South American giants battle to get one arm on the World Cup trophy

October 14, 2009

Argentina take on Uruguay tonight in the Centenario stadium in Montevideo in their final World Cup qualifying game, billed as make-or-break for Diego Maradona’s future managerial career. Amongst discussions as to whether South Africa 2010 will be ‘better’ if the ‘big’ teams make it to the main event next summer, one key fact is being forgotten: both nations are in the select group of five countries to have won the World Cup more than once.

I will be supporting Uruguay – not, I hasten to add, due to any particular anti-Argentine feeling, but following a highly enjoyable visit several years ago to their national stadium. Any doubts about how important football is to the nation, or about the pedigree of the team, were quickly quashed with a visit to the museum beneath.

Vertiginous view from the top of the stadium in Montevideo

A win for the home team tonight will see them safely through to their eleventh World Cup finals. Alongside a quarter- and two semi-finals, Los Charruas won the first two tournaments they entered, and did so with some panache.

In 1950 Uruguay won the greatest World Cup final of them all, beating Brazil in their back yard in front of 200,000 fans – probably the largest ever crowd for any football match anywhere ever. Due to peculiarities of the tournament, Brazil only needed a draw, and their supporters were in party mood when the hosts took the lead shortly after half time. Uruguay’s two goals to win the match were viewed with disbelief by a nation so disgusted that they changed their strip forever.

As a story, however, even this is topped by the hero of 1930. Uruguay was awarded the privilege of hosting the first World Cup in part as they would be celebrating a centenary of independence. Ok, so there weren’t that many teams involved, but the nation deserved the honour purely for the feat of building the Centenario in just nine months (tell that to Wembley). Having been dropped for the previous couple of games, Hector Castro was recalled for the final and scored the last goal in the 4-2 victory. And what was special about Castro? He had only one arm.

With Ecuador facing a tricky fixture tonight against already qualified Chile, it’s still likely that both teams will ultimately qualify, even if one has to come through a play-off. For tonight, however, it’s time for revenge for the 1986 defeat (Uruguay lost to Argentina the round before England), and – hopefully – to celebrate Uruguay getting one-arm back on the trophy.

Update 16 October: Sadly, Uruguay lost 1-0, but Chile did the business against Ecuador, so next up is two play-off games against Costa Rica on 14 and 18 November. Here’s hoping…