More than 50 years have passed since Uruguay won the World Cup in the immense stadium in Maracanã, Brazil. Ever since, betrayed by reality, we have sought solace in memory. If we could learn from this, all would be well. But that isn’t the case: we take refuge in nostalgia when we feel that we have been abandoned by hope because hope requires daring and nostalgia requires nothing.
Bebe Coppola, a hairdresser by trade, was also the head coach of the football team of the town of Nico Pérez. The ideological orientation he provided his team with went as follows: ball on the ground, strikers open, and good luck lads.
Bebe Coppola had nothing to do with Maracanã. But it was as if they were listening to him; the Uruguayans played so simply, so well, in that final in 1950. More than half a century later everything is reversed. When we play football now (God have mercy) our strikers, forwards and our wings don’t fly any more; in fact they seem to be sleepwalking around the centre of the pitch. Our playing is closed, stingy and heavy, and our luck is bad. Truth be told, we don’t help ourselves much, though we have an abundance of eminent analysts ready to provide brilliant explanations for each disaster we make.
In that final in Maracanã, Uruguay committed but half the number of fouls that Brazil did. Now, more than 50 years later, there are scores of Uruguayans on and off the field who mistake fouling for courage. In international games there is no shortage of fired-up presenters and howling fans who used to shout: ‘Shoot, shoot!’ and now scream, ‘Kill him, kill him!’ There are even sports commentators who long for what they call ‘the well-turned foul’ – committed when the referee isn’t looking – and the ‘break-them-down foul’, inflicted when the game has just started and the referee doesn’t feel like throwing anyone out of the game.
We have reached the point where nothing is more Uruguayan than playing around the edge of the red card. And if the referee pulls it out and we’re left with just 10 players, that’s proof that our opponent is playing with 12. In other words, once again the referee has stolen our victory from us. The next step is feeling sorry for ourselves, poor little country, drowned in a rain of diminutives.
Since Maracanã, in reality, we have gone from bad to worse.
Maybe the decline of football has something to do with the crisis in public education. Our Golden Age is drifting further and further behind us. In the 1920s we were twice Olympic champions; in 1930 we won our first World Cup; 1950 was our swansong. These seem like inexplicable miracles in a country with fewer people than a neighbourhood of Mexico City, São Paulo or Buenos Aires. But from the beginning of the century, our free, non-religious public education system sowed a fine crop on sports pitches throughout the country by educating the body without divorcing it from the head or differentiating between rich and poor.
It’s an identity crisis. Sad is he who doesn’t recognize his own shadow. And among the causes of our football misfortune, which is the great national misfortune, we have to mention the sale of our people. We export both manpower and footpower.
Uruguayans, inhabitants of an uninhabited country, are scattered throughout the world. Our football players are too. We have 248 professional footballers in 39 countries. Football is a social sport, a form of collective creation, and it is not easy to forge a national team with players who only meet on airplanes.
We are football. Our day-to-day expressions prove it:
paying attention: on the ball.
shirk your responsibilities: drop the ball
well done: good shot
resume your activities: pick up the ball
take advantage of an opportunity: run with the ball
throw out your cheating husband: show him the red card
seduce a girl: score
an unlikely prospect: a long shot
expose a wrongdoing: blow the whistle on.
We Uruguayans, a footballized people, think that our country was over at Maracanã. At bottom, I suspect, the problem is that we still believe in the big lie imposed on us as a universal truth, that obscene law of our time that requires us to win just to prove our right to exist. But our biggest victory in the 1950 World Cup came after we won the final in Maracanã. Our great triumph was the gesture of Obdulio Varela, the splendid captain and inspiring leader of the team. At the end of the game, he fled the hotel and the festivities and went for a walk, passing the night drinking in the bars of Rio, quietly, in bar after bar, hugging the vanquished.