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“The Garra Charrúa is something we’re proud of, even if other people misunderstand it,” said Diego Forlán, captain of the Uruguay side that reached the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup. “It’s like when you don’t have that last breath but you always want to give more. Sometimes, in the last minute, against big teams, you never expect to have the chance to win, but there is that Garra that everyone talks about. in Uruguay.”
In Uruguay, they say that while other countries have their history, the nation has its football. This is only partly facetious. Uruguay’s most significant and notable impacts on the global consciousness have been due to their football prowess. No other country its size has achieved even half as much in the sport.
With a population of just 3.5 million, Uruguay, squeezed in between the giants of Argentina (41 million) and Brazil (200 million), has always had to fight for recognition. Their neighbours are simply too big and too close, making Uruguay largely dependent on them politically, economically and socially.
In the early 20th century, Uruguay channelled its sense of inferiority to transform itself into a modern, social democracy, ahead of any of the other Latin American republics. This gave it an exaggerated sense of self, a belief that Uruguay, though always the underdog, could rise above.
Nowhere is this exemplified better than on the football field. It has led to the development of a national psyche – Garra Charrúa – which portrays Uruguay as the perennial underdog in a near-impossible fight against others, seeking to achieve the impossible.
There are many explanations for its meaning but, at its core, Garra Charrúa – literally “Claw of the Charrúa” – is about tenacity and courage in the face of adversity, about being resourceful and daring, to never give up. Long before Forlán, Luis Suárez and Enzo Francescoli, there were the native Charrúa, the indigenous people who inhabited the land before the conquistadors came calling.
History recalls the stoic resistance they put up fighting to defend their territory against the Spanish invaders. It was a battle they could never win, of course, and would ultimately lead to their betrayal by the president, General Fructuoso Rivera, and their wholesale extermination in a final, brutal massacre in 1832. Their spirit lives on in the characteristics that Uruguayans have chosen to embrace and make their own; of fighting against the seemingly impossible, of believing that with grit and tenacity, anything is possible.
Asserting themselves as a nation surrounded by bigger, more powerful countries has always required a different attitude – a style of personality, a philosophy. As it is in Uruguayan life, so it is in Uruguayan football. The national team has grasped the ethos of Garra Charrúa as its default setting. But to say that it was a standalone philosophy for Uruguayan football would be too simplistic. The truth is far more complex.
It’s always been about finding a balance, in trying to capture that sweet spot where perfection lies. Always sat alongside the tenacity, the streetwise cunning, the attitude of Garra Charrúa is the spontaneity, the beauty, and the art of the style developed on the dusty streets and playing fields of Montevideo.
There is a permanent contradiction between these competing styles at the heart of Uruguayan football, and when that sweet spot between the two is found, excellence awaits. Conversely, when the balance sways too far one way or the other, there is only disappointment.
Far away from the more rigid influences of British and European football in the early 20th century, in Uruguay, as in Argentina, football developed a sense of beauty and spontaneity among the working-class – the poor and the outcast – in the squalor of the rapidly urbanising Montevideo. As described by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in Football in Sun and Shadow: “Like the tango, soccer blossomed in the slums.”
This Uruguayan school of football developed a unique style, harnessing an impulsive freedom, a naturalness, a beauty. “On the feet of the first Creole virtuosos, el toque, the touch, was born: the ball was strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music,” wrote Galeano. Combined with the Garra outlook to fight until your last breath, this evolved into a style that conquered the world.
Uruguay were the great international team of the 1920s, consistently coming out on top in the regular clashes with their brethren across the Río de la Plata, Argentina. They travelled to Paris for the 1924 Olympic Games and simply dazzled all who saw or faced them. “Game after game,” wrote Galeano, “the crowd jostled to see those men, slippery as squirrels, who played chess with a ball.”
The Uruguayan football of that era wasn’t merely artistic beauty, however. Even amidst such exquisiteness there was space for – a need for – some forceful physicality. Some brute to complement the beauty, the street-smarts to sit alongside the spontaneity; Uruguay’s Garra.
This was the philosophy at its purest. The never say die attitude combined to absolute perfection with a footballing style of close passing and lightning changes in pace and rhythm. This style swept all before them in what Galeano describes as “the second discovery of America”, such was the impact on the startled Europeans.
By the time Uruguay hosted the inaugural World Cup in 1930, they had added another Olympic crown in Amsterdam in 1928, once again in crossing the Atlantic back to the Old World to beat the European elite. The home World Cup saw Uruguay add a third consecutive global title to their collection, and in the final itself – a 4-2 victory over Argentina – the nation saw the need for that battling spirit, the willingness to fight to the end.
With tensions and recriminations bubbling over in advance of the final, a volatile match was inevitable. In a terse, tense affair, with Argentina leading 2-1 at half-time and slicing through the home defence with abandon, Uruguay required all the technique and tricks at their disposal to find their way to victory. For all the sublime skills, there was the physicality. Take Héctor Castro, for instance, the scorer of Uruguay’s fourth, who wasn’t opposed to using the stump of his amputated arm to clobber opponents when the referee wasn’t looking.
Success came with the balance between Garra and guile being maintained; the perfect blend of Uruguayan football. When they next took part in the World Cup, across the border in Brazil in 1950, this marvellous mix would be even more starkly apparent.
The final of the 1950 World Cup was meant to see the crowning of the home favourites. Once again, La Celeste were pitted against one of their neighbours, with Uruguay needing a win in the final group match to prevent Brazil taking the glory. Uruguay may no longer have had the spectacularly skilful and mesmerising team they’d stunned the world with in earlier decades, but they were still a very good side. But the 1950 denouement would provide the defining glory of the Garra philosophy merging to perfection with the raw skills of the team.
However, it was no easy task as not only was the Brazil team comfortably the best up until that point in the tournament, but they also had the backing of around 200,000 people crammed into Rio’s Maracanã for the big day. Brazilian newspaper O Mundo had disdainfully claimed Brazil would have no trouble earning the draw they required to win the World Cup, that they printed an edition heralding ‘These are the World Champions” before the game had even begun.
When the Uruguay captain, the imposing figure of Obdulio Varela, a man who exemplifies both the skill, doggedness and streetwise savvy of Garra Charrúa, saw this in the team’s hotel lobby, he bought up every copy on display and laid them out on his bathroom floor before inviting his teammates to empty their bladders all over them. The underdog sense, the victimisation, the overbearing arrogance of their larger neighbour, stoked the Uruguayan fires.
On arriving at the stadium, Varela wasn’t going to allow his teammates to feel that the spectators would have any say in the outcome of the match. “Enter walking slowly, quietly confrontational,” he told his team. “Don’t look up at the stands but straight ahead, because the match is played on the ground and we are 11 versus 11.” He was setting the tone, embracing the philosophy.
Uruguay had to defend tirelessly, clinging on in a desperate struggle of a first half, before finally going behind early in the second. Varela realised at this point that with the Brazilians threatening to overrun them, something needed to be done to calm the atmosphere and allow La Celeste to compose themselves. He retrieved the ball from the Uruguay net and placed it under his arm and approached the English referee to repeatedly remonstrate that there should have been an offside call, keeping the argument going for some time.
The crowd’s euphoria was gradually replaced with bemusement at what was going on, meaning that by the time the game restarted, the stadium had fallen silent, the delirium of the goal having subdued, the mood calmed. “I knew if I didn’t stall the match, they would demolish us,” recalled Varela some years later. His team recovered from their setback as the Brazilians grew increasingly anxious, and Varela had a part in setting up the two Uruguay goals for Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia, which silenced the Maracanã and gave Uruguay their crowning glory.
Their run of success was finally ended by the magnificent Magyars in the 1954 semi-final, as a new style was taking over world football. What Uruguay failed to realise at this point was that this was to be the turning point in its sporting fortunes. Their most glorious era was coming to an end, so much so that they didn’t even qualify in 1958.
It had been a time when Uruguay had enjoyed supremacy not only in football but also in the democratic system, public education and welfare amongst its South American neighbours. As a nation, they were perched on the highest pedestal they could imagine, but the 1950 victory had compounded Uruguay’s inflated self-image. From such heights, there was only one way to go.
Uruguay’s obsession with its glorious football past rather than a focus on their future would lead to a downturn in fortunes and a distortion of the meaning of Garra Charrúa.
Mirroring this, Uruguay had also begun to stagnate politically and economically; a decay that accelerated over the course of the next two decades until the country finally succumbed to a military coup in 1973. On the pitch, there was only an isolated semi-final appearance in 1970 that hindsight marks out as a blip in an otherwise steady decline. After a dismal 1974 tournament, Uruguay wouldn’t appear at the World Cup again until 1986, when their style would be more disgrace than grace.
“The fight in the people of Uruguay is seen nowhere else. It’s the culmination of a sense of old inferiority, a rich history and a cultural desire to be a story of success. This is seen in the national team at almost every tournament they play – in fleeting moments especially.” Eduardo Galeano
By then, the fighting spirit would morph into something rather more cynical. Less the will to overcome, but the will to go to any means necessary as Uruguay became synonymous with ruthless physicality. The balance between art and artfulness had skewed utterly in one direction.
Uruguay played without shame in the 1986 tournament. Rather than focusing on the finesse for which they’d once been renowned, their loss of confidence as their golden era became an increasingly distant memory prompted this rough approach, which reached its nadir with José Batista’s vicious lunge on Scotland’s Gordon Strachan. Just 56 seconds into Uruguay’s final group match, he was shown a red card for this scythe from behind – and the nation’s football had sunk to its most humiliating low.
They’d been chastened in their previous match as well, as a delightful Denmark side dribbled past the Uruguayans at will on their way to a 6-1 victory. La Celeste had lost a man early in that match too, Miguel Bossio getting his marching order midway through the first half. With only ten men, Uruguay were helpless to stop the Danish onslaught.
This humbling can be seen as hardening the resolve of the Uruguayans to go to any means necessary to secure the draw they needed against Scotland to progress from the group. Any semblance of equilibrium in the Uruguayan philosophy was abandoned as they sought not to simply win against the odds, the real essence of their psyche, but to progress by any means necessary. The Denmark defeat had already ensured that Uruguay would be hunkered down in their underdog status, but with Batista’s red card, the sense of victimisation increased.
The match became an exercise in kicking, diving, time-wasting and any and every dark art you could imagine as a means of achieving their goal. Scotland striker Graeme Sharp recalled: “They were spitting on the back of your head, pulling your hair, putting their fingers in places where you shouldn’t.” They stretched gamesmanship to new levels, showing an ugly face of football that even prompted FIFA to threaten them with expulsion should they continue in this vein.
To Uruguayan minds, that they attained the 0-0 draw they needed meant they had achieved their goal in doing what they had needed to do to go through. To them, it was a cause for celebration rather than vilification. The watching world disagreed. It was hard to believe that this was the same country that had so thrilled the world with their style and subtlety in decades before.
Garra Charrúa had become an increasingly pugnacious, aggressive ethos that had all but obliterated the finer qualities that some of their players still possessed. Enzo Francescoli, an attacking midfielder with an exquisite elegance to his play, was the one player in that team who attempted to remain faithful to the more gilded side of the Uruguayan philosophy. His fate was to never fully realise his potential in the national team, his performances never living up to his club form, destined to play at a time when Uruguay’s methods had morphed into dark cynicism.
Unable to accept the criticism coming his way, the Uruguay manager, Omar Borrás, called the French referee a “murderer”, earning himself a touchline ban for their next match, and even had the gall to claim, “I don’t know what the fuss is about. We played a fair game.” His aggressive interpretation meant that the classic Uruguayan balance wasn’t now between styles of art and aggression; rather it was an attempt to operate in the narrow margin between yellow and red cards. It was a balance they failed to achieve. They were duly eliminated by Argentina in the next round, their reputation in tatters.
The man who would attempt to restore this image was Óscar Tabárez. It would be following his return for a second stint the role in 2006 that Tabárez would finally lift Uruguay’s fortunes once again by placing a greater emphasis on nurturing the nation’s youth players in a more holistic approach than had been the case before. He also fostered a unity, and a more positive harnessing of Garra Charrúa to allow room for the burgeoning individual flair players that Uruguay still churned out on a regular basis.
All young players coming through the system were now schooled in those same ideals, before being lured abroad for bigger professional contracts. The sense of Garra took on a new aspect in fostering unity in those returning from overseas to wear the pale blue of the national team. “We had to determine a team profile,” noted Tabárez. “We couldn’t just live based on the glory of the past.”
His more modern interpretation of Garra Charrúa, and his effective blending together of the silk and steel of the likes of Diego Godín, Edinson Cavani, Forlán and Suárez, took Uruguay to the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup. Tabárez put this success down to the unity this approach had fostered: “That harmony, that solidarity among the players, that unity. This is a very good weapon and allows us to take on any team.”
He had found the right blend once again, although there was, as ever, the streetwise will to win, as evidenced by Suárez’s handball in the dying moments of the quarter-final against Ghana, preventing an African winner.
Suárez, like Varela before him, embodies the national spirit. This makes it harder for Uruguayans to condemn him, as was shown again following his bite on Giorgio Chiellini in 2014, but it also means his much-admired competitiveness gives his country an edge, an opportunity to overcome, a chance to win where victory seemed beyond reach.
This is the very essence of Garra Charrúa, and in recent years that perfect blend has been discovered once more, advancing Uruguay’s effectiveness far beyond its natural limits.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams