African professionals? Uruguay’s Black stars of the 1916 Copa America

Uruguay entered the 1916 South American championships in Buenos Aires seeking not only redemption, but reaffirmation. Of course, they there to avenge the humiliating 4-1 defeat suffered against Argentina at the Revolución de Mayo tournament six years earlier. More important though, as with previous international contests, the tournament was an opportunity for Uruguay to measure both their progress as a nation and confirm their exceptional place in America. Such progress was clear in Uruguay’s inclusion of two Black players in their squad, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín.

Gradín’s appearance at the tournament capped off a meteoric rise for the 18 year old. As a youngster playing in Barrio Sur, Gradín’s raw talent caught the eye of Peñarol scouts who soon made a move for the 13 year old. Promoted to the senior team at 17, Gradín instantly made an impact. His devastating pace and trickery combined with Peñarol legend Jose ‘el Maestro’ Piendibene to forge a devastating partnership. In his debut year, Gradín earned his first Uruguay call-up.

The importance of international contests to Uruguayan football was reflected in the team’s preparation for the tournament. Weeks earlier, twenty two of the league’s top players were called up. Divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, a series of practice matches would ultimately decide the Uruguayan starting XI. While retaining a core of experienced players, the clear standout of the first team was Gradín, who dominated the first two practice matches. While respect was granted towards the veterans, young Gradín was the great hope.

Following a 3-1 loss to the B side, however, uncertainty surrounded Uruguay’s chances. The weak link of the side was Alfredo Zibechi of Montevideo Wanderers, who occupied the position of centre-half. Revolutionised by Scot John Harley, whose short passing and control of tempo complimented and strengthened the Uruguayan dribbling game, the position was arguably the most important in the national team.While he retained the confidence of the selection committee, Zibechi’s performances failed to convince both the public and the press. ‘Above all else, Zibechi is not mature enough to carry out such an important role’ wrote El Día, laying the blame on the centre-half for the failure of the A side.

The solution was found in the opposition. Juan Delgado was already a household name in Uruguayan football, having played for several clubs in Montevideo in addition to a brief stint at Boca Juniors in the first half of 1916. Upon his return from Argentina, Delgado rejected overtures from Peñarol, opting instead to play for Central Football Club of Palermo, a barrio with a significant Afro-Uruguayan presence. Capped at national level in 1913, and among the most experienced in the team, it was a wonder why Delgado had not been first choice.

Playing centre-half for Uruguay B, Delgado’s superiority over Zibechi was clear. While Zibechi couldn’t intercept a single pass, forcing his teammates to leave their positions to support him, Delgado was the opposite. Delgado held his own, leaving star forwards Gradín and Bracchi impotent while saving his side from other dangerous moments. At 21, Zibechi was vastly inferior, lacking the confidence and experience of Delgado. Those present at the ground were unanimous, applauding Delgado’s performance and calling on the selectors to include the Central player in Uruguay’s first team.

The press agreed with the popular call, with the inclusion of Delgado a no brainer. For El Día, the Central midfielder was at ‘the peak of his career, and it can be affirmed that none of our players can rival him’. Not only was Delgado unshakable in his defensive responsibilities, he was a threat in attack through his precise passing and organisation of his teammates. The Central player was a natural fit for the role of centre-half. After initial hesitance, the committee gave in to popular pressure and Delgado was given a starting place in the team. With the additions of the explosive Gradín and the ‘popularly consecrated’ Delgado, expectations in Montevideo were high.

Uruguay faced Chile in the tournament opener. From the very first kick off, Delgado repaid those who had called for his inclusion with a timely interception of Chile’s very first play. The centre-half imposed himself on the rest of the game, with Chilean attacks repeatedly broken up by what the Uruguayan press called a ‘formidable adversary, watching their every move’. Delgado was just as effective with the ball at his feet, starting multiple plays that elicited admiration and applause from the crowd.  The first half finished 1-0 with a goal to Piendibene.

The second half was all Uruguay, with Gradín the star as they relentlessly attacked their Chilean rivals. Eleven minutes in, the Peñarol forward controlled a Somma cross with ease, putting Uruguay 2-0 ahead with a strong finish. Soon after, Gradín once again received a cross from Somma, coolly heading the ball into the net for Uruguay’s third. Piendibene rounded off a dominant Uruguay performance in typical fashion, dribbling a series of opponents before beating the Chilean keeper with a fierce drive. The game finished 4-0 with Delgado pulling the strings and Gradín starring in attack.

The next day, controversy. The Chilean media, lamenting the loss to Uruguay, had ‘discovered’ the cause for such a loss. Indeed, the adverse result was explained by the composition of the Uruguayan team, which had included two ‘African professionals’. Startled by the claims, the president of the Asociación Atlética y de Football de Chile sent a telegram to his country’s delegation in Buenos Aires, demanding a formal complaint if such allegations were true. In response to the furore, the Uruguayan press lashed out, rejecting the Chilean complaints as absurd. Referring to the Chilean officials call for calm, El Día responded mockingly, suggesting ‘perhaps they fear that our ‘African’ players are cannibals, too!’

The reaction from Chile caused indignation among Uruguay’s officials, who demanded an official explanation. The head of the Chilean delegation, deputy Hector Arancibia Laso, immediately backtracked and apologised to the Uruguayans. Accompanying the apology was a letter of congratulations, the Chileans stating their extreme pleasure with the ‘gentlemanly attitude of the Uruguayans, who played the game fairly, winning because of their evident superiority.’ Overwhelmed by the result, but also clearly eager to smooth relations, the Chileans invited Uruguay to a practice game the following day to learn the superior ‘scientific football’ they had recently fallen victim to. The Uruguayans accepted, reciprocating with an invitation of their own to play a friendly game in Montevideo.

Two days after their official encounter, Chile and Uruguay played a practice game, one half of 45 minutes and a second of 30. The game was indeed a friendly, with three Uruguayans, including their captain, playing for the Chilean team. Despite fears that Uruguay’s star forwards would be targeted, the practice was deemed a success. It finished 3-2 to the Uruguayans, with Gradín scoring once again. While their compatriots back home remained in a panic over the scandalous presence of ‘African professionals’, the Chilean players were eager to meet and learn from the superior Afro-Uruguayans.

Gradín and Delgado continued to dominate the Campeonato. Two days after the Chile practice, Uruguay went out and defeated a tough Brazilian side 2-1 after trailing at half time. Gradín was again the standout, scoring the equaliser in the second half. Interestingly, another Afro-descendant was playing, with one Arthur Friedenreich scoring the opening goal for Brazil. Uruguay would now play Argentina in the tournament decider, needing only a draw to be crowned champions.

In what seems outrageous today, the Uruguayans travelled back to Montevideo the day after the Brazil match for a friendly against Chile in the middle of the tournament. Despite the first team being rested for the game, the entire Uruguayan squad made the trip back together. Present at el Parque Central were Delgado and Gradín, whose attendance drew most of the attention. Gradín, the undisputed star of the tournament, received an emotional ovation from the public, with a group of excited fans lifting him onto their shoulders, carrying him around the stadium.
The Uruguayans returned to Buenos Aires for the decider against the hosts, only to have the match abandoned due to crowd violence. The replay the next day finished goalless, and Uruguay were crowned champions. Uruguay’s Black players again received the plaudits, with Gradín in particular ‘a colossus in every sense of the word’ according to El Dia, undoubtedly ‘the best element of the forward quintet’ with his great runs and powerful shots on goal.

Uruguayans are proud that they were among the first to include black players in their football teams. Their inclusion was a reflection of Uruguay’s policies of social justice pushed through under the influence of Jose Batlle y Ordoñez. Batlle strongly believed that the ‘masses’ deserved to be included in the national story, and football played a fundamental role. The inclusion of Delgado and Gradín was yet another celebration of the progressive, democratic nature of Uruguay, a country exceptional in both its football and its laws.

Afro-Uruguayan achievements in football, however, didn’t reflect their own place in society. By promoting the inclusion of the ‘masses’ through football, the state merely obscured the issue of race. The fact that Gradín was nicknamed ‘the black man with the white soul’ shows the extent to which Afro-Uruguayans were absorbed into the national story of a homogeneous, white Uruguay. Stripped of their blackness, Afro-Uruguayans could forget the everyday cultural racism that had continuously left them on the margins of society. Despite starring above all on the football pitch, Afro-Uruguayan footballers maintained the roles of servants and entertainers, rather than citizens.

Although they were confined to the accepted space of the sports field, Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín challenged racial ideas that had kept them in their place. The two resisted the confining nature of the pitch to show their true qualities. Delgado exemplified the intelligence, leadership and maturity needed for the important role of centre-half. Soon after the tournament he moved to Peñarol, taking over from John Harley and making the position his own. He joined star teammate Gradín whose skill, explosiveness and efficiency won championships, gold medals and the imagination of football lovers. Uruguay’s Black stars were not only entertainers, but hard workers, showing that provided the opportunity, Afro-Uruguayans could reach just as high on their own merit as anyone else.


Football and Revolution 

In 1964, Mario Benedetti described football as anesthesia. It was a social drug, co-opted and exploited by governments who encouraged the people to forget their problems. If only for ninety minutes, football was an escape from social and economic uncertainties that would otherwise control one’s life. Five years later, Benedetti’s words still held true.

May 15, 1969. Nacional of Montevideo hosted Estudiantes de la Plata in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final. It was Nacional’s second final in three years, having lost in 1967 to Racing Club of Argentina. It was another chance to win their first international title. Their rivals, Peñarol, had already won three. However, more than a chance to close the gap on their rivals, for fans the game was another welcome distraction.

Uruguay had been changing for years. A deteriorating economy led to a decline in the country’s once envied standard of living. For the first time, thousands of Uruguayans were leaving for better opportunities. Worker strikes and student protests became the norm of everyday life in Montevideo. In response to public grievances, the government moved from indifference to repression.

With social tensions reaching critical levels, President Jorge Pacheco declared a state of emergency in June 1968. The student and union movements were harassed, the press censored. Uruguay, once the freest and one of the most prosperous countries on the continent, was now in its deepest social crisis. In this setting rose Latin America’s most sophisticated insurgency, the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros (MLN-T).

Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, the Tupamaros sought to liberate Uruguay from what it saw as a bitterly corrupt political order that, partnered with local and foreign capitalists, had continued to enrich itself while the rest of the country lived in economic misery. Adapting Che Guevara’s foco theory to Montevideo’s urban setting, the Tupamaros believed that through revolutionary acts they could inspire a popular insurrection against the government.

At the beginning, the Tupamaros avoided violent confrontation with the authorities, rejecting the use of terrorism. Instead, a unique tactic of armed propaganda was created to both embarrass the government and transmit the group’s political message to the Uruguayan people. In February 1969 they raided the Monty Financial Company, exposing fraudulent activities which led to the arrest of prominent individuals, including government officials. Four days later, they looted Uruguay’s most important casino, confirming their ‘Robin Hood’ image by publicly offering to return lost wages to the casino’s workers.

While they shook the relatively conservative, sleepy Uruguayan people, the Tupamaros captured the imagination of the disenchanted. That most acts were carried out without firing a single weapon added to the mystique of the young group. Whether these spectacular acts were right or wrong, it didn’t matter. The Tupamaros had the attention of the entire public, and the authorities.

In order to get around the increasingly state-controlled press, the Tupamaros once again looked to the experience of Cuba. In his book Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara stated that propaganda spread most effectively to the masses through the radio. A captive radio audience seemed a perfect fit for the group, and they soon began to plan the next major operation to spread their message.

The Tupamaros originally planned to take over Radio Rural, a station seen as the voice of the company unions in Uruguay. Scheduled for the night before May 1st, the guerrillas would pledge their support to the workers, urging them to join the armed struggle. However, the operation was aborted due to vehicle problems. The next target was to be Radio Sarandí, whose main voice was the legendary Carlos Solé.

He was the Gardel of Uruguayan football broadcasting. To remember Carlos Solé is to remember the glory years of Uruguayan football. The entire nation hung on his words during Uruguay’s triumph in 1950, and took on his desperation against Hungary four years later. Possessing a style that would be imitated ever since, Solé was a comfort for those longing for more prosperous and stable times.

For the Tupamaros, Radio Sarandí was an obvious choice. By far the most listened to broadcaster in Uruguay, Solé had a dedicated audience not only in the capital, but also the interior of the country. The date was set for May 15 during the Copa Libertadores Final held in Montevideo. In a football-crazed country, the Tupamaros were about to reach their largest possible audience.

60,000 people were at the Estadio Centenario. Those in the stands had radios to their ears, desperate for the voice of Solé to bring warmth and excitement to the spectacle. Those who weren’t at the stadium were at home, also listening to Sarandí. Even Peñarol fans, eager for their rivals to fail once again, were tuned in to the broadcast.

The whistle sounded, and the tenth Copa Libertadores final was underway. In the middle of the first half, on the other side of Montevideo the Tupamaros had arrived at their target.

They made their way to the Radio Sarandí transmitter. There were twelve Tupamaros, among them a radio technician. The caretaker of the premises and his family were quickly subdued, the guerrillas not requiring their weapons. Known for their meticulous planning, they had come well-prepared, even bringing a toy to calm the caretaker’s small child.

After a tense few minutes, the technician finally had the tape rolling. It was towards the end of the first, half then a low, grave voice replaced that of Solé.

The message you are about to hear is from the National Liberation Movement (Tupamaros)

“Uruguayans, today a worthless government restricts and deprives you. Do not lose hope”.

The spectators in the stadium and those at home couldn’t believe it. Once again, the Tupamaros appeared out of nowhere into the ears and homes of many, and more shockingly, they had penetrated the almost sacred refuge of Uruguayan society- its football.

Shock and confusion filled the Sarandí commentary box. “What just happened?” cried one of Sole’s assistants. “They cut the transmission” .. “It’s the Tupamaros! The National Liberation Movement!”

The recording lasted just over five minutes. The Tupamaros denounced the repressive measures of the government, they attacked the corrupt politicians and speculators, and of course condemned the intervention of the US embassy and the IMF. To the horror of Solé, his team, and the Montevideo police, the recording continued.

A third loop began when the police, heavily armed and in huge numbers, arrived at the transmitter. The Tupamaros had already disappeared, but a note was left behind. The transmitter was laid with explosives. The police, powerless and without ideas, simply stood around as the minutes went by.

Back at the Centenario, much of the crowd had forgotten about the football. The guerrillas still had a primetime, nationwide platform, and the Radio Sarandí commentary box was still hysterical. The recording continued, urgently calling on the Uruguayan people to support and join the struggle.

Solé was enraged. “If I ever get a hold of one of them, I’ll-..”

Back at the transmitter, the police were out of patience. Under orders to immediately stop the subversive broadcast, the police chief ordered the electricity of the neighbourhood to be cut off. It was an action fitting the desperate nature of the police, but the only way to get rid of the Tupamaros.

The police eventually forced their way into the transmitter. When they did, they were met with a few harmless fireworks. Once again the Tupamaros had toyed with the authorities, and once again they demonstrated their ability to reach anywhere and vanish just as quickly.

In total the message played six times, Solé’s broadcast interrupted for over forty minutes. Weeks later, Solé was sent a message. It was from the Tupamaros, apologising for the interruption to his broadcast.

It wasn’t last contact between Carlos Solé and the Tupamaros. His son, also named Carlos, later joined the group and was arrested, detained and allegedly tortured by the authorities. The Tupamaros were everywhere, and every Uruguayan was touched one way or another by the movement.

In the disbelief and panic caused by the radio takeover, few would have noticed that there was still a football match being played. Estudiantes were victorious 1-0, and a week later won 2-0 at home to be crowned South American champions for the second consecutive year. A few months later they went on to assault AC Milan in the Intercontinental Cup, a truly spectacular end to a series of absurdly violent fixtures towards the end of the 1960s.

The Tupamaros followed a similar trajectory to those Intercontinental Cup battles. From the early 1970s their more popular, daring acts of armed propaganda gave way to assassinations and outright terrorism. The new era of violence descended into a declaration of internal war by the authorities, and the guerrillas were effectively destroyed as an organization by 1973.

The Tupamaros agreed with Benedetti. While life became increasingly uncertain, football was the one place that was secure and untouched. It was the remaining comfort for the Uruguayan people, a façade of stability and happiness. But for this small, young band of guerrillas, the crisis engulfing Uruguayan society was simply too serious to escape.


** this piece was originally featured on The Antique Football

The 1909 Tottenham-Everton tour of the River Plate


Uruguayans always looked to the British. Since those early days in the open spaces of Punta Carretas, the Uruguayan’s relationship with the game of the ‘crazy English’ evolved from curiosity, to admiration, to imitation. Given the opportunity, the Uruguayan took the game and made it their own. They say from there developed that famous, home-grown Creole style, a result of the closed, uneven spaces locals were forced to play in. The style was an expression of pure artistry and spontaneity. Football was a joyful escape for ordinary workers, young men relishing the little time away from increasingly oppressive working conditions in an ever-expanding Montevideo.

The Uruguayan style, however, remained as confused as those who witnessed that strange game for the first time. Despite the raw, improvised dribbling game, the Uruguayan continued to imitate the physical, long ball style of the English. The football represented pure freedom, an unrestrained and raw escape, but it remained unorganised. When the game turned competitive, Uruguayan deficiencies became more evident. What followed was a determined, unorganized and at times violent play. The Uruguayan became obsessed with victory, a legacy of the game’s origins in Montevideo. The lowly Creole had to prove himself against British and local elites, the worker had to defend himself against his employer.

The announcement of a Tottenham and Everton tour of the River Plate swept an air of collective glee through the region. Uruguayan teams revelled in international contests, always keen to test themselves against their Argentine neighbours. The visit of a British team, however, was different. For Uruguayans, such tours presented a chance to compare themselves against that distant Other who brought the game to their shores.

Southampton was the first professional team to visit the River Plate, embarking on a two week tour in 1904. Following a series of dominant performances over clubs and select XIs in Buenos Aires, the team arrived in Montevideo to much local excitement. Despite being in the midst of a civil war, Uruguayans young and old filled the Parque Central to witness a professional team for the first time. More than an escape from the news of young lives lost, the Uruguayans could finally measure themselves against the creators.

Southampton trounced the Uruguayans 8-1. Their slick, short-passing game provoked bewilderment on and off the pitch. It was a cruel blow to Uruguayan sensibilities. They felt they had progressed enough to stand toe to toe with their English teachers. However, the complete domination couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the Uruguayans, so eager to test themselves against the ‘crazy English’.

It was late in the second half, Southampton had already scored seven. The mood of the crowd had well and truly dampened, but a spark was to come. That spark was provided by local Juan Pena, who dribbled through a number of opponents before firing a shot at goal. The effort was held safely by George Clawley, but amazingly, a Uruguayan teammate pushed the Englishmen into his own goal, the ball still in his hands. The goal stood, and the stadium erupted. The joyous crowd invaded the pitch, hoisted Pena onto their shoulders and carried the little forward around the ground in celebration. Such was the excitement that it took fifteen minutes to clear the field and restart play. The professionals scored an eighth, but it couldn’t sour that one sweet moment. It was that classic Creole unpredictability, but it masked the true lessons of the day.

The following year Nottingham Forest paid the region a visit. The first stop was Montevideo, the opponent Peñarol. The professionals once again dominated, 6-1 the score. While giving rise to national pride and excitement, the first two British tours highlighted the lack of development in the Uruguayan game. While artistic and free, there was a distinct lack of discipline and team work in  Uruguay’s tactics.

Tottenham and Everton arrived in the region in June, 1909. Within days the two played a 2-2 draw in Palermo, Buenos Aires in front of a crowd of over ten thousand Argentines. Observing with a keen eye, Uruguayan journalists could not help but draw immediate comparisons between the visiting professionals and the home-grown Uruguayans. With a Tottenham visit to Montevideo looming, major newspaper El Dia prepared a detailed analysis of how the English played. The conclusions were damning.

‘The English professional plays more intelligently than the Uruguayan’, the report began. ‘They combine, use their heads well and know exactly where they are going to pass the ball’. The Uruguayan, however, ‘runs aimlessly, bombing the ball without any plan or thinking.’ The article further questioned the Uruguayan game. ‘In regards to our players’, explained the writer, ‘we already know our tactics. We abuse the practice of dribbling. There are no combinations. A player will complete a thousand pirouettes, then pause whenever he wants until he is ready to pass the ball, but he has already lost the opportunity and time.’ Little had changed since the last British visit.

The paper continued:

The play of the English forwards, on the other hand, is far different. Dribbling is extremely rare, with their five forwards supporting each other to produce a unique and triumphant feeling. They always combine, always moving with a precision and efficiency like five fingers to a hand, for to achieve what they propose they must work together. Every team is eleven players on the field, a true unity.

The English display was a victory of collective ideals over Creole individualism, a backlash against the Uruguayan way.

Anticipating the argument that such difference was a result of the individual superiority of the English footballer, El Dia was adamant- ‘What we want to emphasize is not that our game is inferior to that of the professionals, but that our tactics are diametrically opposed.’ The paper suggested that Uruguayan teams were capable of playing with the ‘same technique, applying similar norms and resources’ as the English. ‘Through this, and only this, will we progress in this sport’. It was not a question of beating the English, for ‘it is one thing to equal and another very different to learn to play with intelligence.’

The paper rejected the prevailing belief that true football involved long, aimless kicks. ‘With the English, you will not see long balls to the moon or to the sun, because the English respect the stars. The English leave the atmosphere for the aeroplanes. The English laugh at the applause, they laugh at the gambetas. They go for goal, because as they themselves say, “time is money” …or goals! …we’ll see if we tell the truth’.

The Uruguayans’ first match was against Tottenham on June 10. ‘More than the desire to win titles’, previewed El Dia, ‘the coming of the British presents us with the chance that our players can learn the art of playing and that the public, that great mass that many times has vibrated with enthusiasm for their team, can advance the merits of football in the fullness of its art and finery.’ In addition to a footballing lesson, the Uruguayans ‘need not lose their enthusiasm in their play, but the strength to know how to lose decently.’

The English decimated the Uruguayans 8-0.

El Dia’s verdict? ‘Once again, the English have shown they are the masters.’ Tottenham had played ‘like a machine’, with a passing precision and collective effort that completely overran the stunned local side. The Uruguayan game lacked the art of passing, the rhythm and combinations, the intelligent movement of both the players and the ball. ‘The one great lesson taken by the Uruguayan was not to pause with the ball, not to leave it still. With the head, with the body, with the feet, in every way these people dominate the ball and the play with perfection.’ It was a lesson not heeded in 1904 or 1905. The one positive, however, was the fight of the Uruguay outfit, whose defensive efforts prevented an even heavier defeat.

Next up, Everton. The build-up in the Uruguayan press was a repeat of the last match. For Uruguayan football opinion, the game provided locals with the luck and honour of witnessing a footballing lesson, combined with the sober acceptance that things could get ugly. Everton’s team was given plenty of attention in the lead-up, especially Bert Freeman who was profiled as the ‘most dangerous forward in the world’. Expectations were low. The game was to be enjoyed by Uruguayans, to learn from the masters and appreciate the art of good football. Hopefully the locals could put up a decent fight.

That they did. The game ended 2-1 to Everton, the Uruguayans describing the loss as a win. The crowd, delirious for what previously seemed an impossible result and performance, invaded the pitch, hugging the players. A match report described the game as ‘an epic moment, a brilliant materialization of the hopes of an anxious public.’ Despite the clear superiority of the professionals, the local press were satisfied with the Uruguayan effort. The locals fought, defended well, and played with honour. Despite later claims from an Everton man attributing the lacklustre English display to an enormous pre-game banquet, nothing could deny the joy felt by the Uruguayans.

uruguay team v everton
Uruguay combination
everton team v uru

Everton’s captain, Jack Taylor, was interviewed post-game by an Uruguayan press eager to learn how others viewed the local game. Taylor, who served as the game’s referee, observed a few things. First, the Uruguayan forward was more audacious, more dangerous than the Argentine. While playing fewer combinations than the Argentine, Uruguay’s midfielders possessed great skill and an infallible tenacity. Despite the questionable paraphrasing by the Uruguayan journalist, the conclusion was clear. All the ingredients for a great team were there, what lacked was organization and a clear plan.

Were the conclusions of the Uruguayan football writers a rejection of the creolisation of football? No, far from it. For the writers at El Dia were Batllistas. They supported the 8 hour work day, sent their children to public, secular schools and looked to create a model country based on its advanced laws and superior culture. The idealism of Uruguayan political thought reflected that of Uruguayan football opinion. It was, however, imperative not to disregard the British. Rather, just as the Uruguayans had looked to the United States for education reform and France for city-building, England was the model for physical culture. The Uruguayans were building towards something great, but the nationalisation of football couldn’t completely leave the British behind.

As the British exposed the problem, it was only them who could provide the solution.

Indeed, it was a Scot who changed the direction of Uruguayan football. John Harley,
recruited earlier that year by Peñarol, introduced not only a short passing, organized game to his club, but translated the refined style to the national team. Captain of club and country for the next few years, the Scottish centre-half codified an intelligent game of short passing, constant movement and combinations into the Uruguayan style. The unpredictable, improvised dribbling style of the Creole wasn’t abandoned. Nor was that classic tenacity and determination which is still present today. Rather, it was a fusion of intelligence and artistry, unpredictability and organization, a fluid transition from defence to attack. This change of tactical direction, helped by those British professionals and amateurs alike, ensured that Uruguay set itself apart from not only its neighbour, but the rest of the football world.



Uruguay 0-8 Tottenham, Parque Central, June 10, 1909

Uruguay: C. Saporiti; J. Bertone, Ronzoni; F. Lourted, Zanessi, Zuazu; Bastos, Dacal, Branda, A. Zumaran, Brachi.

Tottenham: Boreham; Coquet, Wilkes; Morris, Steel, Bull; Curtis, Minter, Macconen, Clark, Middlemiss.


Uruguay 1-2 Everton, Parque Central, June 13, 1909

Uruguay: C. Saporiti; J. Bertone, A. Falco; Ronzoni, Zanessi, F. Lourted; J. Brachi, A. Zumaran, N. Friedrich, P. Dacal, V. Modena.

Everton: C.H. Berry; R. Balmer, J. MaConnachie; V. Harris, R. Clifford, D. Rafferty; T. Jones, W. Lacey, B. Freeman, N. White, H. Mountford.

Goalscorers: Bert Freeman, Lacey (Everton) – Brachi (Uruguay)

Manyas: the origin of a Peñarol nickname

Carlos Scarone was born in barrio Peñarol, Montevideo, not long after his father arrived from Savona, Italy in 1887. The entire Scarone family, headed by Don Giuseppe, became immersed and enamoured in the local Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club, known simply as Peñarol. It was in the streets of that barrio where Carlos adopted a love for the ball, and skills that guaranteed his future.

An aggressive, technically brilliant centre forward, Scarone lasted only one season at River Plate before he was picked up by Peñarol in 1909. It was there he linked up with a young Jose Piendibene, with the two developing a formidable attacking partnership which led to a Uruguayan title in 1911.

Scarone’s quality didn’t go unnoticed. Tempted by an adventure abroad and a handsome wage, the youngster made the journey to Buenos Aires to sign for Boca Juniors. His time in Argentina was cut short, however, with a supposed illness resulting in a return to Montevideo the following year.

Don Giuseppe was delighted. His son had left too soon, falling victim to the allure of wealth and the appeal of the unknown. With his little adventure over, it was now time to return home to Peñarol.

Then one night, Carlos made an announcement.

“I’m going to play for Nacional”.

His father was speechless. How could his son do this? Not only a betrayal of his former club, a move to Nacional was an affront to his father, his family, and to the place of his birth.

Don Giuseppe demanded answers. Where was his loyalty? What did Buenos Aires do to him? For what possible reason could he go to the Other team? The debate raged, arguments descended to insults. Don Giuseppe lambasted his son, calling him a coward, a traitor.

Carlos wasn’t interested. He claimed that Peñarol didn’t show the attention he deserved upon his return from Buenos Aires. While his childhood club neglected him, their rivals saw an opening. Nacional’s directors swooped, showered him with attention and made an offer he would be crazy to refuse.

His father was adamant, “you must return to Peñarol”.

Then Scarone, as incensed as his father, replied in his family’s native tongue. “Go to Peñarol? ¿A qué? ¿A mangiare merda? To what? To eat shit?!”

Scarone’s motivations were clear. He was only interested in money, and would pursue it even if it meant breaking his father’s heart. Pleas from his family fell on deaf ears, and Scarone made the move to Nacional.

Despite existing only fifteen years, the Peñarol-Nacional rivalry had already consumed the lives of the football lovers of Montevideo. What was the main attraction of the season now had the added element of Scarone’s return, but to the Other team. Trams were filled to capacity, thousands marched to the Parque Central, and Scarone was about to face it all.

July 26, 1914.

Scarone was battling more than those on the pitch. Indeed, Don Giuseppe was there in the stands, like he had been for every Peñarol game. This time, he was there cheering against his son, abusing him in the most lamentable manner, for he was now just another Nacional player.

It was an intense, emotional encounter. Hounded by an aggressive Peñarol, and with his father in the stands, a determined yet desperate Scarone went out with everything. He kicked out at his former teammates including Piendibene, John Harley, and especially his direct opponent, Manuel Varela. Accompanying Scarone’s kicks were his constant provocations.

“Come on! You’re all a bunch of shit eaters!”… “Manyas!!”

Peñarol won 2-1. Scarone’s performance was off, to say the least.

Seemingly focused on getting one back at his old side, the football Scarone was known for gave way to theatrics. La Razón noted that instead of playing the ball, Scarone dedicated the entire match to diving and fighting his opponents. Perhaps it was nostalgia. Maybe arrogance? More likely a preoccupation with his father right there, cheering against him. Whatever it was, Scarone and Nacional endured an afternoon to forget.

While it was a terrible Clásico debut for Scarone, he soon bounced back and forged a long, successful career for club and country. In another blow to Don Giuseppe, Carlos was joined at Nacional by his younger brother. His name was Hector, and he became Uruguay’s star forward at the Olympic and World Cup triumphs, and the country’s all-time top scorer for over eighty years.

Carlos Scarone’s legacy is perhaps more enduring at Peñarol than his adopted team. He had turned his back on both his family and childhood club, and anything other than the best pay was the equivalent of eating shit. That Italian insult used by Scarone, Mangia Merda, was taken, creolized, and is now used proudly by Peñarol fans. Manya is as a statement of loyalty, as well as the expectation that the players put the institution, and the fans, ahead of their own desire for fame and fortune.

Chile 2015, Uruguay 1955

You could hardly believe it. Arturo Vidal, one of Chile’s main men, involved in a serious car accident involving his wife, his Ferrari, and within minutes, an entire nation. He had been drinking, and was travelling at an extremely high speed. For Vidal, his wife, and others to survive such an accident was unbelievable.

Even more unbelievable was that this was barely a week into the Copa América, held in his home country. It is Chile’s greatest chance of finally winning the tournament, an achievement that has eluded them for 99 years. The past week, Vidal had been the difference for Chile, scoring in their first two games. So how could this happen? An entire nation was relying on him. In a matter of hours, Vidal went from hero to hospital, police station to court.

Further defying belief was what occurred hours later. Coach Jorge Sampaoli announced that Vidal would not be sanctioned by Chilean football authorities. He had made a mistake, and he was forgiven. Vidal, tears in his eyes, pleaded forgiveness from the Chilean public, and promised them the Copa. A tournament win had never been closer, and Vidal was too important to let go.

The scandal reminded me of another time in Chile, albeit sixty years ago. It was during the Copa América of 1955, when players of the Uruguayan national team were similarly forgiven for their own indiscipline.

The Uruguay of 1955 and the Chile of 2015 share a similar, sorry story. Both national teams were arguably in the best moments of their respective footballing histories. For Uruguay, the 1954 World Cup team was perhaps their greatest ever, only a goal away from a third consecutive World Cup decider. However, after 21 games undefeated in Olympics and World Cups, they finally lost out to the amazing Hungarians in the Semi Final. It was the beginning of the end.

Sixty years later, Chile were in a similar position. The World Cup was held in Brazil, and Chile possessed a star team with an exciting, solidified footballing identity. However, an unlucky draw and an unforgiving crossbar ensured that Chile were eliminated by the hosts in the second round. A year later, they would have their best chance at long-awaited success.

Back to 1955, and the Copa América in Santiago. Despite being unable to count on Obdulio Varela, as well as foreign-based stars including Ghiggia, Schiaffino, and Hohberg, Uruguay still boasted a strong team and were among the favourites for the title. Featured in the squad were World Cup winners Roque Máspoli, Matías González, Víctor Rodríguez Andrade, Julio Pérez and Óscar Míguez, in addition to another five players from 1954.

As Chile has done in 2015, Uruguay opened the 1955 Copa with a victory. They won 3-1 against Paraguay, with goals to Borges, Abbadie, and Míguez. However, in the second game, Uruguay ran into problems with a 2-2 result against Chile. In 2015, the hosts suffered a similar setback, a 3-3 draw with Mexico.

Days later, just like 2015, the actions of a group of players set to threaten Uruguay’s Copa América campaign.

With permission from their coach, Rodríguez Andrade, Óscar Míguez, Roberto Leopardi, Waldemar González, Guillermo Escalada, Walter Morel, and Julio Pérez left the Uruguay camp for a night out in Santiago. They promised to return at 1am.

Coach Luis Corazzo, grandfather of Diego Forlán, waited for his players. They didn’t return until 5am. They say that Míguez had dragged his teammates to a tango show in Viña del Mar. Just like Vidal, this had happened before. Indeed, quite a few Uruguayans, most notably Míguez, had a history of poor behaviour while away with the national team. Punishment was expected to be handed down.

As with Vidal, however, there was no action taken against the Uruguayan players. The issue was dropped, attention diverted, and the focus was back on victory in the Copa. Winning is everything to Uruguay, and the authorities were not going to let a little misconduct, even it was that of seven players, get in the way of victory.

With the incident forgotten, Uruguay won their next game 5-1 against Ecuador. The decision to forgive the players for the greater good of Uruguayan success appeared to be justified. Uruguay were on their way to a ninth title.

It wasn’t to be.

The next game was against Argentina, and the Uruguayans were utterly devastated 6-1. It was the largest defeat they had ever suffered in the Copa América. Uruguay lost their final match against Peru, and Argentina went on to win their tenth South American title.

Uruguay’s fall from the top of world football was confirmed in that humiliating campaign of 1955. Uruguay’s successes had come and gone, and it showed in a tired, distracted, and ill-disciplined squad. Unable to come to terms with Uruguay’s falling prestige, the coaching staff and other authorities chose to forgive and forget. Winning the tournament was more important than the conduct of the players and respect for the national team. They were all made to paid for it.

What becomes of Chile in the 2015 edition is still unknown. Will the presence of Vidal galvanize the team, helping them to their first ever title? Or will the decision of Chile’s football authorities, whose failure to punish the player for a serious criminal offence, all for the desperate need to win something, ultimately result in another Chilean failure?

Either way, even if they do fail, Chile will have another opportunity to get that first win next year, in the Centenario edition of the Copa América.

If so, it would be yet another parallel to that Uruguay side of sixty years ago.

Indeed, the year after the 1955 debacle, Uruguay were once again crowned South American champions. The supposed ringleader of the previous year’s antics, Óscar Míguez, was the tournament’s best player, and Uruguay took their revenge against Argentina in the decider.

Roberto Chery

imagesThey called him ‘the Poet’. It wasn’t a tribute to his personality, nor was it a celebration of his lyrical, joyful expressions on the pitch. It couldn’t have been, he was one of those lowly goalkeepers. The nickname owed to his love of poetry, and the many verses he wrote. A number of his poems opened with ‘Oh Peñarol, yo te saludo..’

Born on February 16, 1896, Roberto Chery was raised in the Barrio Sur of Montevideo, within a predominantly Afro-Uruguayan community. He grew up with Isabelino Gradín, later known as one of the two black players at the receiving end of a protest at the 1916 South American Championship, denounced for being ‘Africans’. Chery, Gradín, and another neighbourhood friend, Antonio Campolo, were recruited by Peñarol.

Chery and his two Barrio Sur friends arrived at Peñarol in 1915. Despite his youth, Chery possessed an impressive physique and extraordinary understanding of the game. He was a ready-made goalkeeper. However, while Gradín was elevated to the seniors almost immediately, Chery and Campolo would have to bide their time.

Chery’s senior debut was against none other than Nacional, on June 29, 1917. The match ended in a 2-1 victory for Peñarol, with Chery showing that he was made for Clasicos. Indeed, in the nine matches he faced Nacional, the Poet conceded a solitary goal, a penalty. Chery continued his exceptional performances, Penarol were crowned 1918 Uruguayan champions, and the possibilities  were endless for the young goalkeeper. It was only a matter of time before he received the call to represent Uruguay.

The following year, the call came. Chery was chosen for the 1919 South American Championship, to be held in Rio de Janeiro. He remained on the bench for the opening game, with veteran Cayetano Saporiti in goals as Uruguay defeated Argentina 3-2.

Chery’s Uruguay debut came in the second game against Chile. He was twenty three years of age.

He played with the same security and confidence he showed at club level. Going into the break, Uruguay were up 2-0. It was meant to be the start of a long, illustrious international career.

Second half, Chile were pushing forward. Chery desperately scrambled from one post to the other, spectacularly saving an almost certain Chilean goal. The Brazilian spectators could do nothing but applaud Chery’s efforts, yet another demonstration of his assured game.

But he stayed down. The impact had injured the Poet, resulting in a strangulated hernia. He was later taken to hospital.

There were complications. Two weeks later, the day after the final, the Poet died. Peñarol’s captain José Benincasa was by his side. He was only twenty three.

A match to honour Chery was organised, intended originally to involve Uruguay and Brazil. Too distraught by the loss of their teammate, the Uruguayans declined the invitation. However, their rivals from across the river volunteered to take their place.

If only for ninety minutes, the Uruguay-Argentina rivalry didn’t exist. Indeed, Argentina wore the sky blue of Uruguay, while Brazil donned the kit of the poet’s other love, Peñarol. The game finished 3-3, the proceeds of the match given to Chery’s family, and the Roberto Chery Cup to Peñarol.

Roberto Chery’s life was the most tragic of poems. Destined for a long future with football’s most successful nation, he could last only one game. Had he not been taken so early, he may well have been a part of the successes of the 1920s.

Uruguay reached the top of international football through its own unique footballing expressions. They created true football poetry. And in the cruelest of tragedies, their only poet couldn’t be witness to it.

Some say that Chery wasn’t really a poet. He probably wasn’t.

Still, I wonder what he might have written of Uruguay’s triumphs, and how far they’ve fallen.



Uruguayans are fiercely loyal, but they’re even more demanding. They cling onto past achievements while expecting they be surpassed. These expectations weigh down not only those who don the sky blue shirt, but those who represent the country’s two big clubs, Peñarol and Nacional.

This Sunday, these traditional rivals face each other in the latest edition of the Uruguayan Clásico. To curb the never-ending cycle of violence which has plagued the domestic game, the match has been promoted as a friendly affair, with Nacional and Peñarol fans coming together under the slogan  ‘enjoy the clásico’.

While this positive preview hopefully prevents any regrettable incidents from occurring, the reality is that at least one set of supporters will not enjoy it.

Disappointment, or rather devastation, was felt by Peñarol fans in October of last year. On that occasion, a Seba Fernandez handball and a Chino Recoba cameo helped inflict one of the more painful defeats of recent times. Due to my affiliation, and the pain of writing that one sentence, that match will not be mentioned again.

What will be mentioned is the Clausura match in the first half of the year, where Peñarol triumphed 5-0.

It took only 12 minutes to get started, with the explosive Jonathan Rodriguez serving Zalayeta the easiest of chances. Minutes later, Macaluso headed in the second. Peñarol went into the break 2-0 up.

It wasn’t exactly like that rainy day in 1949. The dominance wasn’t there, and while they were battered, Nacional still had 11 men on the pitch.

The bolsos should’ve gone home at half time. Jorge Rodriguez made it 3-0.  Aguiar added the 4th goal, then the 5th, and Peñarol went away with their biggest Clásico win in over half a century.

There were no serious incidents between fans in the fallout. After such a humiliation, it was a welcome surprise. Nacional fans simply packed up and left the stadium, sombre, lost.

There was a curious figure among these dispirited people, however. It was a fan of the victorious team.

He must’ve been in his 80s. Despite witnessing his team destroy their rivals by 5 goals, he was as bitter and desperate as his wretched brothers from the opposition.

The old man lamented that Peñarol had stopped after the 5th goal. After all, Nacional’s players had left the pitch long before the final whistle. This was a record in the making, and Peñarol should’ve made it.

The man had seen it before. He was at the Centenario in 1953, when Peñarol last triumphed by 5 goals. But of course, it wasn’t enough for this hopeless Peñarol addict. He demanded more. He needed to surpass that ecstasy felt all those years ago. Just one more goal. It never came.

That poor old Peñarol man is the quintessential Uruguayan football fan. Forever pining for the glory days, they always demand more, but usually end up disappointed.

And just like that old man, they’ll die wondering what could have been.