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The Uruguay bullet points are: being a tiny nation nuts about fútbol, and a team that features a biter. All are true, as the English press and other haytahs will remind us with evergreen hackery. Just know that the history of fútbol cannot be written without Uruguay.
The English Football Association published the Laws of the Game in 1863. By that time, the wars of independence from Spain had been won in South America and British commercial presence in the region was a part of life. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano writes that fútbol
landed on the feet of seamen, who played it around the dykes in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, while Her Majesty’s ships unloaded ponchos, boots and flour, and loaded wool, leather and wheat to manufacture, far over there, more ponchos, boots and flour.
As the tone suggests, it was a romanticized time:
Fast forward to ancient Babylonia 1916, when the first continental fútbol tournament was organized: the Campeonato Sudamericano de Football (a.k.a. the Copa América). According to Galeano, that Uruguay team became the first in the world to have black players, Isabelo Gradín and Juan Delgado, two great-grandsons of slaves. They defeated Chile 4-0 and the Chileans sought to nullify the game “because Uruguay fielded two Africans” (oh the cheating). Uruguay won that Championship, and the next South American one, in 1917.
In the rest of the world, fútbol was also being played at the Olympics, but as an exhibition sport. It was for the 1924 Olympics in Paris that fútbol became an official event. So, Uruguay went, the first South American national team to play in Europe. In the process, Uruguay changed the game—per Galeano, with obvious national pride:
The English [fútbol] school had imposed the long pass and the high ball, but these unknown sons, spawned in the remote America, did not take after the father. They preferred to invent a fútbol of short balls and to the foot, with lightning changes of rhythm and feinting to run.
Uruguay won the gold in 1924, and repeated as champions at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.
Then the first World Cup was being organized for 1930. Italy bid to host it, but lost.
So Italy refused to travel to the tournament, and Uruguay won the first World Cup. Italy hosted the next one, in 1934, and dared Uruguay to defend their trophy:
Uruguay returned the favor and boycotted Italy 1934—and also stayed home for France 1938. For that one, Uruguay refused to go because there had been an agreement to alternate the tournament between the continents. Two in a row for Europe? Pfft. Besides, the World Cup needed Uruguay more than the other way around, as La Celeste’s supremacy was unassailable. For good measure, Uruguay won the next World Cup, Brazil 1950, beating the hosts. So then: in its first two World Cup appearances, Uruguay won two trophies.
Uruguay has yet to win a third World Cup.
What the hell happened? A theory is that Uruguayans became enamored with their way, while the game changed everywhere in all aspects, from player fitness to tactics. So writes Martin Da Cruz, of the situation by the 1960s:
Uruguay had largely reconciled with a defensive, counter-attacking style heavily reliant on the individual efforts of their talented forwards and the leadership of a strong centre-half. So proud of their footballing identity, with the trophies to back it up, locals were convinced that no drastic changes were necessary.
Half a century later, Uruguay had its best showing at a World Cup in South Africa 2010. That team was in the traditional mold, captained by a strong defender (Diego Lugano) and talented forwards: Luis Suárez and Diego Forlán, with the latter named the best player of the tournament. In the first knockout game, Suárez scored both goals in a 2-0 win against South Korea, including this one:
In their next game, Uruguay outlasted Ghana because it could not convert a penalty awarded after a deliberate handball by Suárez stopped a sure goal. Foar the haytahs:
Cheating? Please. It was an infraction that carried extremely severe consequences and, at best, provided a series of longshots for Uruguay: facing a penalty and, in the improbable event it was missed, Suárez was going to be suspended for the semifinals if La Celeste survived the rest of the game with 10 men. Suárez took the risk and it worked out for Uruguay in that game, but he and the team suffered the consequences.
Suárez was needed in the semis against [spits on the ground] the Netherlands, which won 2-3. I had forgotten the score; all I remembered from that game was being angry and that otherworldly strike by van Bronckhorst.
In Brasil 2014, Uruguay fielded a team captained by a strong central defender (Diego Godín) and two talented forwards: Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. Suárez missed the start of the tournament due to a knee injury that required an operation, performed less than a month before the first game against Costa Rica. The Ticos won, but Suárez returned for the second game against England—an all-time grudge match, and he scored both goals in a 2-1 win. Then came the Italy game, which Uruguay won 1-0 and FIFA banned Suárez from the sport for four months, being forbidden to even enter a fútbol pitch anywhere. Colombia swiftly dispatched Uruguay in the first game of the knockout stage.
With Suárez barely starting his international ban of nine games, Uruguay faltered the next year at the 2015 Copa América in Chile. The hosts dispatched La Celeste 1-0 in the first knockout game, with Cavani being ejected after falling for a classic staple of the sport, the prod and dive:
Then, in the 2016 Copa América Centenario, played in the USA to mark the 100th birthday of the tournament, Uruguay was completely off. Suárez did not play because he was injured, but there was something screwy about the whole thing from the beginning.
Uruguay’s manager, the wise and usually discrete Oscar Wáshington Tabárez, suggested the tournament was not a Copa América, and also complained about the tournament’s travel schedule. This was a marked contrast with Uruguay’s rep. Galeano writes that the 1924 team for the Olympics was able to travel by boat to Spain after the manager mortgaged his house to pay for the players’ trip. Upon arrival in Spain, the team had to organize games to pay for lodging and the land trip to Paris—nine games in total, all won by La Celeste, a team made up of blue-collar workers and drinkers.
Nothing went right in that 2016 tournament for Uruguay, despite the team having world-class professionals who toiled in the top leagues in Europe and the Americas. Before the first game, in Arizona against Mexico, the stadium folks played the Chilean anthem instead of Uruguay’s. (Embassies have been closed for lesser slights.) Mexico won 3-1, but at least the bottle of rum I lost on a wager got good reviews. In the second game, Venezuela defeated La Celeste 1-0, and Uruguay was eliminated.
Then came the South American qualifiers for Russia 2018, which were dynamite. The last date was in late 2017. Brazil had already ensured qualification and only two teams were out of it (Bolivia and Venezuela). The rest was up for grabs: seven teams fighting for the remaining four spots. Ultimately, Uruguay finished second, over fellow qualifiers Colombia, Argentina, and Perú.
The competition faced by Uruguay in all previous tournaments was tougher than what it will confront in its group. La Celeste’s schedule:
June 15, 7:00 AM Central – Egypt vs. Uruguay (Yekateringburg)
June 20, 10:00 AM Central – Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia (Rostov)
June 25, 9:00 AM Central – Uruguay vs. Russia (Samara)
Cynics, like me, dismiss this group as a gimme for Russia to advance to the knockout stage. The Saudis are minnows, but Egypt has this season’s top scorer in Europe (Mohammed Salah), and Russia… Normally, I wouldn’t be concerned. But in several World Cups, the host nation suddenly, uh, overachieves. England has one trophy, when it hosted the tourney in 1966. Argentina 1978 is considered by many a fucking disgrace, with good reasons. France won in 1998, but that final against Brazil was the Ronaldo seizure game—so no fault to the hosts. (Besides, France reaching the final at Germany 2006, after the disastrous defense in 2002, further bolstered its fútbol bona fides.) Japan / South Korea 2002 saw the latter advance deep into the tournament after questionable calls. If you have Italian or Spanish friends, ask them about South Korea.
The only World Cup host who has failed to advance to the knockout stage was South Africa in 2010. (Fun fact! In that World Cup, as in this one, Uruguay was also in the group of the host nation.) Anyone who thinks the Russians are above malicious meddling to reach their goals are on the payroll of RT and/or the White House.
So who are the players Uruguay will take to Russia? Nobody knows for sure. Uruguay is the only country who has not disclosed publicly their roster. See, Uruguayans do their thing, no matter what everyone else does. In that vein, all teams that have won a World Cup incorporate a star to their crest to signify each trophy won at that tournament. Uruguay has only two World Cups, but its crest displays four stars.
The other two are for the 1924 and 1928 Olympics—I’m telling you: when it comes to fútbol, Uruguay does what Uruguay wants. Their style of play is physical and wily. La Celeste is a group of hypercompetitive men who play on edge and are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Love them, hate them, Uruguayans don’t give a fuck. Why would they; the prominence achieved by winning everywhere, when fútbol was becoming a global phenomenon, intertwined forever the sport’s and the country’s history. Plus, they have the highest number of Copa Américas: 15 out of 45 tournaments (the last win was in 2011). So it’s not like La Celeste needs this tourney to enhance their standing in the sport, although the talent drain after next year’s Copa América will be brutal.
So then, in totally original projections, here’s who I say will be sporting the light blue kit in Russia: a strong central defender as captain (Diego Godín, Atlético Madrid) and two talented forwards, Luis Suárez (Barcelona) and Edinson Cavani (Paris St. Germain). It will also have Fernando Muslera as goalie, who is still at the top of his profession and plays with Galatasaray in Turkey. All four of them were in South Africa 2010, and are 31. Muslera may still stick around, but this is likely the last World Cup for Godín, Cavani, Suárez and other mainstays: forward Cristhian (don’t call me Christian) Stuani is also 31, but had his best season this year in Spain (Girona). Perennials Maxi Pereira (33, FC Porto), and Egidio Arévalo Ríos (36, Racing, Argentina), might not even make the squad. But all the stars are healthy, and this is likely Tabárez’s last World Cup. This will certainly not be another Copa Centenario debacle, even if the Russians play Argentina’s anthem instead of Uruguay’s in the third group game.
I say Uruguay reaches the semis, like 2010, and Suárez will be one of the outstanding players in the tournament. It’s destiny.
Excerpts from Edueardo Galeano, “El fútbol a sol y sombra” [Football in Sun and Shadow]; banner via lacelesteblog.com, stats via Wikipedia.com; vids from YouTube, gifs from giphy.com.