Latin America

Fryer: Uruguay out to make history

Diego Forlan Luis Suarez Uruguay
SpecialtoFoxSoccer RUPERT FRYER
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The longest running feud in international soccer has been locked in a dead heat for the last sixteen years.

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  • Who will win the Copa America final?
    • Uruguay
    • Paraguay

This coming Sunday, however, Oscar Tabarez has the chance to finally put some breathing space between his side and Argentina – and in the old enemy’s back yard no less. This weekend, at El Monumental, where Daniel Passarella once held aloft the 1978 FIFA World Cup, El Maestro has the chance to write another chapter Uruguay’s long and glorious history with the Copa America. If victorious, it will overtake Argentina as the most successful side in the history of international soccer’s oldest competition with 15 titles.

It drew level in with its great rivals in 1995, when, amongst others, Enzo Francescoli, Daniel Fonseca and Gustavo Poyet led it through a penalty shootout victory in the final over Brazil in Montevideo.

So steeped in Copa history is Uruguay, it wasn’t even permitted to lose a game on the way to claiming the trophy that year – a loss of any kind in the Copa on home soil was unacceptable. “We couldn’t lose,” recalled Poyet three years later to author Chris Taylor. “It was obligatory not to lose… we had to be champions and not lose a single game.”

Uruguay were the first winners of the competition in 1916 – though some Argentinians will claim their country holds that accolade, having won an ‘unofficial’ tournament in 1910 – when the Copa was called the Championship of Nations; during which Conmebol (South American Football Confederation) was founded.

Taking place in July that year during Argentina’s centenary commemorations, the final match would have to be played twice as rioting broke out during Uruguay’s meeting with the hosts on July 16. The match was replayed the following day and finished goalless, which meant Uruguay topped the table and were crowned the first champions on South America.

Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabarez is hoping to secure his first international crown. (Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)

La Celeste would go on to win six of the first ten Copa Americas between 1916 and 1926. Inside-forward Angel Romano made it to nine of them and still holds the record for the appearing in the most Copas.

That, however, is by no means the only Copa America record Uruguay hold: it has attended more than anyone else, this year’s being its 45th; it played the longest game in the tournament’s history in 1919 when, having won the first two editions, it fell 1-0 to Brazil in a match that lasted 150 minutes after the first period of extra time couldn’t split the two sides; it scored the first ever goal of the tournament when Jose Piendibene set it on its way to a 4-0 victory over Chile; and it also boasts the first player ever to have been sent off when Juan Emilio Piriz received his marching orders against Chile 21 years after the inaugural tournament.

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Copa America Action SF's

The Copa America's final four battle in the Semifinals.

To lift a fifteenth Copa America this weekend would be yet another remarkable achievement for a country with a population of just three and a half million; less than a tenth that of Argentina or a 50th of Brazil’s.

“We are three million. Nothing. Less people than any neighborhood in Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo,” author Eduardo Galeano told Democracy Now in an interview in 2006. “All Uruguayans, we all want to become soccer players… It’s our national destiny.”

Many theories have been put forward in an attempt to explain Uruguay’s long history of overachievement, the most common being la garra charrúa (the Charruan claw). It’s a term derived from the indigenous population of the land that would later become Uruguay who fought there would be Spanish colonisers to the death. “My understanding of it,” Tabarez told La Celeste Blog in candid interview earlier this year, “[is that] it pertains to a player not giving up, regardless of the opponent, by displaying a certain type of rebelliousness which has occurred many times in our football.”

You need look no further than the unrelenting and indefatigable displays of Alvaro Pereira, Alvaro Gonzalez and, perhaps most notably, Arevalo Rios against Argentina in the quarter-finals to see the spirit of the garra.

Though to reduce Uruguayan soccer to solely strength and desire would be unjust; from Jose Leandro Andrade to Enzo Francescoli and right the way through to Diego Forlan, Uruguayan soccer has had consistently produced world class individuals.

And with Forlan joined by another, Luis Suarez, Tabarez is hoping to secure his first international crown; and, perhaps, one the most important in Uruguay’s illustrious history.

Rupert Fryer is a freelance soccer journalist and co-founder of SouthAmericanFootball.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter at @Rupert_Fryer.

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