The capital of Uruguay is without doubt a hotbed of football. Indeed, given it hosted the first ever World Cup in 1930 single handed, its passion for the beautiful game has never diminished! The iconic Centenario Stadium, built for that tournament is coined as “the home of football” has FIFA heritage status, coupled with a fantastic museum within its walls, taking you back in time. Despite a population of only just over 3 million people, by South American standards Uruguay is a very small country, by area size too, but on the International football scene it is a name to conjure with, a team to be feared. The National team has undoubtedly been through some troughs since the Golden era (’30’s-’50’s), and while they may never win the World Cup again, the production line of talent is endless with the club football set up in the country as it is.
That Golden era started with Uruguay winning the Olympic Titles of 1924 and 1928, essentially the World Club before Jules Rimet came along. It was a brave, and yet natural choice to award the first World Cup to the Gold medal holders. Europe may not have agreed, and only a handful of nations made the trip south, all sharing the same vessel, training on deck as they went! It all boiled down to the more local rivalry with Argentina in the final, with the hosts winning 4-2 to send the little nation into raptures. What is less known, while Italy won the next two editions in ’34 and 38, when Uruguay turned up in Brazil in 1950 after the war, it was their first participation since they won it twenty years earlier! If Germany’s dismantling of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup is the new “hangover” that haunts Brazilian football, their first hosting of the tournament in 1950 saw them lose the last finals group match to Uruguay 2-1 in the Maracana in front of 199,854, a record crowd for a “final”, likely never to be beaten! A draw would have oddly won it for Brazil, but in losing, such was the trauma they became convinced the white shirt and blue shorts combo that was Brazil’s colours at the time was cursed! A new kit was born soon after with the famous yellow and green of today being suggested and adopted following a competition, ironically won by a Uruguayan!
While Brazil wallowed in its own self pity of sorts, they have managed to knock out five World Cup wins since, albeit never at home, in that same period Uruguay might have won a few Copa America titles, but the recapturing the big one has eluded them. However, occasionally they still reach the semi-finals, which in the modern era is still a magnificent achievement. If Hungary had a golden era that failed to spark anything beyond that generation, considering Uruguay’s size, Celeste (light blue and also the nickname of Uruguay) continues to punch above its weight on the global stage, largely thanks to a wonderful youth system buried deep with an extraordinary number of Montevideo based clubs!
It is acknowledged that a trip to Uruguay is more than a weekend gig, but if you were drawn to these parts, even to watch the big Buenos Aires clubs, with all the hincha (fans) passion, a weekend across the River Plate in Montevideo would potentially offer you many opportunities to see similar passion, albeit largely on a smaller scale, unless you encounter the big two, Nacional and Penarol, whose fan bases can rival anything in Buenos Aires. 67 of my 184 games outside the UK to date have been in Argentina and Uruguay, 37 in the former, so you can see it is a land that has caught my imagination. If you factor in 69 games in Italy, Europe’s “South American” atmosphere equivalent it is easy to see it’s the edgy Latin passion in football that attracts me!
Montevideo sits at the headland of the south eastern reaches of the Rio De La Plata (River Plate), and can be reached by Buquebus fast ferry direct from Buenos Aires (3 hours), or a one hour trip by ferry to Colonia, and two hours further by bus. It is a wonderful city, a well kept secret of South America, with its faded charm in the cuidad vieja area near the port, and its astonishing 27 kilometres of Rambla (coastal walkway) with beaches, little yachting harbours, as well as the country’s main link to the outside world, the enormous and always active port. Parts of the old city will remind you of Havana in a way, even if these areas are gradually being modernised, they still retain the old colonial style.
In Uruguay, as well as Argentina, the names of some of the clubs show the influence of British involvement at the outset of football history in the region. Railway construction men, Banfield and Newell’s still have teams in Argentina, Almirante Brown (Admiral Brown, an Irishman) another example over there, while across in Uruguay Albion, Wanderers and Liverpool are all still playing, the latter two in the top flight. Albion were involved in the first ever game in Uruguay versus Nacional in 1900! A more recent team, Canadian has been founded by a group of Uruguayan exiles living in Canada! Both countries have a Racing and a River Plate! Significantly smaller in Uruguay, but again, both top flight teams. In England’s city of Liverpool, Everton played a friendly at home to Vino Del Mar’s (Chile) Everton a few years ago, but as far as I am aware Uruguay’s little Liverpool, who play in blue and black stripes have never been invited to Anfield, yet!!
Uruguay has more recently been operating with a three tier league set up. Sixteen in the top flight, then unusually 15 in the second tier (only 13 this season), with an Amateur third tier whose numbers can vary depending on who wishes to raise a team! Since the addition of the Amateur league less than 10 years ago, three clubs Villa Teresa, Villa Espanola and El Torque have risen from the third tier to grace the top flight. In El Torque’s case it was just last season, their first ever top table nibbling, albeit briefly, and they are now back in the second flight, but intriguingly they are now owned by the Middle Eastern group who run Manchester City. Villa Espanola had reached the Primera, the First Division a few years ago but then went bust half way through that season, and their results were to expunged, something that also happened El Tanque Sisley last season! After a few years in the wilderness Villa Espanola reformed and had back to back promotions from the amateur tier to reach the top flight, a rise too quick perhaps and they went straight back down. El Tanque’s fall has been cushioned by new owners and despite going bust mid-season, they start 2019 in the second tier. Much of South America is now moving away from the Opening (Apertura) and Closing (Clausura) set up, preferring a more traditional European league set up. Uruguay is sticking by the tried and trusted formula, but they had a mini “transitional” Torneo Especial a couple of years ago so that the entire season will be played out in one calendar year, with the Apertura league winners playing the Clausura winners, and then a final versus the Tabla Anual winner (overall accumulation table). Starting in February each year they play each other home and away over the two mini championships with a break in July. Calculations over a two year averages works out who goes down, with games played divided by number points achieved. It might sound complicated, but every point is a prisoner to the lower placed teams, and end of season meaningless games don’t exist!
I am long an advocate of the two “half” season idea, with an opening and closing campaign might just work in some leagues in Europe where one or two teams dominate within a smallish league, Scotland being a prime example. Three years ago, for the second time in a decade, a small rural team won one half of the Championship, that honour went to Plaza Colonia, with the previous “surprise” winners, Rocha another small team well outside Montevideo were the other. Plaza are back in the top flight again this term, but Rocha have dropped into the amateur third tier, a real fall from grace from when I saw them making their Copa Libertadores bow at Estadio Amalfitani, Liniers versus Argentine giants Velez Sarsfield, going down 3-0. Clubs like these can put together a run of results over a short 15 game half season to potentially win a title, over the longer campaign, the bigger clubs Nacional and Penarol are more likely to win it, but that’s not always guaranteed in Uruguay as they have fierce competition.
During the football season, February to June, then August to early December you will always find football in the capital. Based on the current league set up, 13 of the 16 are Montevideo clubs in the top flight! In the second tier 10 of the 13 are from the capital, with the amateur league always playing their games as double headers in Montevideo, even if the teams are from “out of town”! In the professional ranks, that is 23 teams in a city of 1.3m!! They might have small support some of them, but they all have fabulous tradition, and passionate fans. One or two have tried to drift as far away as 100 kilometres outside the city to see if they can get a bigger fan base but that experiment has failed, as the majority of players come from Montevideo. Boston River and Sud America tried sharing the Laguarda stadium in San Jose, 100km away in the general direction of Colonia. Boston never seem to have had a “home” of their own in the modern era in the capital, and now share with Rentistas on the edge of Montevideo, while Sud America (IASA) had left their own Parque Fossa in Montevideo, but it has now been upgraded and they are back home for the 2019 second tier campaign. Boston River were recently promoted for the first ever time to La Primera, and they have established themselves very well, and a 2-2 draw at Nacional in the early rounds of this Apertura would suggest they’ll be around for a while yet. Last season they even had a first involvement in International competition in the South American equivalent of the Europa League, the Copa Sudamericana. Occasionally one or two others have tried similarly to base themselves away from Montevideo, but invariably they end up back in the capital. I can think of twenty one city stadia in active use.
There is always much debate as to what is the closest derby match in the world. Racing v Independiente is certainly close, Dundee v Dundee United might even be closer, but you cannot get any closer than two clubs, whose grounds share an adjoining wall that runs the length of their respective pitches! Miramar Misiones play at Mendez Piana, while rivals Central Espanol are across the wall at Parque Palermo! I have been at this derby twice, once in each stadium, and remarkably, the away team doesn’t bother to use their hosts changing facilities, they just come through a gate that links the two stadiums!! So there you have it, end of debate, you cannot get any closer than that!! Remarkably, Mendez Piana is right across the road from the Centenario, and it may also be the second closest! That said, now Penarol have finally got their own new home stadium, El Siglo, the National stadium is less utilised, but some of these “wee” clubs still rent it to get a bigger crowd when they are due to host either of the big two! Writing about the closest derby for the Inverness Caledonian Thistle programme when Gretna came north many years ago in 2008, it was arranged as such because within Gretna’s ranks that day was a player who had been playing for Miramar when I saw the first of these derbies in 2007, Fabian Yantorno. He subsequently played most notably for Hartlepool and Hibernian as well as various clubs in Uruguay, and still plays for Sud America. That article started a friendship that has spanned 11 years now.
A wonderful anecdote from one of my first games in Uruguay, a 10,15 am kick off (the second tier still do the early starts for TV on a Saturday!) at Parque Palladino in the La Teja district of Montevideo, home of Progreso (another small team with a title to its name!), but on this occasion it was being rented by the magnificently named, and aforementioned El Tanque Sisley who were hosting Racing, who were undoubtedly on the way back to the top flight at the time. When I entered the stadium both teams and the referees were out warming up as usual, but they seemed oblivious to what I had noticed? They all disappeared, and came out as a unit for the start of the game, and then the penny finally dropped, the pitch had no lines!! The overnight rain had washed them all away. Hilariously an elderly chap appeared with his wee paint wheeled bucket, but it was obvious for TV schedules this was going to take too long! They merely painted the important bits, and kicked off 25 minutes late!! Perhaps with Racing in steamroller mood and winning 6-0, no disputes erupted over a lack of lines! Racing who are from the Sayago area of the capital had a great return to La Primera and qualified for the Libertadores for the first time ever. They even got through the qualifying round to reach the group stages, and I was thrilled to be at their first ever Libertadores Group match at home to Cerro Porteno from Paraquay, which they won 2-0. Racing finished second in the group and in any given year such a position would have seen them progress to the last 16. However, Mexican teams had been ejected the year before due to the Swine Flu outbreak, and the two teams from Mexico were promised a place in the last 16 the following year! The two lowest point accumulations from the second placed teams meant failure to progress, and Racing were one of those, very unlucky. Thus far, they have never made it back to South America’s top International tournament. Cheering for Racing came naturally given my love of the “bigger” Racing club across the Rio, they are nicknamed La Academia, the academy, whereas Racing Montevideo are La Escuela, the school!
Getting tickets for any game will be largely straight forward. If Nacional are doing well, their compact and historical Parque Central can get close to selling out. The capacity has been increasing year on year as they add a second tier, as they are a very well supported club, probably with the biggest support in the country. Penarol’s new Siglo stadium has a bigger capacity, meaning an easier chance of a ticket. When the two meet, the games get moved to the Centenario to allow an even bigger crowd. The two most successful clubs under the big duo are Defensor Sporting, whose Franzini stadium is right across from the first beach you come too as you walk along the Rambla from the port in the Ramirez district. Danubio’s Jardines stadium is a good trek from the centre, and while buses go close by, taxi’s are very cheap too! There is an enormous park in the city called Prado, and within that park you will find three stadiums! River Plate’s Saroldi stadium is separated from Wanderers Viera merely by stables! and just a little further along you will find Parque Nasazzi, named after one of the heroes of the 1930 team! This was home to Bellavista, (another former winner) who had fallen on hard times and temporarily disappeared as a club, but winning the third tier final versus Colon last December sees them back in the professional ranks in La Segunda for 2019. Villa Teresa and Albion ground share with Bellavista! Cerro (translated is hill), a hilly area with an old fortified lighthouse on the top of the Cerro, is technically another town, but is so close to Montevideo it really is just a suburb. The derby here is Cerro v Rampla Juniors, the “villa” derby as its known, villa being slum in this context! Cerro’s Troccolli stadium is a large bowl that has fallen into disrepair, while Rampla’s two sided Olimpico is right down on the water’s edge affording wonderful views across the bay to Montevideo. Halfway round that bay on the main road to Cerro you will see Parque Capurro, home to Fenix. Liverpool’s Belvedere; Progreso’s Parque Paladino; Parque Roberto, Racing’s home, and Obdulio Varela, home to Villa Espanola are not too far from the Prado park either. Villa Espanola’s derby is with Cerrito (little hill), who play at the wonderfully named Maracana!! Another Cerro exists, Cerro Largo (Big hill) but they are from Melo away up in the North East of the country. But where else can you have Hill, Little Hill and big Hill as teams!! With some early kick offs at 10.15 and various afternoon, evenings times, it is possible to see three matches in a day, and given the close proximity, even two games in 4 hours as I once did!
My 37 games in Uruguay includes 35 in the capital in sixteen different canchas as they call stadiums. The two anomalies were a Copa Libertadores tie between Fenix from the capital and Venezuelan side UA Maracaibo which they moved to Parque Burgueno in Maldonado, home to second tier Deportivo, which is along the southern coast near the big beach resort for Argentine visitors, Punta Del Este. This particular match brought some national soul searching with a first ever home loss to a Venezuelan side 1,2. The other game was in San Jose to see IASA or Sud America as they are also known, hosting fellow Montevideo side Los Bichos of Rentistas. The draw here for me was to watch my friend Fabian play, and having never seen him play and win, leading 2-0 at half time it was looking good, but a dramatic late comeback saw Rentistas win 3-2. Ironically, a few years earlier, before Fabian was with them, I saw the exact same fixture in IASA’s true home Parque Fossa, and they won that day 2-1! Outside Scotland I have only seen more games in Ancona (19) than the fifteen at the home of football in the Centenario. On the 5th March 2002, my first ever day in Montevideo I was in the stadium watching an absolutely brilliant 2-2 between Nacional and Argentine side Velez Sarsfield. The very next night I was back for another cross Rio de la Plata joust in the Libertadores with Penarol edging San Lorenzo 1-0. The very next year Penarol drew 2-2 with Gremio, and the following week my most proud game in the Centenario, being amongst the away Racing fans with my great friend Juan Manuel watching them beat Nacional 2,1 in the first game they’d played there since becoming World Club Champions in 1967! Sandwiched between these matches was another Fenix International match, this time in the capital at Defensor’s Franzini were they lost, but ran Brazilian giants Corinthians close, 1-2.
The recollection of games in Montevideo could go on for a while, but I will curtail with just a short paragraph of a few other gems! Another of my great friends in Buenos Aires, Osvaldo came across to Uruguay with his sister as their beloved Banfield were playing Nacional, a game moved to the Centenario, and another big crowd enjoyed a real cracking 2-2 draw, This particular fixture was the first time I had ever seen the return match until Inverness played in Europe! I was a relatively well behaved Bolso fan (Nacional) with a big grin amidst the Taladro (Banfield) as the visitors ran out 2,0 winners. Games in the Centenario have always been prized, but so have games at the Parque Central, another venue dating back to 1930. Nacional have done a wonderful job of redeveloping the ground, and it gradually is becoming an intimidating, claustrophobic stadium as the tiers rise tightly close to the field. It has developed incredibly since my first game their in 2007 a 1-1 draw with Bellavista, through a 4-0 thumping of Defensor in 2008, a 3-2 narrow win against local Racing the year after, Richard Morales et all, and a 0-1 reverse against Argentinos Juniors in the Libertadores. In 2015, the last time I was in Montevideo they weren’t at home, partly due to one of my footballing weekends being lost to a strike, but I watch games online often, and it looks an even more developed venue now, and I look forward to seeing a game in the Parque Central next year when I will be back!
The wonderful world Uruguayan club football, with its many quaint parks, ropey grass pitches, curiously named clubs, passionate fans, and exciting games. It’s my staple watch on any given weekend even online for me!