The race to succeed Argentina as Olympic football champions hots up tomorrow with the heavyweight clash between neighbours and arch-rivals, Uruguay, and hosts Great Britain in Cardiff. The charrúas will need a victory to put them a big step along the way to gold in London, having won their opening match 2-1 against the UAE in Manchester but then losing 2-0 to Senegal. Uruguay’s dream it to extend their enviable Olympic football record, which stands at two Games appearances, two gold medals!
While the hopes of British football fans will be pinned on Stuart Pearce’s men in the Olympic football tournament, they will face a stiff task from the very first round as they come up against one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Pride of Paris
Uruguay became the first South American country to play outside of their own continent, let alone compete in the Olympic football tournament, when they crossed the Atlantic for the 1924 Games in Paris, making them an exotic attraction for European crowds. They qualified for the tournament by virtue of winning the 1923 South American Championship, much to the chagrin of Argentina.
Just to get to Paris the team had to beg, steal and borrow to secure their passage in third-class steerage across the Atlantic to Spain, with the prominent Uruguayan Atilio Narancio even mortgaging his house to help pay for the fare. Once there, they played a series of exhibition matches to secure board and lodgings and pay for their rail fare to Paris in second class carriages. It was during the course of these games that Uruguay served notice of their prowess by winning all nine of the matches they played.
Despite Uruguay being tournament debutants, they were far from being babes-in-the-wood, showing they could just be as streetwise as any other team. Their opening opponents Yugoslavia sent spies to watch them train, but the wily Uruguayans had cottoned on, playing as if they were the Keystone Cops, prompting the spies to report back: ‘It makes you feel very sorry, these poor boys came from so far away …’
When the time came for their first match of the Olympics, Uruguay overcame the embarrassment of seeing their flag flown upside down and a Brazilian march played in place of their national anthem, to romp home 7-0 against the Yugoslavs in front of 2,000 fans.
As Uruguay progressed through the knockout rounds, beating the USA 3-1, and then demolishing hosts France 5-1 with four goals from Héctor Scarone, the team drew ever greater numbers of spectators. After taking on the Dutch in the semi-final and easily overcoming Switzerland 3-0 to take gold in the final, writer Henri de Montherlant, was moved to comment: ‘A revelation! Here we have real football. Compared with this, what we knew before, what we played, was no more than a schoolboy hobby.’
In contrast to the paltry crowd that witnessed Uruguay’s opening match, the final at the Stade Colombes was watched by a packed crowd of 60,000, with thousands more locked out.
The Uruguayan team, made up of meat-packers, grocers and ice-cream salesmen amongst others, watched with enormous pride as their national banner of the sun and sky-blue and white stripes fluttered higher and prouder than the other nations, putting their country firmly on the sporting map.
With the element of surprise, their dazzling passing play made them the darlings of the French crowds, and in ‘Perucho’ Petrone they had a potent forward who topped the tournament scoring chart with eight goals.
Unused to the sight of black footballers in Europe, the presence of José Leandro Andrade in Uruguay’s midfield added to their mystique. Agile and with the capacity to deceive opponents with a swerve of his body, the French press dubbed him the ‘Black Marvel’. After the tournament he stayed in France instead of returning home with his team-mates, becoming a celebrity amongst Parisian High Society, always dressing the part in top hat and tails, and carrying a silver-handled cane – a far cry from his humble origins as a shoe-shine boy in Montevideo, where he would eventually return and die from tuberculosis in poverty and obscurity.
Four years later Uruguay returned to Europe to defend their Olympic title in Amsterdam. This time they were joined by their great rioplatense rivals, Argentina, who qualified by beating Uruguay to the 1927 South American Championship.
Far from being the exotic novelty that they had been in Paris, Uruguay were now the favourites of the 18-team line-up in Holland, even allowing for the more competitive field with the Dutch playing at home, and the presence of an improved Italy and Germany.
Before the final, the superstitious Uruguayan player Adhemar Canavessi made the supreme sacrifice by removing himself from the team on the basis that every time that he had played against Argentina for his country they had lost, and despite having played his part in getting Uruguay to the gold medal showdown, he got off the bus taking the team to the arena.
The opening game in front of a capacity 40,000 in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium – the hottest tickets of the Games fetched more than ten times their face value on the black market – was against the hosts, and Uruguay were made to fight all the way to a 2-1 victory. Germany were no easier in the second round, winning a feisty encounter 4-1 in which two Germans and Uruguay’s skipper José Nasazzi were sent off.
In the semi-final, Uruguay won a thrilling match against Italy 3-2, with the darling of the Parisian crowds, Andrade showing his class in one last cameo performance, to set up a final against their old foes from across the River Plate.
Excitement at home was at fever pitch as people crowded the plazas of Montevideo to listen to information from the game, read out from telegraphs received at the news desks of newspapers from the Dutch capital detailing the minute-by-minute action. Interest was not confined to the River Plate alone: 250,000 ticket requests were made for the 40,000 available for the final from Europe alone.
The final was a cagey affair in which neither side attempted to seize the initiative, the game ending in a 1-1 draw. The replay was a different matter entirely as both sides went for the win and eliminate the possibility of the gold medal being determined by the drawing of lots. Uruguay freshened up their tired attack replacing Petrone, Urdinaran and Castro with Arremón, Borjas and Figueroa, and the revitalised team triumphed 2-1, the second-half winner coming from Héctor Scarone.
When Uruguay were awarded the hosting rights for the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, they erected a purpose-built stadium, the Estadio Centenario (to celebrate 100 years of Uruguayan independence from Spain) and named two of the stands, the Tribuna Paris and Tribuna Amsterdam as a permanent memorial of their Olympic exploits.
So for a population of just three million to punch above its weight on the world stage, what is the secret to Uruguay’s success?
They would put it down to la garra charrúa, the fighting spirit of Uruguay’s indigenous inhabitants the charrúas.It was most famously used to win the 1950 World Cup against massive favourites and hosts Brazil, and recently has seen Uruguay cement themselves in the top four of the world rankings – above their much bigger neighbours Argentina and Brazil.
After Juan Verzeri got them through the South American qualification competition, Uruguay’s wily 65-year-old coach Oscar Tabárez, who led the seniors to the 2010 World Cup semi-final and to glory in the 2011 Copa América, has taken charge for the finals themselves.
He has a wealth of young talent at his disposal including Liverpool defender Sebastián Coates, Ajax midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro and Bologna’s Gastón Ramírez, scorer of a delightful free-kick against the Emirates.
Meanwhile, there was no shortage of senior players vying for one of the three over-age places in the squad, with both Diego Lugano and Uruguay’s most-capped player, Diego Forlán declaring their wish to be part of the team seeking to make history. In the event, both missed out as Tabárez went for Fernando Muslera – penalty saving hero against Argentina at the 2011 Copa América, and forwards Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
Tabarez counsels caution, saying: “It’s easy for people to come out and say we should be going to going to the Olympics to win. They’re risking nothing by saying that. We know very well what we should be aiming for and the factors we have in our favour to achieve that.” But with this kind of pedigree, who would seriously bet against Uruguay making it a unique hat-trick of Olympic triumphs in London?