Rewind to 1924

Uruguay's international rise

July 7, 2011
By Jon Carter
(Archive)

On July 7, 2010, Uruguayan fans were waking up having seen their side fall to Netherlands in the semi-finals of the World Cup in South Africa a day earlier. Now one of the favourites to pick up the Copa America, Oscar Tabarez's Uruguay are bringing back memories of their glory days, which began in 1924 and ran until their World Cup win of 1930 on home soil.

Back in the days before the World Cup, when the Olympic tournament was seen as the biggest competition in world football, a little known country with a population of just three million were head and shoulders above the rest.

Uruguay
GettyImagesWorld Champions Uruguay celebrate their third title.

Before Guillermo Stabile's Argentina and Pele's Brazil, Alberto Suppici's Uruguay ruled the roost in South America and had picked up the first official Copa America tournament in 1916 before embarking on a run that would see them land four of the next seven titles.

However, the country had trailed the development of rivals Argentina predominantly thanks to two failed uprisings from the Blanco party in 1897 and 1904. Indeed, the peace that followed is credited with starting the football ball rolling as, according to historian David Goldblatt: ''Uruguay began to boom. Montevideo began to grow, acquiring a new middle class and a new working class in the process.''

The newly created CONMEBOL federation had much to thank Uruguay for, as the idea had first been proposed in 1912 by Uruguayan politician and president of Montevideo Wanderers, Hector Gomez. Playing a key role in the development of the South American Championship that his country would be so successful in during its early years, Gomez was keen to push the continent into the world's consciousness; but this did not happen until Uruguay broke the thus-far all Europe affair that was the Olympic Games, in 1924.

Alongside Egypt and the USA, Uruguay's presence at the Games in Paris had ruffled few feathers. In fact, the French had managed to print silk scarves celebrating every team's participation - with one exception. But the meat packers, grocers and musicians who, according to Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano ''got nothing from football but the pleasure of playing'', gave the Europeans the shock of their lives.

''They went to Europe to try their luck and gave the world a new kind of football,'' Galeano said. ''They [the Europeans] thought that the Uruguayans would be like all the rest - a child of English football - and that was true. But what happened in South America was that this British father had children that didn't take after him very much.''

Their first opponents in the competition, Yugoslavia, had sent spies to watch them train in a bid to learn something about them, but Galeano revealed: ''The Uruguayans put on a disastrous training session. They didn't score a single goal, they kicked the ball into the clouds, or missed it completely; kicking the ground instead. And they bumped into each other - it was a disaster. The Yugoslavs reported back that Uruguay would be a piece of cake, that they were a useless team who couldn't beat anyone.''

Instead, Uruguay thrashed the Yugoslavs 7-0 and reached the final against Switzerland, astonishing the Europeans with their brand of skilful, short-passing football. Uruguay won 3-0 and the Parisian crowd fell in love with the game they saw.

Jose Leandro Andrade
GettyImagesJose Leandro Andrade (C): Uruguay's star player

The final has been cited as the single most influential match in the development of the French style of football and Gabriel Hanot, later editor of French paper L'Equipe wrote: ''The Uruguayans are supple disciples of the spirit of fitness rather than geometry. They have pushed towards perfection the art of the feint and swerve and the dodge, but they also know how to play quickly… Before these fine athletes, who are to the English professionals like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses, the Swiss were disconcerted.''

The 1924 Olympics put the previously unknown Uruguayans on the international map and the likes of defensive half-back Jose Leandro Andrade, a former shoe shiner and carnival musician who was nicknamed the 'Black Marvel' by the French press, was heralded as one of the stars of world football.

However the Uruguayans' success did not go down well on other side of Rio de la Plata and a hastily arranged two-game series was arranged between them and Argentina. A 1-1 draw in Montevideo failed to assert Argentine superiority and the events of the return leg - in which Andrade was pelted by stones, a team-mate of his was arrested for kicking out at a policeman and the game was called off six minutes before time due to crowd trouble - was not a shining beacon for the development of football in Latin America.

What Uruguay's success in 1924 did do, though, was persuade the continent that international football was worth getting involved in and, after numerous club tours that saw the likes of Boca Juniors travel to Spain and FC Barcelona make the reverse trip, the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam invited both Uruguay and Argentina take part.

As, perhaps, Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin would have wanted, the final allowed the world's two best teams to compete for the title. In what was their 103rd meeting against Argentina, Uruguay defended their crown in a game that saw 250,000 requests for just 40,000 tickets.

The first match was a 1-1 draw, but the replay proved to be a much more open affair with Roberto Figueroa giving Uruguay the lead, before Luis Monti equalised 11 minutes later. But Nacional's Hector Scaroni scored the winner for Uruguay in the second half to give them their second world title in succession and Atilio Narancio (a wealthy Uruguayan patron of football, was heard to exclaim: ''We are no longer just a tiny spot on the map of the world.''

Key to Uruguay's success in these years is the concept of garra charrua - roughly translated as an intrinsic fortitude - that is described in footballing terms by writer Astolfo Cagnacci as a "survival instinct running on the field, cementing a team in its collective definition."

Waldemar Victorino, a Uruguay international in the 1970s, maintains in The History of Soccer: ''The garra charrua is our idiosyncrasy. The whole of Uruguay has it, not just footballers. We always want to push ourselves further, to come first. We've always liked difficult challenges and, for us, football was a difficult challenge.''

And, entrusted with hosting the first World Cup tournament in 1930, the challenge could not have been greater. With the eyes of the world now firmly upon them, Uruguay built the biggest stadium on the continent - the Estadio Centenario - in eight short months and named two of the stands 'Columbes' (after the district in Paris where the 1924 Games were held) and 'Amsterdam' to commemorate their Olympic triumphs.

Estadio Centenario
GettyImagesEstadio Centenario: Built for 1930

After routine wins in the group stage over Peru and Romania, Uruguay found themselves up against Yugoslavia again. Despite having done their homework properly this time and going a goal up, the Eastern Europeans were hammered 6-1 in the semi-finals thanks to a hat-trick from former ice salesman Pedro Cea, and the Centenario played host to another final between Uruguay and Argentina.

Down 2-1 at half-time after goals from Carlos Peucelle and Stabile, Uruguay's garra charrua came to the fore and they scored three goals after the break, with Hector Castro seeing off their great rivals with a thumping final strike that sealed a memorable 4-2 win.

Italian journalist Berrera noted: ''Argentina play football with a lot of imagination and elegance, but technical superiority cannot compensate for the abandonment of tactics. Between the two rioplatense national teams, the ants are the Uruguayans, the cicadas are the Argentines.'' The following day was declared a national holiday in Uruguay and the side's rise to the top of world football was complete.

What happened next? Uruguay declined to defend their title in 1934 in Italy, citing travel expenses as the reason, with the global recession decimating its export economy. The 1938 tournament in France would have offered them a chance to return to the beginning of their international glories, but again they turned down the invite. With the World Cup put on hold during WWII, they returned triumphantly in 1950 to reclaim the title in Brazil - putting on the definitive performance of garra charrua - to overcome the hosts 2-1 in the final and write themselves into history once more.