For Pedro Arsipe, homeland meant nothing. It was the place where he was born, which meant nothing to him because he had no choice in the matter, and that was where he broke his back working as a peon for a man who was the same as any boss in any country. But when Uruguay won the 1924 Olympic title in France, Arispe was one of the winning players. While he watched the flag in sun with the sun and four pale blue stripes rising slowly up the pole of honor, at the center of all the flags and higher than any other, Arispe felt his heart burst.
Four years later Uruguay won the Olympic final in Holland. And a prominent Uruguayan, Atilio Narancio, who in ’24 had mortgaged his house to pay for players’ passage, commented: “We are no longer just a tiny spot on the map of the world.”
The sky-blue shirt was proof of the existence of the nation: Uruguay was not a mistake. Soccer pulled this tiny country out of the shadows of universal anonymity.
The authors of these miracles of ’24 and ’28 were workers and wanderers who got nothing from soccer but the pleasure of playing. Pedro Arispe was a meat-packer. Jose Nasazzi cut marble. “Perucho” Petrone worked for a grocer. Pedro Cea sold ice. Jose Leandro Andrade was a carnival musician and bootblack. They were all twenty years old, more or less, though in pictures they look like senor citizens. They cured their wounds with salt water, vinegar plasters and a few glasses of wine.
In 1924 they arrived in Europe in third class steerage and then travelled on borrowed money in second class carriages, sleeping on wooden benches and playing game after game in exchange for room and board. Before the Paris Olympics, they played nine games in Spain and won all of them.
It was the first time that a Latin American team had played in Europe. The first match was against Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs sent spies to the practice session. The Uruguayans caught on and practiced by kicking the ground and sending the ball up into the clouds, tripping at every step and crashing into each other. The spies reported: “It makes you feel sorry, these poor boys came from so far away…”
Barely two thousand fans watched the game. The Uruguayan flag was flown upside down, the sun on its head, and instead of the national anthem they played a Brazilian march. That afternoon, Uruguay defeated Yugoslavia 7-0.
And then something like the second discovery of America occurred. Game after game, the crowd jostled to see those men, slippery like squirrels, who played chess with a ball. The English squad had perfected the long pass and the high ball, but these disinherited children from far-off America didn’t walk in their fathers’ footsteps. They chose to invent a game of close passes directly to the foot, with lightning changes in rhythm and high-speed dribbling. Henri de Montherlant, an aristocratic writer, published his enthusiasm: “A revelation! Here we have real soccer. Compared with this, what we knew before, what we played, was no more than a school-boy’s hobby.”
Uruguay’s success at the ’24 and ’28 Olympics, and at the 1930 and 1950 World Cups, owed a large debt to the government’s policy of building sports fields around the country to promote physical education. Now all that remains of state’s social calling, and of soccer, is nostalgia. Several players, like the very subtle Enzo Francescoli, have managed to inherit and renovate the old arts, but in general Uruguayan soccer is far cry from what it used to be. Ever fewer children play it and ever fewer men play it gracefully. Nevertheless, there is no Uruguayan who does not consider himself a Ph.D. in tactics and strategy and a scholar of its history. Uruguayans’ passion for soccer comes from those days long ago, and its deep roots are still visible. Every time the national team plays, no matter against whom, the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their caresses, and flies stop flying.
Eduardo Galeano is a journalist and writer from Montevideo. This is a section from his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow.