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.
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 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.
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..
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.