Long before the snarling menace of Luis Suárez adorned the football fields of Europe, Uruguay boasted another striker who captured the attention of football fans the world over. During a 12-year spell from the 1980s into the 90s, Rubén Sosa showed us the mettle we would grow familiar with in the games of Suárez and Edinson Cavani a decade later.
Standing at just five feet, eight inches, Sosa showed the truth in the Mark Twain quote, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ In more than 300 appearances across Spain, Italy and Germany, Sosa scored well over 100 goals before returning to Uruguay in 1997.
He was christened El Principito – the Little Prince – by fans, as his international teammate, Enzo Francescoli, was known as El Principe – the Prince. Francescoli was five years Sosa’s senior and almost four inches taller.
While some of Sosa’s fondest memories are undoubtedly from his time with his beloved Nacional, fans this side of the Atlantic will recall his heroics in Serie A with both Lazio and Internazionale. Yet, the first stop on Sosa’s European adventure was in LaLiga with Real Zaragoza.
Sosa arrived at Zaragoza in 1985 after three years with his first professional club, Danubio, in Uruguay. In the three preceding seasons, Zaragoza had finished sixth, seventh and tenth in the Spanish top flight. Sosa chipped in with five goals in 17 appearances to help his new side lift themselves to a fourth-place finish in his first year.
Not only did Zaragoza pip Atlético Madrid to a top-four finish, they also went all the way in the Copa del Rey, beating Terry Venables’ Barcelona in the final. Sosa scored the only goal of the game against the Catalans, somehow managing to squeeze a daisy-cutter of a free-kick in via a slight deflection off the defensive wall. It was Zaragoza’s first domestic trophy for 20 years.
That was as good as it would get for Sosa and Zaragoza over his three-year stint at La Romareda. Although Zaragoza didn’t taste any more success during that period, Sosa, now 22, had established himself as one of the most exciting up-and-coming names in the game. He scored 18 league goals in his last season in Spain, earning a move to Lazio.
It was in Italy that Sosa’s career really began to take off. He had been part of Uruguay’s squad which won the 1987 Copa América and now, a year later, he was about to start plying his trade in what was the biggest league in world football at the time.
Despite his short and stocky stature, Sosa had a burst of pace that left many defenders for dead. The touch possessed within his left foot was something to behold, too. Sosa could deliver the deftest of lobs over an advancing goalkeeper or a rasping long-ranger seemingly capable of snapping a crossbar.
At a time when Diego Maradona was setting the world alight at Napoli, Sosa made his own name at Lazio, particularly as a dead-ball specialist. He scored eight Serie A goals in each of his first two seasons for the Rome giants alongside stars such as Luigi Di Biagio and Paolo Di Canio.
At the 1989 Copa América, Sosa scored four goals as Uruguay finished second behind Brazil. He was voted the best player of the tournament ahead of Maradona, Romário, Bebeto and El Principe himself, Enzo Francescoli.
Sosa increased his goal return with tallies of 11 and 13 in his third and fourth years in Rome. Yet, there was to be no silverware for El Principito or Lazio before he joined Internazionale in 1992. I Biancocelesti didn’t finish higher than tenth in Serie A while Sosa was at the club.
Since arriving in Serie A, Sosa had never been part of a title-challenging side. That all changed in his first year with Inter. Buoyed by the presence of stars such as Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Nicola Berti, Matthias Sammer and Totó Schillaci, El Principito began to play the best football of his career. Rather than shrinking in his new surroundings amidst the big-name players, Sosa showed he belonged and could actually be a big fish in what was an already-large pond.
Inter had sold their three German legends – Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann – the summer Sosa arrived after finishing a lowly eight in 1991/91. He proved to be a more-than-capable replacement for Klinsmann, netting 20 goals in his debut campaign.
Inter finished second to local rivals AC Milan, then managed by Fabio Capello and boasting the world-class talent of players such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini, Ruud Gullit, Dejan Savićević, Frank Rijkaard, Jean-Pierre Papin and Marco van Basten. In footballing terms, it was an embarrassment of riches their near-neighbours had at their disposal.
In 1993/94, Inter slumped to a hugely disappointing 13th in Serie A despite adding their own Dutch contingent to the squad. In came a young Dennis Bergkamp as well as midfielder Wim Jonk. Sosa was again the club’s top scorer in the league with 16 goals.
Inter had qualified for the UEFA Cup. With Sosa and a hugely influential Bergkamp pulling the strings, they went all the way and lifted the trophy. Inter beat Austria Salzburg 2-0 on aggregate in the two-legged final. Sosa enjoyed a great relationship with the fans at Inter, as he alluded to in a Goal interview many years after retiring. “I have great memories of my time at Inter, of playing on a stage like the San Siro. The fans used to chant my name when I scored goals, and that was one of the most important teams for me.”
On the international scene, Sosa and Uruguay endured a barren few years. They went out of Italia 90 at the last-16 stage, losing 2-0 to the hosts. Sosa was omitted from Uruguay’s 1991 Copa América squad by coach Luis Alberto Cubilla. La Celeste failed to progress past the first group stage in Chile.
Cubilla was still in charge for the 1993 tournament. This time he brought Sosa to the finals in Ecuador but the 27-year-old didn’t get a single minute on the pitch. Cubilla’s side crashed out on penalties to Colombia in the quarter-finals. Thankfully for Sosa, his Copa América story didn’t end there.
The 1994/95 campaign would be Sosa’s last in Italy. New manager Ottavio Bianchi led Inter to a respectable sixth in Serie A with Sosa once again the club’s top scorer albeit with just eight goals. They couldn’t successfully defend their UEFA Cup crown, however, Sosa missing the vital penalty at Villa Park after Inter had drawn 1-1 over two legs with Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa. Sosa’s spot-kick rattled the crossbar and bounced down on the wrong side of the line. Villa scored their final penalty and that was it. Inter’s UEFA Cup journey was over and Sosa departed for Germany in the summer of 1995.
Ottmar Hitzfeld brought Sosa to the Bundesliga, persuading him to join defending champions Borussia Dortmund. Although he would only spend a year in Germany, Sosa won his first domestic league title there.
In the company of Jürgen Kohler, Andreas Möller, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Stéphane Chapuisat, Sosa found himself being used as a squad player. He made 17 appearances (eight starts) for Hitzfeld’s high-scoring Dortmund side, contributing three goals. Dortmund exited the Champions League at the quarter-finals, beaten 3-0 on aggregate by a Jari Litmanen-inspired Ajax.
Speaking of his Bundesliga experience, Sosa said: “It is fast football, I believe it was more of a physical shock to me rather than being technical. But I see that there are many fans. The fans are passionate about soccer. It was a beautiful year for me, because we won the German championship.”
Sosa won his final trophy in international football as part of Héctor Núñez’s 1995 Copa América squad. He was mainly used as a substitute in the early stages of the competition with Núñez having settled on a first-choice strike partnership of Francescoli and Daniel Fonseca. Nonetheless, Sosa had earned his second Copa América winners’ medal. Sadly, he would never again represent his country, finishing with a respectable 15 goals and 46 caps for Uruguay.
After just a year in Germany, Sosa returned to LaLiga, joining newly-promoted Logroñés. Although now on the wrong side of 30, he played 35 top-flight games and netted seven goals. Alas, he couldn’t prevent the club from being relegated straight back down to the second tier. With that, the European chapter of Sosa’s football career came to a close.
In 1997, Sosa returned to his homeland, joining the club he had supported as a child – Nacional. Three Uruguayan titles would follow in his five years at Nacional in 1998, 2000 and 2001. Sosa was back loving his football and basking in the adoration of the Nacional supporters. In 1999, even though Nacional only reached the last-16 of that year’s Copa Libertadores, Sosa was joint-top scorer for the tournament with six goals.
A move to Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua followed in 2002. There, Sosa won a league title, however it would be stripped from the club’s honours due to match-fixing findings over ten years later. The striker returned to Uruguay to play intermittently over the next couple of years at both Nacional and Racing Montevideo, eventually calling time on his professional career in 2006, aged 40.
Nowadays, Sosa can be found passing on his gift at the Escuela de Futbol Rubén Sosa, a football school he set up on the outskirts of Montevideo. The man who once terrorised goalkeepers like Sebastiano Rossi, Gianluca Pagliuca and Angelo Peruzzi is enjoying his retirement out of the limelight, it seems. As was the case during his career, despite the royal title of El Principito, ego was never a problem when it came to Rubén Sosa, the man whose name rightly takes its place among the best players Uruguay has ever produced.
By Shane Clancy @Koolhanger