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.
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 today – were 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…