“I’m big, you’re small,” echoes the taunting refrain in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the classic children’s book about a tiny child finding her voice and learning to use her power after being dominated by the adults in her life. Matilda, the eponymous heroine of the story, endures the bullying of the bigger and stronger grown-ups surrounding her until she finally can’t take it anymore and her feelings of inferiority explode in a torrent of flying newts, levitating chalk, and a particularly nauseating episode with a chocolate cake.
Nowhere in South America is this power clash better exemplified than in the near-constant rivalry between mighty Argentina and its Rioplatense neighbor, tiny Uruguay. One of the oldest sporting rivalries in the world, it has always been one of the most important in establishing Uruguay’s national identity. As Joshua Nadel notes in Fútbol! Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, Uruguay take more pride in their fútboling history than their century of social democracy, stable educational and healthcare systems, and status as “the Switzerland of South America”:
From a “tiny spot on a map” wedged in the shadows between two larger and more powerful neighbors (Argentina and Brazil), soccer helped Uruguay emerge into the sun as one of the most respected sporting nations in the world. Success on the field in turn helped bolster Uruguayans’ sense of pride in their nation.
In a microcosm of Uruguay’s feelings of invisibility, other larger and splashier rivalries tend to attract more attention; Brazil versus Argentina gets the television rights and Argentina versus Chile gets the color commentary. But Uruguay versus Argentina has the history, rich with fútboling legacy and lore.
The two nations of the Río de la Plata boast the oldest football associations in South America; these two associations came together in 1900 to organize the first international competition in the region: the Tie Cup. In 1924, after Uruguay won gold in Europe at the Summer Olympics, Uruguay and Argentina faced each other once again. During this not-so-friendly friendly match, Argentino Cezáreo Onzari scored from a corner kick and the Olympic Goal was born. (This occasion was also cause for the first time I have said something nice about Argentina in an article. Take note.)
The rivalry was not without its more dramatic incidents. The next Summer Olympics, in 1928, heralded the first Argentina-Uruguay derby off South American soil. And, just to heighten the drama as much as possible, the two nations met in the final. If that wasn’t provocative enough, that final ended in a tie. The rivals—neighbors in life and in sport—now had to play a second match for the gold, while sharing the world’s largest stage.
Intense to begin with, the rivalry exploded into a Matilda-like uproar. When tango artist Carlos Gardel (NB: to elaborate on the Uruguayan-Argentinian rivalry over him would take another ten pages, so I leave you to google “Carlos Gardel + birthplace” and puzzle over that telenovela) invited both teams to a show after the match so they could potentially reconcile over cabaret and booze, the results were less than successful. Argentino winger Raimundo Orzi summed up the riotous interactions between the players, when reminiscing about the evening of culture:
Gardel knew I played the violin so he invited me to play with him on stage. When the song finished, players of both sides started to throw breadcrumbs at each other, then they started to throw breads and then, bottles of wine. The Rioplatense brotherhood went to hell. In the midst of chaos, I saw a…man coming over me, I’m not sure if he was…[José Leandro] Andrade but I broke the Stradivarius on his head, just in case.
The two nations had played hundreds of other matches in their careers, both at home and on the international stage. But, as Nadel remarked, “In creating Uruguay’s soccer identity, perhaps no matches mattered more than those against Argentina.” For both South American neighbors—each of which would undergo social, economic, and political disparities in the next few decades—this particular rivalry would continue to matter.
While Uruguay has both chafed under, and flourished from, its connection to its larger neighbors, cultivating a team celebrated for its garra Charrúa (the ability to fight best as gritty underdogs), Argentina requires its patented la nuestra skill and style that leaves ugly, dirty, or workmanlike wins unacceptable to the discerning, demanding Argentino fanáticos. Perhaps this is the reason that Argentina has historically produced generational stars, Maradonas and Messis who muscle out from behind the masses of their peers to grace the billboards of Buenos Aires, the jerseys of their countrymen, and the pitches of top-flight European clubs. Uruguayan fútbol is not lacking in that stellar talent (see: Suárez, Luís) but the weight of the national team is divided among several pairs of Celeste shoulders. South Africa 2010 saw the rise of Suárez alongside Diego Godin and Edinson Cavani, but they were mentored, supported and, by some accounts, taken out for steak dinners by elder statesmen, the Diegos Lugano and Forlán. A nation where cows outnumber people cannot afford to pin all of their hopes on just one player, no matter how great; logistically (and bovine-ly) speaking, there may not be another to take his place.
José Ignacio Artigas, Uruguay’s liberating hero and most famous native son, famously said, “Náides es más que náides”: no one person is worth more than any other. What is valued though, more than any one person, is fútbol. And fútbol is intrinsically tied to the Uruguayan sense of self. As Ondino Viera, the coach of Uruguay’s 1966 World Cup team, declared, “Other countries have their history; Uruguay has its football.”
Here’s a story: a few years ago I was in Buenos Aires, translating for a group of Americans working for a pharmaceutical charity that disperses medication through Argentina’s most remote provinces. This is a great organization. The president (a woman, mind you, even more impressive!) came out to explain how they receive their donations, and said, with a smirk, that many of their donated meds come from “nuestro paisíto, Uruguay” (“our little country, Uruguay”).
Dear readers, I bristled.
The urge to translate her response to the Americans from “our little country” into “our magnificent neighbor and shining example of democracy and fútbol-par-excellence to the East” was intense. I was Matilda in all of her newt-flinging rage! I was Suárez in all of his— well, let’s not go there. Somehow, I managed to choke back the flood of national insignificance, generational pride, historical inadequacy, and semi-professionally told the waiting group that, “many of our donations come from Uruguay.”
I dedicated that small act of defiance to my boys in sky blue.
Uruguay takes the stage at this 2018 World Cup at a unique time in its fútbol history. In an exciting echo of its shockingly successful 2010 side, its roster is comprised of tournament-hardened veterans—this time, Suárez, Godín, and Cavani—and youngsters who came up through Uruguay’s U17 and U20 squads. It will now be up to Luis, Diego and Edinson to mentor young Giorgan De Arrascaeta, Lucas Torreira, and Rodrigo Betancur. The team is coming off of a rewarding qualifying season, a position that some in Uruguay look at as a marker of their potential to go far in Russia. Others (gesturing broadly at myself here), remember 2014 and the lack of garra Charrúa that got us kicked out after uncomfortable, poor playing. For Uruguay, coming in as underdogs is better; we are uniquely suited to clawing our way up. Will Argentina, coming off their own less-than-stellar run, be as happy with their lack of nuestra style? Who knows.*
And, speaking neighborly now, who cares?
*Editor’s note: we now all know.