Today the Academy team had a light day of training, because it is a day sandwiched between 2 matches (yesterday and tomorrow). We got a chance to walk around the “ciudad viejo” which stands for “old city.” When it rains, it seems as though everyone in Uruguay stays inside their homes, but on a day like today where the sun was shining, the streets in the ciudad viejo were buzzing with people. This part of Montevideo looks similar to other older European cities I have been to (like Barcelona, for example) but with a distinctive style which is uniquely Uruguayan.
In one of my conversations with the Academy’ Fitness Coach, I mentioned to him something I had noticed both during this trip, as well as the one I made here three years ago – that the players here appear to be more aggressive than the players in Canada, and that they seem to train and play with more intensity.
This aggression and intensity is visible amongst players not only in the youth categories and smaller professional clubs like Canadian SC, but also at the highest levels of Uruguayan soccer (remember Luis Suarez during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil)?
When I asked the Fitness Coach, he told me that in his opinion, aggressiveness is a trait which is inherently part of Uruguayan soccer, and that it is one of the factors that has allowed the country to punch well above its weight at the international level for over 100 years.
Uruguay might be the greatest underdog in the history of international sports – not just in soccer. Based on its size (a population of just over 3 million people) and location (in South America, possibly the most competitive soccer continent in the world), Uruguay would seem to have no business even qualifying regularly for international tournaments like the FIFA World Cup, let alone achieving success in them.
To illustrate this point, consider that in CONMEBOL (the South American football federation in which Uruguay is a member) there are only 4.5 slots for qualification to every FIFA World Cup (and this number is greater than the 4 slots they had up to and including the 1998 World Cup). This means that only the top 4 teams from South American qualification automatically advance to the World Cup, while the 5th place team must compete in an “inter-confederation play-off” with one of the lower-placing teams from Asia, North America, or Oceania. The perennial qualifiers and giants of South America have traditionally been Brazil and Argentina, whose populations (200,000,000 and 42,000,000, respectively) both dwarf Uruguay’s. Neither of those nations has missed out on qualification for a FIFA World Cup since 1970 (Brazil has never missed one) and between them they have won the tournament a total of 7 times (5 to Brazil, and 2 to Argentina).
Even the traditionally less-successful South American countries like Colombia (48,000,000); Chile (17,000,000) ; Peru (30,000,000); Bolivia (10,000,000), Ecuador (16,000,000); and Paraguay (6,000,000) are all between 2-15 times the size of Uruguay. Yet still, somehow, Uruguay (with a population of only 3,000,000 people) has been much more successful at the World Cup than any of these aforementioned countries, and in the past was on par if not more successful than even Brazil and Argentina.
Uruguay won the first three official “world championships” of soccer (the 1924 and 1928 Olympics soccer tournaments, which were considered the world championship of soccer befre the creation of the FIFA World Cup in 1930, and, of course, the first-ever FIFA World Cup on their home soil that year). Against all odds, they won the tournament again 20 years later when they defeated heavily favoured Brazil, in Brazil, in front of 200,000 people at Maracana stadium in Rio De Janeiro. They refused to participate in the FIFA World Cups in Italy (1934) and France (1938), mainly for political reasons but if they had, they may well have won one or both of those tournaments as well.
Since 1950, Uruguay have not won another World Cup, but they have qualified for 11 of the past 16 World Cups, and have reached the semi-finals on more than one occasion (placing 4th in Mexico in 1970, and then again in South Africa in 2010). They have also put together a run of success in international soccer which rivals even that of the most successful nations in the world, having won the Copa America (the championship tournament for South America) an incredible 15 times.
So what is the secret to the success of soccer’s greatest underdogs? I have already written about the role that coach education, professional leagues and opportunities, and even poverty, has played in their success. But perhaps it is the fact that Uruguay are underdogs in the first place, which has played the biggest role and had the greatest impact.
Canadian SC’s Academy Fitness Coach put it to me in this way:
“When you are smaller than everybody else, you have to fight. We have always been smaller than everybody else, so we have always had to fight.”
Maybe Uruguay has felt that its back has been against the wall in soccer for over 100 years, and this has led to the development of aggressiveness and intensity which is now a common trait of every homegrown soccer player. After having spent one week here observing the professional academy system, I would have to agree with this sentiment.