If you are looking to marvel at the strength of a country’s football culture and the wonders it can achieve, look no further than Uruguay. With a population of a mere 3.4 million people (one-sixth that of Mumbai), Uruguay has won the Fifa World Cup and the Olympic gold medal twice each and has managed to lift the Copa America 15 times—one more than Argentina and eight more than Brazil.
This is why Uruguay is considered the world’s most successful football nation. On per-capita basis, no other country even comes close to its achievements in football. But Uruguay is a nation that keeps punching above its weight with a resolve unmatched elsewhere.
Of the last five World Cups, including Russia, Uruguay has missed only one—which is an achievement since South American qualifiers are the world’s toughest. Argentina nearly missed out this time, while Chile, the South American champions, could not make the cut.
In Russia, La Celeste (or ‘Sky Blue’) have topped their group in typically dogged, but efficient style: three wins out of three—two 1-0 finishes against the weakest teams in the group—and zero goals conceded. Up next for them? Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the Round of 16 on Saturday.
Uruguay, coached by Oscar Tabarez since 2006, are a well-drilled team nobody wants to face. In Brazil, they advanced from the group stages at the cost of England and Italy. They have traditionally been more combative than creative and thus not pretty to watch, or enjoyable to play against. So, how does this tiny nation succeed at the highest levels of the game?
In recent years, Uruguayans’ win-at-all-cost mentality, rooted deep in their culture, has come into global focus.
The success of Luis Suarez, at Liverpool, and Diego Godin, at Atletico Madrid, has especially shone light on this subject in recent years and not always in a positive way: Suarez has been embroiled in controversies from biting to diving to racism to even a deliberate handball in 2010. They fight for everything on the pitch and by all means possible. The fight comes from what they have learned as kids playing on the fields or streets, like most South American countries. But in Uruguay, this is harnessed in a unique way through ‘Baby Futbol’—football leagues for children. Every weekend, around 60,000 children between ages 6-13 play organized football in Uruguay. This concept has recently kicked off in India too with Champhai, Mumbai and Shillong setting the trend.
Uruguay’s football ecosystem is largely based in its capital Montevideo, which houses over one-third of its total population. This was an advantage a century ago, but subsequently, while the likes of Brazil and Argentina expanded and used their size to an advantage, Uruguay couldn’t.
But the fight inside Uruguayans lives on. On the field, 11 vs 11, is where they compete on equal terms. And punch above their weight.