The prevailing logic in international football holds that once-powerful but small soccer nations can never again reach their former heights. It’s impossible; the elite skill currently required to stay internationally competitive means countries with larger populations, more clubs, more academies and more individual player prospects will continue to dominate international tournaments.
Hence the relative historical success of established footballing nations with large populations like Brazil (population 190 million), Argentina (40 million), and Germany (81 million). The idea that football’s former Mighty Mice could someday return to their old form—Scotland, for example (population 5 million), or Uruguay (3.5 million)—is romantic but naive.
Uruguay in particular knows this theory of international football well. After taking over five years ago, national team manager Oscar Tabárez felt it necessary to first temper national expectations of a return to former glory, as the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson points out in his round-up this morning:
One of his key achievements has been to reconcile Uruguay to its glorious history; to persuade a country with a population of 3.5m that it should not expect to replicate the Olympic golds and World Cup victories of the first half of the last century…
At the heart of Uruguay’s ‘glorious’ past is the uniquely Uruguayan concept of “garra charrúa,” winning despite mountainous expectations of the contrary. This spirit was summed up best in Uruguay’s 2-1 victory over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup “final” (it was in fact the final match of a round robin). The match was to be Brazil’s coronation as a global footballing power, played at home in the Maracana packed with over a hundred thousand Brazil fans.
Brazil until that point had been in imperious form; all that was required against lowly Uruguay was a draw. The silence following the final whistle haunted Brazilian football for eight years, until their 1958 triumph against Sweden in the same country. It gave Uruguay their greatest ever victory, and cemented their status as the ultimate footballing underdog. It would also be their last major victory for over half a century.
This time around, the “garra” concept played a different role. While Uruguay had already won 14 Copa Americas, their last in 1995, their recent form (fourth place in the World Cup last year) and collection of world class players (and world class youth team) meant the nation needed to find a way to cast aside its coveted underdog status and play with the confidence and consistency of a world power.
With a front three consisting of Forlan, Suarez and Cavani, Tabárez had the personnel at his disposal to win; all that was required was to perfect the tactical alchemy. Despite a rocky opening to the tournament, by the time Forlan scored his second before the break yesterday, breaking his Copa duck in the process, Uruguay were a team transformed. No devilish handballs required, no need for the use of that hideous adjective “plucky”; just a consistent performance over ninety minutes.
Does this mean Uruguay will win a World Cup? Probably not. But it should remind smaller nations with a respectable football history that the future is not written, that football still transcends demographics, and that a country with a population smaller than most major metropolitan centres in Europe can unlearn its David role, and learn to play Goliath.