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.

Comments (4)

  1. I think we can win another world cup, why not. The thing about being Uruguayan is the closeness you feel to being like one of the players especially since we are 3.5 million. I was at a concert during the Uruguay Argentina game closely watching my score mobile and the fact that we have such a small population actually turned into a feeling. Its something about the spirit of the Uruguayan and the will that not many other countries have or can appreciate. I think in historical terms all those years of not being successful at the world cup was a lesson. More so to the fact that we must approach things in a manner that shows humility which is exactly what Tabarez has instilled since 2007. Now I’m not saying we will win Brazil 2013 or 2014 but we have a darn good chance. Every Uruguayan grew up with the story of the Maracanazo and although everyone says its not ours to win, we always start a tournament from small and then big ourselves up. I don’t know but I think for a country our size its not only the fact that we have a small population but we have the heart and desire and we aren’t complacent because our past footballing history drives us to work harder and everything you work for has to be deserved, not handed to you. But maybe one day we will win the World Cup again and I’ll be reading an article about the little country that always could.

  2. and the romantic aspect of football you speak isn’t naive, its called the tango

  3. It truly is amazing what they have done at the WC and Copa.

    Size of country does not matter and Im happy Urugay shows it..

    At recent Euro U-23, the 8 finalists were conutries like Swisserland, Belarus, Norway and .,… ICELAND!!! Spain didnt qualify, not Italy or German but Iceland made it for the final 8 tournament.
    Iceland has 300,000 people.

    Serbia has won in the past decade world championships in basketball, volleyball, waterpolo and (handball I believe) while Djokovic is #1. For a country the population of Ontario which has been under duress for quite a while, that is phenomenal.

    Iceland, Urugay, Serbia show that you can wallow in the self pity of the small or you can do something about it.

    BTW, Iceland with its 300,000 people HAS a pro league and its national team has players in better teams and leagues than Canada. It also has had 3 players play with Man United.
    They should stand as a reminder that all our excuses about weather, geography and such are meaningless and hollow when compared to Iceland.
    Of course, Iceland like all countries HAS a soccer league and maybe, just maybe, its an important part of the puzzle on how to get a stronger national program.
    NO country in the world can hope to win or even do well internationally without a pro league.
    Imagine a sport like basketball having champions from a country with no league. its unthinkable.
    But here were gonna have the internal political fights and the new beginnings and restarts but we will continue to avoid the big elephant in the room: a country with 40 million people with no league. The Norways and Denmarks (pop 4mil) of the world do well in soccer and both have strong leagues (and cold weather)..

    Urugay like the other small countries mentioned always gives others hope that they too have a chance.

  4. =D nice.. i like this article..

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