How tiny Uruguay became a soccer giant

Fans of Uruguay cheer on the team before the start of a Copa America Group C soccer match against Bolivia in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
Uruguay, population 3.4 million, has won more Copa América titles than Brazil and more World Cups than England. It is once again among men's international soccer's top 10 teams. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Its population is less than Connecticut’s. Its GDP is smaller than Delaware’s. It is roughly the same size as Cambodia or Suriname. Its people have never won a Nobel Prize, nor an individual Olympic gold medal. So, I asked some natives recently: How? Why? What makes Uruguay so good at soccer?

Diego Rossi and Nicolás Lodeiro both anchored their answer in the very first gift they ever received, the same one thousands of Uruguayan kids unwrap each year: a ball.

Rossi is from the capital, Montevideo; Lodeiro is from a border town, Paysandú. Rossi grew up in the 21st century, and Lodeiro in the 20th. Rossi played at Peñarol, and Lodeiro at its archrival, Nacional. They took distinct paths to the upper reaches of their sport, to their national team, to famous European clubs. But they shared a commonality that explains why their country, Uruguay, the 135th biggest in the world, has won more World Cups than England and more Copa Américas than Brazil.

“We have football in our blood,” Lodeiro says.

They had it in their lives, too, for as long as they can remember, ever since they received that first gift around age 2. They’d toddle around their humble homes with a ball at their feet. If they ever didn’t have one, “you try to make one with socks, paper,” Lodeiro says.

And if they ever didn’t have a field, they’d play in the street. They’d play with neighbors and classmates, “everywhere,” Rossi says. Then, at age 5, they stepped into Uruguay’s famed “baby fútbol” system, and bloomed.

They’d play on grass and dirt fields, which seem to dot every other street corner. They’d train a few times per week, and play on weekends, 10 or 11 months per year. They learned to love the sport but also to compete — for points in a league table, for championships, for pride, even at age 7.

As they grew, they leapt from local baby fútbol clubs to regional select teams, then to academies, to youth national teams and beyond. They climbed a soccer pyramid that lends logic and structure to Uruguay’s national obsession. It’s a “really great, very well thought-out, very well organized structure, which spans the entire country,” Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine who coaches Uruguay’s national team, said last month.

“And that, complemented by genetics,” Bielsa said, is why Uruguay produces so many elite soccer players.

It’s why Diego Forlan gave way to Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani; it’s why Darwin Nuñez and Federico Valverde and dozens of others have followed. It’s why Uruguay, with a population 100 times smaller than the United States, and a GDP 358 times smaller, could beat the U.S. at the 2024 Copa América. Five days later, it downed mighty Brazil.

The sociological and historical puzzle to solve, then, is how this structure developed, and how this intoxicating game entered a nation's bloodstream.

(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Football, of course, was not always in their blood, not back in the 19th century before the sport had been invented. European immigrants brought it to the shores of South America in the late 1800s. And in Uruguay, like elsewhere, it blossomed.

At first, according to most histories, it was an upper-middle-class game. But Uruguay’s social reforms of the early 20th century helped democratize it. Free healthcare, public education and welfare enabled social mobility and widened the middle class. The government also built recreational facilities, including fields, in many neighborhoods. And soccer, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world, became inclusive and accessible.

Students played; railroad workers played; entire slums played. The descendants of slaves played; so did the descendants of slave owners. The nascent national team’s early stars were meatpackers and marble-cutters, ice sellers and grocers. And in 1924, they shocked the world.

They went to France that year for their debut at the Olympics. Their six-week steamship voyage was bankrolled in part by politician Atilio Narancio, the Uruguayan soccer federation’s president, who mortgaged his home to fund the trip. At the Games, they played an artful football unlike any Europe had seen. They won gold. And they changed Uruguay forever.

"We are no longer just a tiny spot on the map of the world,” Narancio declared in the festive aftermath.

Eduardo Galeano, soccer’s first poet laureate, wrote that the sky-blue Uruguayan jersey “was proof of the existence of the nation.”

“Football,” Galeano wrote, “had pulled this tiny country out of the shadows of universal anonymity.”

So football became an inextricable piece of its identity.

Another Olympic gold in 1928 further engrained the sport. Two years later, a triumph at the inaugural World Cup, played entirely in Montevideo, wove football into the fabric of the country forever. Eventually, after another World Cup title in 1950, Uruguay’s early advantages faded — because larger, richer nations began to leverage their entire populations. But the lore persisted.

“When you're growing,” Lodeiro says, “your parents tell you about our history.”

And not about wars or presidents or movements. About soccer.

Soccer, therefore, is the game that an estimated 85% of sporty boys age 6-13 play. They enter the world armed with a ball and big dreams. They watch their local club and the national team. They see Uruguayan players starring in Europe, and they aspire; they believe. Lodeiro saw Enzo Francescoli; Rossi saw Cavani and Suarez; a 7-year-old today sees Nuñez and Valverde. “And you try to copy,” Lodeiro says.

Some also come to see soccer as a means to a better future, as a route from borderline poverty to financial stability and fortune. But poverty rates in Uruguay are the lowest in all of Latin America. La pasión mostly stems from history. “The most important [thing],” Lodeiro says, “is that it's in our culture.”

An Uruguayan fan waits for the start of a Copa America Group C soccer match between Uruguay and Bolivia in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
An Uruguayan fan waits for the start of a Copa America Group C soccer match between Uruguay and Bolivia in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

The passion germinates inside most kids before they even join organized leagues. The leagues then teach them technique, competitive fire and teamwork.

There are over 60 baby fútbol leagues, divided into nine “zones,” under one umbrella, the Organización Nacional de Fútbol Infantil, in Uruguay. Their size varies by city, and some in remote towns only have a few teams; but even in Paysandú, pop. 75,000, where Lodeiro played for Barrio Obrero, the Liga Sanducera has two dozen clubs.

Just outside Montevideo, where Rossi played for Uruguay Solymar, the Liga Interbalnearia has more — and it’s one of at least 13 leagues in and around the capital alone.

Greater Montevideo is home to more than half of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people, and many grow up within several blocks of a baby fútbol club. They play 7-v-7 against neighboring clubs, often without having to hop in a car. They play to win, and yes, some coaches get intense; some overzealous parents yell and scream. But the primary purpose is simply to play.

The best from each age group then get selected to represent their league in inter-city competitions. These selecciones, as the All-Star teams are known, travel to different states, typically on long weekends, to face peers from other cities. Scouts from professional clubs attend the mini-tournaments. Kids with promise are rarely overlooked or left behind.

The top pro clubs — such as the big two, Peñarol and Nacional — also maintain close ties with various baby fútbol institutions. The relationships allow youth clubs to funnel talented teens and pre-teens to top academies. Rossi and most of his selección went to Peñarol around age 13. From there, he went pro, then to MLS, then to Europe and the national team.

The concentration of prestigious clubs in Montevideo also allows youth national teams to gather regularly, far more regularly than in, say, the United States. Rossi played for Uruguay’s U-15s, U-17s and so on. He’d train with those teams Monday-Wednesday, sharpening himself against the very best players in the country, before jumping back in with Peñarol for the latter half of each week.

This, in summary, is the system that discovered and shaped Suarez and Nuñez, Valverde and Manuel Ugarte, Ronald Araújo and Facundo Pellistri. It’s the system that makes Uruguay the world’s per-capita leader in men’s soccer success.

Uruguay's Darwin Nunez and Maximiliano Araújo celebrate after Nunez scored the team's second goal during a Copa America Group C soccer match against Bolivia in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
Uruguay's Darwin Nuñez and Maximiliano Araújo celebrate after Nuñez scored the team's second goal during a Copa America Group C soccer match against Bolivia in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

With a population dwarfed by its two neighbors, Argentina and Brazil; and by Colombia, and even Peru, and Mexico, and European superpowers, Uruguayan soccer’s margin for error in the modern era has been thin. Over the latter half of the 20th century, error — instability, coaching — left La Celeste lagging. It won just one World Cup game from 1974-2006.

But in 2006, Oscar Tabarez, El Maestro, came to the rescue. The professorial coach took charge and implemented “El Proceso,” the process, a now-legendary initiative that aligned all male Uruguayan national teams, from youth to senior, around core values and principles of play. Under Tabarez, Uruguay won its 15th Copa América, charged to a World Cup semifinal, and reached the knockout rounds of three consecutive World Cups.

His teams were often celebrated as warriors, for their Garra Charrúa, their courage and tenacity. Their ability to topple giants 37 times their size was often chalked up to mentality. “That's a big part of our culture, to work hard for what you want to be,” Rossi says. It’s engraved in the national psyche, and instilled in Uruguayan youngsters, and as Cavani once said: "You will carry these feelings with you for your entire life."

But, as an explanation for the phenomenon of Uruguayan football, it is incomplete.

Grit alone did not push a country smaller than Los Angeles back to global prominence, into the Elo top 10. Grit alone did not score eight goals in Uruguay’s first two 2024 Copa América games. Grit alone did not win the 2023 Under-20 World Cup. Grit alone has not won 88 all-time World Cup points, more than 25 per 1 million residents, more than twice as many per head as any other country.

This, rather, is a story about how a single sport gave a small South American enclave a foothold in the world. It’s about a progressive society’s embrace of that sport. It’s about a pipeline that maximizes the sport’s ubiquity, and churns out player after player.

When you piece it together, it all makes sense, but still, as former defender Paolo Montero once said: “Uruguayan football is a miracle to me.”