I sit typing this diary in the departures lounge at the Port of Montevideo after an action-packed 36 hours in the Uruguayan capital. We arrived at 1000 on Wednesday morning, threw our bags in to the hostel and headed out to walk the 5K to the Estadio Centenario, the stadium where the Uruguayan national team plays its games.
A quick word on the hostel. It was way nicer than the one in Buenos Aires and, unlike the one in BA, seems to be bed bug free which is nice. My head at present has been bitten that many times it’s resembling Eugene from Robocop as his face peels off….help me….help meeeeee.
At the Centenario we were met by Uruguayan football writer and historian Juan Pablo Taborda. Juan took us around the museum of football and gave us a running commentary of the history of the place. It’s the stadium where the first World Cup Final was held (a Uruguay win) and is magnificently dilapidated a and ramschackle despite its historical significance and capacity (65000). As is fairly standard for South American football stadiums of a certain vintage, it has no roof which makes it seem even bigger than it is. The views towards all directions of the city are very decent.
It’s a place that ought to be revered by fans of football but as Juan Pablo told us, barely anyone knows about it and its state of disrepair indicates that the Uruguayan authorities have little desire to try and attract paying visitors to it. Given that one of the country’s biggest money makers is tourism it seems their either missing a trick or simply don’t care. There’s a huge tower attached to the Stadium called El Torre de los Homenajes. No one seems to know to whom homage is being paid.
We spoke to Juan Pablo at length about Uruguayan football and why a nation of just 3.5 million people seems to consistently produce a competitive national team. The mentality of those who play it seems to be the overwhelming reason, i.e. the players are taught to be fearless of the opposition from childhood. Pretty much every kid from the moment she or he can walk is enrolled in a football team and the mentality of loathing defeat is instilled in them more or less straight away.
Juan Pablo mentioned his kids coming home crying with anger after losing. I got the distinct impression that Uruguayan football mentality is to not panic and drop your arse when under pressure. Luis Suarez could be held-up as an embodiment of this. His 2014 performance against England when injured is the perfect example, he refused to come off despite having missed the opening game and been badly injured (by Tyneside’s one and only Paul Dummett). Of course, he pretty much won the match for Uruguay single-handedly, knocking England out in the process.
Juan Pablo told us a little about football at club level and that there are issues of violence between the big sides. A game played between Peñaroland Nacional, the 2 biggest sides in the country, at the Estadio Centenario, would mean fans in the stands behind the goals only. The space in between would be empty except for security as to put the hinchas too close together would lead to violence. As Juan Pablo explained, passion is important but there’s passion and then there’s hoofing the shite out of someone just because they support a different team to you.
We returned to central Montevideo fairly late, recorded a podcast on what we’d spoken about with Juan Pablo, chinned a bottle of wine and were flat out by 2300….hard core bastards, eh?
Thursday was a fairly early start as we’d arranged (thanks to our Argentine contact Romina) a meeting at Uruguayan Second Division side Villa Española’sEstadio Obdulio Jacinto Varela with fan and club employee, Agustín Lucas.
The Stadium is located around 12 kms from where we were staying in Ciudad Vieja so we jumped in a taxi and set off for a 30 minute journey through colourful streets and noisy roads, passing walls covered in political graffiti. On arriving at the Ground we were greeted by Agustin who, it turned out, as well as being the stadium manager, is also a football writer, poet and ex-professional footballer. The lad has had some career, playing in the Uruguayan top flight as well as in Argentina, Venezuela and Guatemala.
We initially supposed we’d talk about Uruguayan top flight football but the conversation pretty quickly turned towards the club that employs him. Along with longstanding club servant Sergio Romero (72 years old and a former player with the side, and its current Club Secretary), we discussed the structure of the club and the disparities between a second division side and a top flight team. We learnt how recruitment of footballers is changing through clubs now scouting more from the middle classes, as the young kids don’t need feeding up, from the working classes who do.
We were told that there are huge problems between the clubs and TV at the moment (sound familiar?) and that all the staff, from the person scraping paint off the walls outside the club in order for it to be repainted (happening whilst we were there) to the team manager, are paid exactly the same wage – the minimum. The lads told us that whilst the aspiration might be to reach the top flight, the reality of being there may well be unsustainable. The fact that the staff are all on minimum wage at a club in the second division tells you that despite the undoubted success of the Uruguayan national team, its club teams in the Copa América and the fact that the country produces superstars such as Suarez and Cavani, it’s not something that the vast majority of professionals can make a decent living from. The majority of Villa Española’s side, despite being pros, have second jobs. A different world.
On leaving it felt like new friendships were made and it appears that True Faith are the first Europeans to visit, definitely the first Brits, so hopefully one day they’ll name a stand after us. We returned to the city centre on a local bus and sat at the back. The seats were free for a reason. The back door wouldn’t close properly so not only was it freezing, I feel like I swallowed the country’s entire carbon footprint.
We couldn’t find anyone to help us get hold of Nacho Gonzalez. Where’s Dennis Wise when you need him?