game of the ‘crazy English’ evolved from curiosity, to admiration, to imitation. Given the opportunity, the Uruguayan took the game and made it their own. They say from there developed that famous, home-grown Creole style, Continue reading “The 1909 Tottenham-Everton tour of the River Plate”