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, a result of the closed, uneven spaces locals were forced to play in. The style was an expression of pure artistry and spontaneity. Football was a joyful escape for ordinary workers, young men relishing the little time away from increasingly oppressive working conditions in an ever-expanding Montevideo.
The Uruguayan style, however, remained as confused as those who witnessed that strange game for the first time. Despite the raw, improvised dribbling game, the Uruguayan continued to imitate the physical, long ball style of the English. The football represented pure freedom, an unrestrained and raw escape, but it remained unorganised. When the game turned competitive, Uruguayan deficiencies became more evident. What followed was a determined, unorganized and at times violent play. The Uruguayan became obsessed with victory, a legacy of the game’s origins in Montevideo. The lowly Creole had to prove himself against British and local elites, the worker had to defend himself against his employer.
The announcement of a Tottenham and Everton tour of the River Plate swept an air of collective glee through the region. Uruguayan teams revelled in international contests, always keen to test themselves against their Argentine neighbours. The visit of a British team, however, was different. For Uruguayans, such tours presented a chance to compare themselves against that distant Other who brought the game to their shores.
Southampton was the first professional team to visit the River Plate, embarking on a two week tour in 1904. Following a series of dominant performances over clubs and select XIs in Buenos Aires, the team arrived in Montevideo to much local excitement. Despite being in the midst of a civil war, Uruguayans young and old filled the Parque Central to witness a professional team for the first time. More than an escape from the news of young lives lost, the Uruguayans could finally measure themselves against the creators.
Southampton trounced the Uruguayans 8-1. Their slick, short-passing game provoked bewilderment on and off the pitch. It was a cruel blow to Uruguayan sensibilities. They felt they had progressed enough to stand toe to toe with their English teachers. However, the complete domination couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the Uruguayans, so eager to test themselves against the ‘crazy English’.
It was late in the second half, Southampton had already scored seven. The mood of the crowd had well and truly dampened, but a spark was to come. That spark was provided by local Juan Pena, who dribbled through a number of opponents before firing a shot at goal. The effort was held safely by George Clawley, but amazingly, a Uruguayan teammate pushed the Englishmen into his own goal, the ball still in his hands. The goal stood, and the stadium erupted. The joyous crowd invaded the pitch, hoisted Pena onto their shoulders and carried the little forward around the ground in celebration. Such was the excitement that it took fifteen minutes to clear the field and restart play. The professionals scored an eighth, but it couldn’t sour that one sweet moment. It was that classic Creole unpredictability, but it masked the true lessons of the day.
The following year Nottingham Forest paid the region a visit. The first stop was Montevideo, the opponent Peñarol. The professionals once again dominated, 6-1 the score. While giving rise to national pride and excitement, the first two British tours highlighted the lack of development in the Uruguayan game. While artistic and free, there was a distinct lack of discipline and team work in Uruguay’s tactics.
Tottenham and Everton arrived in the region in June, 1909. Within days the two played a 2-2 draw in Palermo, Buenos Aires in front of a crowd of over ten thousand Argentines. Observing with a keen eye, Uruguayan journalists could not help but draw immediate comparisons between the visiting professionals and the home-grown Uruguayans. With a Tottenham visit to Montevideo looming, major newspaper El Dia prepared a detailed analysis of how the English played. The conclusions were damning.
‘The English professional plays more intelligently than the Uruguayan’, the report began. ‘They combine, use their heads well and know exactly where they are going to pass the ball’. The Uruguayan, however, ‘runs aimlessly, bombing the ball without any plan or thinking.’ The article further questioned the Uruguayan game. ‘In regards to our players’, explained the writer, ‘we already know our tactics. We abuse the practice of dribbling. There are no combinations. A player will complete a thousand pirouettes, then pause whenever he wants until he is ready to pass the ball, but he has already lost the opportunity and time.’ Little had changed since the last British visit.
The paper continued:
The play of the English forwards, on the other hand, is far different. Dribbling is extremely rare, with their five forwards supporting each other to produce a unique and triumphant feeling. They always combine, always moving with a precision and efficiency like five fingers to a hand, for to achieve what they propose they must work together. Every team is eleven players on the field, a true unity.
The English display was a victory of collective ideals over Creole individualism, a backlash against the Uruguayan way.
Anticipating the argument that such difference was a result of the individual superiority of the English footballer, El Dia was adamant- ‘What we want to emphasize is not that our game is inferior to that of the professionals, but that our tactics are diametrically opposed.’ The paper suggested that Uruguayan teams were capable of playing with the ‘same technique, applying similar norms and resources’ as the English. ‘Through this, and only this, will we progress in this sport’. It was not a question of beating the English, for ‘it is one thing to equal and another very different to learn to play with intelligence.’
The paper rejected the prevailing belief that true football involved long, aimless kicks. ‘With the English, you will not see long balls to the moon or to the sun, because the English respect the stars. The English leave the atmosphere for the aeroplanes. The English laugh at the applause, they laugh at the gambetas. They go for goal, because as they themselves say, “time is money” …or goals! …we’ll see if we tell the truth’.
The Uruguayans’ first match was against Tottenham on June 10. ‘More than the desire to win titles’, previewed El Dia, ‘the coming of the British presents us with the chance that our players can learn the art of playing and that the public, that great mass that many times has vibrated with enthusiasm for their team, can advance the merits of football in the fullness of its art and finery.’ In addition to a footballing lesson, the Uruguayans ‘need not lose their enthusiasm in their play, but the strength to know how to lose decently.’
The English decimated the Uruguayans 8-0.
El Dia’s verdict? ‘Once again, the English have shown they are the masters.’ Tottenham had played ‘like a machine’, with a passing precision and collective effort that completely overran the stunned local side. The Uruguayan game lacked the art of passing, the rhythm and combinations, the intelligent movement of both the players and the ball. ‘The one great lesson taken by the Uruguayan was not to pause with the ball, not to leave it still. With the head, with the body, with the feet, in every way these people dominate the ball and the play with perfection.’ It was a lesson not heeded in 1904 or 1905. The one positive, however, was the fight of the Uruguay outfit, whose defensive efforts prevented an even heavier defeat.
Next up, Everton. The build-up in the Uruguayan press was a repeat of the last match. For Uruguayan football opinion, the game provided locals with the luck and honour of witnessing a footballing lesson, combined with the sober acceptance that things could get ugly. Everton’s team was given plenty of attention in the lead-up, especially Bert Freeman who was profiled as the ‘most dangerous forward in the world’. Expectations were low. The game was to be enjoyed by Uruguayans, to learn from the masters and appreciate the art of good football. Hopefully the locals could put up a decent fight.
That they did. The game ended 2-1 to Everton, the Uruguayans describing the loss as a win. The crowd, delirious for what previously seemed an impossible result and performance, invaded the pitch, hugging the players. A match report described the game as ‘an epic moment, a brilliant materialization of the hopes of an anxious public.’ Despite the clear superiority of the professionals, the local press were satisfied with the Uruguayan effort. The locals fought, defended well, and played with honour. Despite later claims from an Everton man attributing the lacklustre English display to an enormous pre-game banquet, nothing could deny the joy felt by the Uruguayans.
Everton’s captain, Jack Taylor, was interviewed post-game by an Uruguayan press eager to learn how others viewed the local game. Taylor, who served as the game’s referee, observed a few things. First, the Uruguayan forward was more audacious, more dangerous than the Argentine. While playing fewer combinations than the Argentine, Uruguay’s midfielders possessed great skill and an infallible tenacity. Despite the questionable paraphrasing by the Uruguayan journalist, the conclusion was clear. All the ingredients for a great team were there, what lacked was organization and a clear plan.
Were the conclusions of the Uruguayan football writers a rejection of the creolisation of football? No, far from it. For the writers at El Dia were Batllistas. They supported the 8 hour work day, sent their children to public, secular schools and looked to create a model country based on its advanced laws and superior culture. The idealism of Uruguayan political thought reflected that of Uruguayan football opinion. It was, however, imperative not to disregard the British. Rather, just as the Uruguayans had looked to the United States for education reform and France for city-building, England was the model for physical culture. The Uruguayans were building towards something great, but the nationalisation of football couldn’t completely leave the British behind.
As the British exposed the problem, it was only them who could provide the solution.
Indeed, it was a Scot who changed the direction of Uruguayan football. John Harley,
recruited earlier that year by Peñarol, introduced not only a short passing, organized game to his club, but translated the refined style to the national team. Captain of club and country for the next few years, the Scottish centre-half codified an intelligent game of short passing, constant movement and combinations into the Uruguayan style. The unpredictable, improvised dribbling style of the Creole wasn’t abandoned. Nor was that classic tenacity and determination which is still present today. Rather, it was a fusion of intelligence and artistry, unpredictability and organization, a fluid transition from defence to attack. This change of tactical direction, helped by those British professionals and amateurs alike, ensured that Uruguay set itself apart from not only its neighbour, but the rest of the football world.
Uruguay 0-8 Tottenham, Parque Central, June 10, 1909
Uruguay: C. Saporiti; J. Bertone, Ronzoni; F. Lourted, Zanessi, Zuazu; Bastos, Dacal, Branda, A. Zumaran, Brachi.
Tottenham: Boreham; Coquet, Wilkes; Morris, Steel, Bull; Curtis, Minter, Macconen, Clark, Middlemiss.
Uruguay 1-2 Everton, Parque Central, June 13, 1909
Uruguay: C. Saporiti; J. Bertone, A. Falco; Ronzoni, Zanessi, F. Lourted; J. Brachi, A. Zumaran, N. Friedrich, P. Dacal, V. Modena.
Everton: C.H. Berry; R. Balmer, J. MaConnachie; V. Harris, R. Clifford, D. Rafferty; T. Jones, W. Lacey, B. Freeman, N. White, H. Mountford.
Goalscorers: Bert Freeman, Lacey (Everton) – Brachi (Uruguay)