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On supporting Uruguay in the Copa América

7th July, 2011

Uruguay seem to be comfortably enshrined as the neutral’s first choice to disrupt the duopoly enjoyed by South America’s two highborn footballing nations, Brazil and Argentina, who have contested the final match of each of the previous two editions of the Copa América and will do so again should results go their way. Though other countries, such as Chile, Paraguay and Colombia, bring squads blessed with no small degree of skill, it is the men from the east bank of the Río de la Plata who by all accounts have the greatest supply of the talent and experience necessary to give the big two a run for their money. This confidence in the Uruguayans, based largely on the strength of the squad that unexpectedly took the country to the semi-finals of the last World Cup, had reached such proportions that I had almost begun to feel guilty supporting them. After all, Uruguay, winners of the first ever World Cup, joint holders of the most Copa América titles and currently the fourth best team in the world, had merely returned to where they belonged by birthright, that is to say amongst South America’s footballing elite. Much better, surely, to support a genuine team of the tournament’s proletariat, such as Bolivia, Ecuador or Peru. And of course there was the small matter of one Luis Suárez with his quick hands and wickedly gleeful celebrations in Soweto last July. I couldn’t possibly support such a ghastly gaggle of self-regarding glitterati.

Then I thought about it some more. Perhaps Uruguay weren’t so bad after all. Small country, underdogs, punching about their weight and all that. Perhaps they weren’t the haughty aristocrats I’d initially taken them for. Perhaps they were all right. Perhaps they really are the anti-Brazil and the anti-Argentina. Not because of their footballing philosophy though, but because of their social one.

Those of you seeking an antidote to what borders on a sense of entitlement for the continent’s two footballing superpowers, and a poison for that unabashed sense of glee emitted by contemporary Mad Men drooling over their revenue-generating potential, should bear in mind that Uruguay has a long tradition of coming between Argentina and Brazil. Indeed, the country, after its initial drive towards independence had been quelled by invading Brazilian forces (with the acquiescence of Argentina’s conservative elite, who feared the progressive nature of Uruguay’s revolutionary movement), came into being as a sovereign country in 1928 as a part of a British-brokered deal to place a buffer state between South America’s two largest countries.

It is true that by 1930, the year of the first World Cup, Uruguay, with consecutive Olympic victories, had established themselves as the best national team in the world. This success, however, was the fruit of a progressive spirit that had seen Uruguay turn itself in the first decades of the 20th century into one of the world’s first welfare states, introducing a host of social and labour reforms including the 8-hour day, pensions, free secondary education, and the opening of healthcare to the poor and infirm.

One of the benefits of this enlightened approach to governance was that football—which had been a sport brought to much of South America by members of the expatriate British elite—moved down the social rungs more quickly in Uruguay than its neighbours. At the very first Copa América, in 1916, Uruguay became the first team from the continent to field black players, leading to Chile’s preposterous decision to lodge a complaint on the grounds that Isabelino Gradin, the tournament’s top scorer, and Juan Delgado must in fact be African and therefore ineligible. Eight years later Argentinian fans pelted black Uruguayan defender and Olympic champion José Leandro Andrade with stones during an international match in Buenos Aires.

This was at a time when Brazil, with the largest population of African descent outside the African continent, was still allowing class- and race-based stratification to hobble its footballing development. In Brazil, in the same year that Gradin and Delgado were helping Uruguay to the Copa América, Fluminense’s new signing Carlos Alberto was in the changing room desperately applying rice powder to his skin in an attempt appear lighter. It wasn’t until professionalism arrived openly in the country in the early 1930s, in at attempt to stem the flow of players abroad, that market forces began to render impractical the classist and racist selection policies endemic in Brazilian football.

That Uruguay’s dominance should have started to wane after their victory in the 1950 World Cup should come as little surprise. With a population of just under 3.5 million according to recent estimates, less than a 50th of Brazil’s, it remained unlikely that Uruguay would continue to move in the international game’s loftiest circles. Since their 1959 triumph in Ecuador, Uruguay have only won the Copa América on foreign soil on one solitary occasion. That victory came in Argentina in 1987, when as holders they earned a bye straight to the semi-finals, meaning effectively only two matches were necessary to win the tournament.

So yes, Uruguay do have a storied football past, but it was the early democratisation of both society and sport that enabled such a tiny country to fly its flag so prominently during the first half of the 20th century. The fact that they have now unearthed a group of players capable of moving within striking distance of the achievements of those early squads is nothing short of remarkable. The manner of their passage into the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup did leave a sour taste in my mouth. I had been cheering for Ghana, and the manner of Luis Suárez’s goal-line intervention and subsequent surreal delight made me vow never to support a team with him amongst its ranks. Fortunately I can count fickleness amongst my finer qualities, and having put a little more thought than usual into the matter I have decided that, while a tournament win for let’s say Venezuela or Ecuador would indeed be thrilling, there’s no shame in supporting Uruguay. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that for the manner in which Uruguay brought football to its broader population, a strong argument can be made in favour of their being the people’s choice.

Those of you with a bent for history may find it interesting to note that when Brazilian forces (under the direction of the Portuguese, who still regarded Brazil as their territory) in 1820 assumed control what was to become the nation of Uruguay, the reason for Buenos Aires’ initial acquiescence was fear of the reformist politics of José Gervasio Artigas, the central figure of Uruguay’s independence movement. Artigas, who advocated policies such as the redistribution of land amongst freed slaves and the poor, was considered the greater of two evils and consequently the Brazilian incursion was tolerated west of the Río de la Plata. So, even before Uruguay’s spirit of progressivism was to wedge it between Argentina and Brazil on the football pitch, the smallest of the three had already differentiated itself socially and politically.

It’s too early to tell which team is going to delight us most at this Copa America. But I do know that I won’t be shedding any tears of rage or sorrow should Uruguay hoist the trophy at the end.

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