When Uruguay open World Cup play against Costa Rica on Saturday, it'll mark the beginning of their quest to advance out of a brutal group that also includes Italy and England. And should they make a deep run, La Celeste will have a chance to add to a deeply rich soccer history that includes the distinction of having won more tournaments than any country in the world.
On paper, Uruguay seem a decent bet. They're number seven in the FIFA World Rankings, coming off a semifinal appearance in 2010 and led by big names like Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan. But if population was a predictor of World Cup success, Uruguay is the first team you'd scratch off the list. With just 3.4 million people—fewer than the city of Los Angeles—Uruguay ranks dead last among the 32 teams and is the smallest country in the South American Football Confederation for both size and population. Nonetheless, they've carved out a significant place between South American giants Brazil and Argentina to author a deeply rich history in the sport.
Uruguayan football goes back to the late 19th century, when British immigrants brought the sport across the Atlantic. In 1901, Argentina and Uruguay played the first international match in South America, and despite an Argentine victory in their baptismal match, it would be tiny Uruguay who subsequently became the region's dominant force.
The reason for this was two-fold. The first was that national teams during this era were comprised of the best players from a single footballing city. Matches were essentially between Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. This prevented population from being an advantage that larger countries could exploit.
Secondly, Uruguay was the first team to utilize players from every level of society. Elsewhere, soccer was a sport for the elite. It served as a tool for segregation, particularly in the multiracial Brazilian society that had only abolished slavery in 1888. Uruguay, however, soon experienced progressive reforms that separated the country from its conservative, class-divided rivals.
This chasm in values became physically evident during the inaugural South American Championship—the forerunner to the Copa América—in 1916. It consisted of only Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and host Argentina. In their opening match against Chile, La Celeste fielded Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado, the first two black players to ever appear in an international tournament. The Chileans protested their inclusion, arguing that the Uruguayans were unfairly selecting Africans. Both stayed on the pitch, and Gradín, an impoverished descendant of slaves, finished the tournament as the leading scorer while Uruguay won the tournament.
Uruguay went on to win five of the first eight South American championships; however, their Golden Age would be defined by their success at the global level. They won gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, establishing themselves as the world's best.
When FIFA decided to create its own tournament in 1930 to determine a world champion, Uruguay was the obvious choice for a host, and fittingly, they defeated arch nemesis Argentina in the final to win the first World Cup. A second World Cup triumph in 1950 and multiple Copa América titles later, Uruguay has won a record 20 championships.
But as the game has progressed, the advantages that once helped Uruguay have faded. Bigger countries now utilize their size, selecting the best players from every corner of their nation (not to mention plucking eligible talent from others). Additionally, the class structure within soccer no longer exists. It has become a game for the masses, with very few barriers for entry. Logic would dictate that a country this small would not be able to compete at the highest level.
Yet despite falling behind Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has maintained its status as a world heavyweight. Roughly half of the country's population lives in the capital, Montevideo, meaning scouting is simple and fewer skilled players go unnoticed. Coupled with youth leagues that are connected to the Uruguayan Football Association, there is never a shortage of promising talent.
The dominance of Montevideo is reflected in the domestic leagues, with 33 of the 42 professional clubs residing in the capital. Their Primera División hosts two of the biggest clubs in South America—Peñarol and Nacional—who share the world's oldest rivalry outside of Britain.
Both teams have produced some of the best-known Uruguayan players, many of whom have achieved success with the national team. Peñarol has had a total of 14 World Cup winners from the 1930 and 1950 editions, including Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia, both of whom scored in the 1950 World Cup final at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. Nacional contributed equally to Uruguay's World Cup winning sides, and more recently produced players like superstar striker Suárez and national team captain Diego Lugano.
And of course, none of these factors would matter if not for the deeply rooted love for the game that is shared throughout the country. As national team manager Óscar Tabárez put it in an interview with FIFA, "A lady aged 75 or an eight-year-old boy have the same passion for football."
Tabárez has largely kept the same group of players together from the semifinal run in 2010, and despite landing in a tough group with Costa Rica, England, and Italy, it wouldn't be a total shock to see La Celeste overcome the odds, win another World Cup in Brazil and add to an expansive soccer legacy that far exceeds the nation's diminutive size.
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