I first made it to Montevideo shortly after Richard “Chengue” Morales scored the winning goal against Australia in a World Cup playoff in 2001. Ragged horses and carts danced through the streets like Lipizzaner stallions. Children begging on the streets got extra portions of Pollo Milanese from diners leaving fine restaurants. Beautiful girls shared their grappamiel. And posters of Chengue, a bare-chested Afro-Uruguayan, waving La Celeste (the iconic sky blue Uruguay shirt) were in every shop window. It was a poor, but proud city.
On my second visit in 2007, I saw the remarkable progress of the country under newly elected President Tabaré Vázquez. Under Vázquez all social and economic indices were up. He was the first member of the left wing Frente Amplio to be elected President. Poverty levels plummeted, child hunger was greatly reduced, smoking in public places was banned and Uruguay confronted the crimes committed in the military dictatorship years of 1973 to 1985.
Because this is Uruguay, where soccer is the spiritual infrastructure that holds the country together, there was a soccer element to his rise. Prior to being President of the Republic, Vázquez was President of Club Atlético Progreso, a team with impeccable Anarchist credentials founded in 1917, which later adopted Catalonia’s colors in solidarity with their struggle against fascism. In Uruguay, soccer and politics mix. Though Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s star footballer and one of the keys to the country’s World Cup hopes in Brazil, isn’t outwardly political, he uses Frente Amplio language in interviews when he talks about “social inequality” and “solidarity projects.”
The last time the World Cup was held in Brazil, in 1950, Uruguay were Champions, beating the hosts at the Maracanã. In Brazil, that defeat is known as Maracanaço, and is still mourned as a major national trauma. For their part, Uruguay, who also won the tournament in 1930 (and the FIFA sanctioned Olympic tournaments of 1924 and 1928) remain the smallest nation to have become soccer world champions. They have four stars on their uniform to signify these achievements. Los Charrúas will be back in Brazil for the 2014 Mundial, and although pitted against previous winners England and Italy in the group phase, as well as underrated Costa Rica, they are widely tipped to progress to the knockout round. While Uruguay remains deeply respectful of their opponents, they are also not afraid to entertain the prospect of winning the World Cup. They will also start the tournament as one of the least popular teams among neutral supporters, despite their underdog status and squad containing some of the most dynamic forwards in international soccer.
The Maracanaço of 1950, Uruguay defeats Brazil
How is it that Uruguay, a country with a glorious and improbable soccer history, finds itself a soccer outcast synonymous with cheating and bigotry? The answer, justified or not, is Luis Suárez.
A stocky forward with tremendous dribbling ability and a ferocious shot, Suárez was MVP of the 2011 Copa América (South America’s championship), which Uruguay claimed for a record 15th time. For those counting, this is a tournament Brazil have only won on 8 occasions. He is also the most prolific player in the English league today, and plays for Liverpool, England’s most successful club in European competition. A few days before the World Cup draw took place in Salvador, Brazil, Suárez scored four goals in a single game against Norwich City, the third time he scored a hat trick against the team known as the Canaries. The following week he humiliated Tottenham Hotspur in their own stadium, scoring twice and having three assists in a 5-0 demolition that saw the Tottenham coach leave by “mutual consent” (an English euphemism for getting for fired) the next day. On December 20, John W. Henry, the principal Liverpool owner, offered Suárez an improved contract, which made him the highest paid player in Liverpool’s history. The English outside Liverpool fear Suárez because he is gifted and committed. But many also loathe him, because they regard him as a dishonest, violent player and, worse still, a racist.