On August 15, 1910, Uruguay and Argentina contested the sixth edition of the Copa Lipton, the most important international fixture in Rioplatense football at the time.
Uruguay were in one of their lowest moments. Just two months earlier in Buenos Aires, they suffered a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Argentina in the final of the Copa Centenario de Mayo – unofficially the first South American football championship.
That the 1910 edition was to be held in Montevideo did little to boost Uruguayan hopes for redemption. Not only were they winless in the Copa Lipton at home, Uruguay had never beaten Argentina in Montevideo since official internationals began in 1901. With the Argentines having won the previous four editions of the Copa Lipton, a change in Uruguay’s footballing fortunes seemed but a dream.
Leading up to the 15 August contest, Argentina’s football authorities informed the Liga Uruguaya of their intention to adopt the albiceleste as their official colours. Uruguay still lacked an official strip, its national team using an array of colours from white to blue, from blue with a white sash to white with a blue and red sash, the sky blue and white striped albiceleste, and even green.
And so it was that Montevideo Wanderers official Alfredo Le Bas made a proposal. Backed by Liga president Héctor Gómez, Le Bas called for the adoption of the sky blue, celeste shirt, which was approved by the rest of the Liga delegates.
La Celeste served as a homage to one of the region’s most prestigious clubs at the time – River Plate. And no, not the one from Buenos Aires, but the now-extinct Uruguayan River Plate, a club so important to Uruguay’s footballing story.
Officially born in Montevideo’s port area in 1902, River Plate’s founders were a curious grouping of rich and poor, of intellectuals, workers, and bohemians, while its players were overwhelmingly humble in origin, stevedores, newspaper street vendors, workers of different trades, as well as a few idlers.
River Plate helped drive the next stage of Uruguayan football’s democratisation. Their story was one of perseverance, of overcoming the prejudices of a still elite-run game. Initially rejected from the League, River were forced to begin their journey from the Second Division, tasked with winning three consecutive titles to gain promotion.
And that they did. With what seemed a distinctive, combative style, River Plate swept the 1903, 1905, and 1906 Second Division titles* with ease, gaining a popular following across Montevideo. Promoted to the First Division, River shook Uruguay’s footballing establishment with a physical yet well-drilled combination game, winning the 1908 title in just their second year in the top flight, and then again in 1910, 1913, and 1914.
River Plate’s prestige transcended Uruguay’s borders. The club formed friendships with several Argentine sides, the most important of which was Alumni, the legendary Alumni of the Brown brothers, a club considered practically invincible in the Río de la Plata.
On 10 April 1910, River inaugurated their season with a glamour friendly against Alumni at the Gran Parque Central. The game would change the course of Uruguayan football history. As both teams wore similar red and white striped kits, the Uruguayan hosts, in a common gesture of that time, adopted an alternative strip for the match – one of sky blue.
Against all the odds the Uruguayans triumphed, coming back from a goal down to snatch a memorable 2-1 win. Montevideo celebrated River Plate’s remarkable victory, the slaying of the Argentine giant sparking hopes of a new, successful era for Uruguayan football.
Such optimism was ultimately crushed at the Centenario de Mayo tournament.
So for the Copa Lipton, with Uruguayan football at its most hopeless, River Plate’s rebellious spirit was summoned through the adoption of the sky blue.
Perhaps the Celeste shirt represented something Uruguayans needed at the time, that possibility to defeat a stronger rival, to turn around a historic deficit. In 1910, however, the source of this motivation wasn’t a mystical garra, that desperate call to the footballing gods born in 1935 and later known as Garra Charrúa. No. It came from the example of River Plate, the humble but loud River Plate, who overcame the economic and political power of the already established grandes, Nacional and CURCC of Peñarol, to conquer Uruguayan and Rioplatense football.
15 August, 1910. Up to 10,000 fans descended upon the Estadio Belvedere. All four sides of the pitch were completely full an hour before kick-off, with many clamouring for a spot, scaling walls and climbing trees. The tension was almost too much for some. Few were confident of victory, others resigned to defeat, but the majority were clear in their demands – avoid humiliation at all costs.
Just before 3pm, the Uruguay team stepped onto a field for the first time with a sky blue shirt, black shorts, and black socks. And the inspiration for those new colours, River Plate, weren’t just there in spirit, but formed the base of the Uruguay side with four of their players.
Fittingly, it was a River Plate player who set the tone for the match, with inside-right Pablo Dacal sending the Belvedere into delirium with a goal after just 22 minutes. The rest of the game belonged to Uruguay, their combination play overwhelming the Argentines in a deserved 3-1 win.
The 1910 Copa Lipton triumph marked a transcendental moment for Uruguayan football. Not only breaking a home drought and ending years of Argentine dominance, the victory also signalled the beginning of a national style of play, a combination game capable of setting Uruguay apart from their rivals.
Given the significance of the victory, then, there was no doubt that the sky blue shirt would remain.
La Celeste has since become the most potent symbol of Uruguay’s footballing identity. From the beginning, the sky blue shirt exuded an air of heroic sporting victory, the hazaña, its roots laid by the popular River Plate’s triumph over the Alumni invincibles. And with the perfection of a truly national playing style, La Celeste would become synonymous with success, launching Uruguay to the top of América and the world.
Copa Lipton no.XI, 15 August 1910. Estadio Belvedere, Montevideo.
Uruguay 3-1 Argentina.
Uruguay: Cayetano Saporiti; Juan Carlos Bertone, José Benincasa; Jorge Pacheco, Oscar Sanz, Juan Pena; Vicente Módena, Pablo Dacal, José Piendibene, Carlos Scarone, Pedro Zibechi.
Argentina: Carlos Wilson; Jorge Brown, Juan Brown; Ernesto Brown, Armando Ginocchio, Haroldo Grant; Elías Fernández, Maximiliano Susan, Harry Hayes, Arnold Watson Hutton, José Viale.
Goals: Dacal (22′), Zibechi (49′), Scarone (63′), Hayes (71′).
*there was no official 1904 season due to the Uruguayan Civil War of that year.