This is a piece that has been penned with a view to publication in Scottish football periodical Nutmeg No.16 in the summer about my friend Fabian Yantorno.
The mere mention of the word Uruguay in a footballing context might still send shivers down the spine of Scotland fans of a certain age. The scars following the clash between the two nations at the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico live long in the memory, as well as with those immortal words of the late, great Hugh McIlvanney “These Uruguayans are coming in with awfully high tackles Jock”. It was an understated analysis of the hardman Garra tactics prevalent in the Uruguayan footballing psyche, especially in that campaign. The sending off in the very first minute of Jose Batista, to this day still the quickest red card in World Cup history, did nothing to aid the Scottish cause to find that all important goal. It was a dreadful game and a distinct new low for our National team that continues on a downward spiral.
Some 25 years later, my best friend, journalist/author Andrew Downie and I were the first Scots to track Jose down since that fateful red card. Jose was living in Gran Buenos Aires, where he was coaching at a fifth tier side Argentinos de Quilmes. We went for a beer with him and some of his stories were hilarious. He did acknowledge that going in hard early was part of the tactics, but they rarely expected to see a first minute yellow card being brandished, let alone a red one. When he went back to the dressing room having been dismissed, the kitman was still in there and he told Jose to get a move on, the game would be starting soon, he couldn’t believe he had been sent off!
Only three Uruguayans have played in Scottish football, the first two, Carlos Marcora and Gerardo Traverso played for the Dundee clubs a season apart. Carlos merely played one game for United in 2000/01 and Gerardo managed only two games across the road at Dens the very next season. Five years later in 2007, following the incredible promotion of Gretna to the top flight, Fabian Yantorno arrived from Montevideo club Miramar Misiones to try and aid their ultimately ill fated survival attempt.
My own club Inverness Caledonian Thistle had by that time almost bedded into top tier football and by 2007/08 it was our fourth successive season playing the big boys. I was writing an article for the ICT programme for each home game on World Football in those days, and I would try to tailor the subject to something or someone connected with the visitors. It was always going to work a treat for Gretna’s first visit to the Highland capital as not only had I seen Fabian play in Uruguay, but I had taken a team photo of the Miramar team as they posed for the cameras ahead of a derby against Central Espanol with him in it. There is always debate as to what is the closest derby in the world, but when these two Montevideo clubs go head to head you can’t get any closer with both stadiums sharing an adjoining wall that runs the length of both pitches. As Fabian told me once we met up, the visiting team used their own dressing room and went to the away fixture across the wall through a gate separating the grounds.
Gretna’s stunning rise up the leagues, and reaching the Scottish Cup final was a real life version of Kilnockie in Robert Duvall’s “A shot at Glory”, but whether the late dramatic winner at Ross County to reach the Premier League was a step too far will be debated for years yet. Interestingly it was a win that sent the Dingwall club back down to the third tier. Having to ground share with Motherwell was always going to stretch resources, and the Fir Park pitch just couldn’t cope with the extra workload.
Fabian was a skilful, hard working attacking midfielder and his energy and link up play gave Gretna’s line up a little elan. He quickly became a favourite with the border sides fans. The pinnacle of his 21 games for Gretna was a fabulously struck free kick at Fir Park that sailed over the wall and flew past Artur Boruc in goal to give them a stunning 1,0 lead versus Celtic just before half-time. They held onto the lead until 4 minutes from time when the visitors bagged a brace in the closing moments to break home hearts. In early January 2008 I saw Fabian play for a third time, but once again Inverness overpowered them, following up on our 4,0 away win earlier in the season with a comfortable 3,0 success at the Caledonian stadium. I was always curious as to whether he’d enjoyed my programme article on Uruguayan football, but alas before I could make contact with him, his season took a cruel twist. Two weeks later amid a rare win for Gretna, 2-0 at home to Falkirk, celebrations were tempered when a clash between Fabian and Tim Krul resulted in the Uruguayan being stretchered off. His season was over with a bad cruciate ligament injury. It was an incident that certainly didn’t help Gretna’s cause, the club would enter into administration and be deducted 10 points before the season was over too. They picked up just seven points after Fabian’s injury, including a final day 1-0 win in front of just 1,090 fans versus Hearts at Fir Park in what would be clubs last ever game, with a goal appropriately scored by the clubs stalwart Gavin Skelton.
A liquidated employer and a cruciate ligament injury was a terrible predicament to find yourself in, especially thousands of miles from home. A white knight arrived in the form of Mixu Paatelainen who gave Fabian the opportunity to use Hibernian’s medical and training facilities to recuperate and get himself back to full fitness. It was here that our paths finally crossed, as my friend Andrew got in touch with his contact at Hibs asking if I could meet Fabian and indulge my passion for Uruguayan football. Fabian recalled the Inverness programme article and he was delighted to meet up, so our first encounter was over a coffee in Starbucks on Princes Street. The chat flowed between two new friends with a shared love of Nacional, the biggest club side in Uruguay, as well as my ability at surprising him with my enthusiasm and knowledge of the lesser lights clubs of Montevideo and beyond. It was an encounter that set the tone for future encounters in Edinburgh, Hartlepool and Montevideo over the years. I had never befriended a footballer before, but Fabian is such an amiable chap it was always a pleasure.
When you consider Uruguay has a population of just over 3 million, in South American it is merely a wee dot in terms of population and area. Quite how it has maintained such a high place in football’s World rankings is testimony not only to the countries enthusiasm for the sport, but also to its club youth system that continues to mould an extraordinary number of highly skilful players. More than half the population of Uruguay resides in the capital and in its midst are 35 of 45 registered clubs in total throughout the country, split amongst the three national leagues, that play in Montevideo, a considerable number of whom have their own stadium too.
Fabian started his career with Bella Vista, one of three clubs who have their stadium in the Prado, an enormous park in the city. The stadium is called Jose Nasazzi, a club legend and one of the World Cup winners from 1930, a reminder of just how deep the success vein runs in Uruguayan football. Bella Vista, like the majority of clubs in the city, schooled and trained kids from a very young age. Fabian was with them from a young age and he stayed with them for five years having signed his first professional contract in 1999. However, he rarely broke into the first team and he only managed nine starts and one goal in that period.
Despite a lack of game time at Bella Vista, he then moved across to Italy to play for Sambenedettese from the Marche seaside resort of San Benedetto Del Tronto. His one season in Italy’s third tier was a highly eventful first adventure in Europe. His heroics in 16 appearances for Samb helped them stave off relegation despite the players not being paid for months. The fans pleaded with the players to keep going and the town rallied to them, providing accommodation and food to help them through. Those who stayed and kept them up will forever live in the hearts of Samb fans despite the club going bust in the summer and demoted, but by then Fabian was back in Uruguay with Miramar. More recently I went to San Benedetto to see Samb and get a flavour of that miracle campaign. Local journalist Remo Croci still recalls fondly Fabian’s contribution to the cause.
Once Fabian had recuperated from his knee problem at Hibs they offered him a contract to stay at Easter Road and although he made only half a dozen appearances as a substitute, his solitary full game for the Hibees ironically came against my mob Inverness, and our 2-1 away win didn’t aid his cause for a regular start.
Mick Wadsworth, an English manager with an unusual managerial CV including DR Congo had been the man to see Fabian play at Miramar and he facilitated the transfer to Gretna where he would eventually manage himself after Davie Irons left. Their paths would cross again when Fabian’s time was coming to an end at Hibernian. Mick signed him for Chester City, where this continued curse on Fabian’s clubs arose once more. Despite a good pre-season, Chester went bust and didn’t even start the season. He headed back to Uruguay where he played for provincial club Atenas San Carlos making their debut in the Uruguayan top flight, a campaign that would end in immediate relegation. Mick came in for him once more and took him to Hartlepool in the English third tier where the club were flirting with play offs to step up to the Championship but collapsed alarmingly to just avoiding relegation. We caught up after a fine 2-0 home win against Peterborough near where he was based in the buffed up port area amid bars and restaurants that seemed more appealing and sophisticated than downtown Hartlepool. He was struggling to get a game as the season seemed to be falling apart for the club, and after just 17 appearances that season he headed back to Uruguay never to return to Europe to play.
Having played for Uruguayan top flight strugglers IASA and Rentistas in successive seasons, both campaigns ended in relegation, in 2012 he headed to Colombia for his most consistent season of his career with 29 appearances for Atletico Bucaramanga in the second tier. He rejoined IASA the following season, and he has been with them ever since. More recently they have fallen back into the second division where I caught up with him last following a despairing 3,2 loss to Rentistas having led 2,0. I will be heading back to Uruguay at the end of this year, and as he turns 38 towards the end of the season, which runs April to December, I hope I will see him play one last time, but if not we will still share a very Uruguayan delicacy, Chivito Canadianense and a cerveza. We keep in touch despite the distance and I am very proud of our friendship, which long after he has hung up his boots we will still be friends.