The tenacity of the Charrúa, Uruguay’s indigenous people, epitomises the nation’s constant struggle and is a key element to understanding the genesis of the country’s often times stunning role as underdogs on the world stage.
Let me tell you a story.
A long time ago, before colonialism, the jungles of South America were luscious and dense. Before the influences of world trade. Before the regimes, and before the migration. Before the world changed, the tropical forests endured. And the Guaraní people…well…the Guaraní people thrived.
The Guaraní once inhabited large areas of South America – from Buenos Aires to Brasilia and Montevideo to Bolivia. They lived within their means, using a “slash-and-burn” technique to harvest crops. The Guaraní would section off a portion of forest, burn it to ashes, and wait for the ground to absorb nutrients from the deceased trees. The process would culminate with the planting of crops in the newly-supplemented soil. From the ashes would emerge an abundance of riches: shiny oranges bursting with juices, slow-growing bananas, and succulent beans.
Anthropology and Sociology Professor Richard K. Reed explored the dynamic of the Guaraní people’s sustainable forest development in his research piece, Forest Development the Indian Way. Reed discovered that the people would use the burnt field for their crops, and once the dirt was exhausted they would move on to another clearing. But the Guaraní were not destroying the land. They were saving it.
“The surrounding forest quickly reclaims the old field; roots penetrate the opening from the forest edge and animals wander through it dropping seeds in their path. As the forest returns, the decaying matter once again strengthens the depleted soil. After several years the plot will be distinguished only as one of the citrus groves that are scattered throughout the unbroken forest. In this way, the forest produces a sustained yield without degrading the natural ecosystem.”
— Richard K. Reed
This was the life of the Guaraní people at their peak. The promotion of biodiversity, where man, animal, and plant life could thrive together. Sustainable development at its finest. And it was at this peak of sustainable civilization that the Guaraní drove the Charrúa people to what is now known as Uruguay.
David and Goliath(s) — Twentieth Century Success
The modern perception of the Guaraní people, whose vast legacy can be found in Paraguay, differs from that of the Charrúa. The Charrúa are the indigenous people of Uruguay and have the reputation of those who fought against Spanish invaders.
Ultimately, the natives were unsuccessful in stemming the foreign attacks, but the spirit of their battling persists. La Garra Charrúa, the tenacity of the Charrúa, is used by Uruguayans as a phrase of persistence. A nationalistic chant, it portrays Uruguay as a small entity in an impossible battle against giants while acknowledging that – with grit and tenacity – anything is possible.
The nation that has risen alongside – or perhaps in spite of – the suppressed Charrúa is that of Uruguay. Locked between two powers in Argentina and Brazil, it was formed in the early nineteenth century as a mediatory agreement between the two nations and England. It is in most senses small – around three million people reside inside the country with the screeching motto “Libertad o Muerte”, “Freedom or Death”. This rallying cry has become epitomised within Uruguay’s national football team. In many senses, it was this mentality that won them the first ever World Cup.
Jules Rimet and the recently-organised FIFA declared the country the prime location for the governing body’s inaugural world competition. Football in the small nation was quite advanced for the time, making it a logical choice for FIFA. In 1924, the country had blasted onto the world stage by winning gold – the first South American team to medal in football. Four years later, they defeated Argentina in the gold medal match to achieve back-to-back Olympic triumphs. There was no other team in the world more prepared to win the 1930 World Cup than La Celeste.
The country had also won independence a century prior, after England mediated a treaty between Brazil and modern-day Argentina. The destination was, hence, both logical and meaningful. The meeting of sporting excellence and national pride.
The country welcomed twelve other nations, mostly South American, in a bid to conquer the now-prestigious tournament in its infancy. However, despite their thorough preparedness, the Uruguayan squad nearly faltered at the first hurdle. As recounted in Dan Davison’s report of the event, the team walked out to a crowd of 90,000 and felt the pressure immediately. The weight of a nation, forever underestimated and cordoned, pressed heavily on the back of the squad.
Playing like a deer in the headlights was adequate enough to scrape a 1-0 win over continental rivals Peru. And by the time Romania waltzed into the Estadio Centenario three days later, the team had clearly adjusted to the media and fan pressure. The squad that arrived by boat travel across the Atlantic Ocean posed no problems for the hosts and succumbed to a 4-0 thrashing, much to the pleasure of Uruguayan supporters.
Besting another European opponent in Yugoslavia by the score of six to one in the semi-finals, Uruguay met Argentina in the final. Not only was Argentina somewhat of a big brother to them on the international stage, but the looming shadow of their powerful neighbors had yet to be shed on the pitch either.
At halftime, it seemed that shadow would continue to hover over the Uruguayan people, as Argentina recovered from an early concession to go up 1-2. The ancestors of the indigenous Uruguayans had been pushed and prodded into a corner of the continent thousands of years before. The first 45 minutes replicated much of that same feeling, except instead of the Guaraní imposing nomadic lifestyles, it was Argentine footballers slicing through a talented yet vulnerable squad.
Thousands of years ago, the Charrúa lost their land to continental forces. Centuries ago, they lost their land to European conquistadors. In 1930, they lost their land to the Argentine football team. The Uruguayans looked back to the example set by the Charrúa; they had been defeated, but it wasn’t done by submission. La Garra Charrúa was present in the players that day, and they wouldn’t go down without a fight.
On July 30, 1930, the Uruguayans ripped the Guaraní’s seeds from the soil with their bare hands, screamed “Is THIS your way of life?” and conquered. The Uruguayans scored three goals in the second half, ripping out the hearts of the arrogant Argentines and winning the World Cup.
How, then, did the Brazilians think they could stroll into the 1950 World Cup final and dominate Uruguay? Sure, the Estádio do Maracanã was bustling with two-hundred thousand spectators in Rio de Janeiro. Sure, the Brazilians were undeniably favourites to thrash the opponents. But, were the Brazilians so arrogant to think that, even having gone 1-0 up after halftime, the Uruguayans would skip past an opportunity to put one over Argentina and Brazil?
The answer is yes. Brazil had dominated throughout the tournament and, by all accounts, were going to dominate Uruguay as well. The Brazilian press had already dubbed themselves world champions, gold medals were printed with the names of the Brazil squad, and a song entitled “Brazil the Victors” was composed especially for their impending triumph. Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela brought copies of the pre-celebratory newspapers into the locker room before the match. With true Garra Charrúa, the squad proceeded to urinate all over the arrogant headlines. Before kickoff, Varela passionately implored his teammates: “Muchachos, los de afuera son de palo. Que comience la función!” The outsiders are made of wood. Let’s start the show!
Garra Charrúa and Expectations
Since their peak, the Guaraní have lost nearly half of their estimated original population. According to Reed, Paraguay – where the dwindling Guaraní population is now resigned to – has some of the highest deforestation rates on earth. What was once a land of luscious green and growing forests has succumbed to the power of tree-clearing businesses, truly epitomising the sharp contrast of profit-maximising big business and the moral-minimizing indigenous groups. As foreign chainsaws hack at the very trees that sustained the Guaraní’s way of living, the people who have sustained this land are not only losing the title to this tangible property. They are losing a part of themselves.
After doing the continental “double” – thrashing the Argentines and upsetting the Brazilians – Uruguay was firmly on the world football map. However, the liberal nation has failed to live up to the expectations of previous generations. Three World Cup semifinal berths, the most recent in 2010, have not produced a final appearance. They won’t stop believing in football, though. It’s in their blood. I had the pleasure of speaking with Miguel, a native Uruguayan, and he echoes this. “Failure is just the expected thing,” writes Miguel, “for anything other than football.”
The Garra Charrúa consciousness remains tightly-knit with Uruguayan football, despite the national team’s drop-off in World Cup results. Jessie Losch, a Uruguayan football expert writing for Unusual Efforts and podding for Man on the Post, says that “the team is more than the individual; though we may have an [Alcides] Ghiggia or a Suárez, they are never as good or more important than the collective.” Uruguay’s team spirit is second-to-none, even with a world-class striker up-top.
The Charrúa didn’t prevent European invaders from conquering the land. The resources available to them would never allow it. But they fought with tenacity reserved for few moments in human history. The influence of the indigenous people’s courageousness isn’t extremely prevalent in everyday Uruguayan actions, but it certainly arises when La Celeste take the pitch. The country plays second-fiddle to pretty much everyone in almost every walk of life, but not in football.
Los de afuera son de palo
The warrior-like frame of mind evokes a nationalistic pride during sporting events, especially big football tournaments, but is it detrimental at the highest level? Everyone remembers Luis Suárez’s infamous bite nearly four years ago, perhaps even more than his goal-denying hand ball in 2010. The world-class striker feels the weight of a nation on his shoulders – he must succeed. He’s a warrior, after all. This pressure is often overbearing, leading to these freak situations.
Óscar Tabáres’ squad has the talent to meet the expectations of their millions of compatriots. The aforementioned Suárez and the clinical Edinson Cavani will carry a brunt of the attacking burden and both have the ability to finish as the tournament’s top scorer. Lucas Torreira leads an energetic, young midfield unit. Europa League winners Diego Godín and José Giménez comprise a formidable centre-half partnership. The issue in Russia probably won’t be a lack of talent, especially in the group stage. But even against teams like Saudi Arabia, the Uruguayans will feel an immense responsibility to represent their people.
This is the argument of Adam Brandon of World Football Index. He believes the current squad is “capable of better, more expansive football given the talent at their disposal.” Yet, the presence of the Garra Charrúa paradigm seems to restrict the freedom in which they can express themselves. When everyone from the busy city of Montevideo to the northern countryside of Cuaró is watching, you don’t mess around. You fight.
In Russia this summer, Argentina and Brazil are the main global representatives of South America. Both teams are almost guaranteed to make noise in the knockout stage: a far cry from the expectations for Uruguay, Colombia, and Peru especially. This lack of probability will do very little to curtail the outlook of many Uruguayans. After all, los de afuera son de palo.
“Commercially, Argentina and Brazil dominate Uruguay,” argues Miguel. “They’re simply colossal and close, and we usually have a lot of dependency on them to buy what we produce.” World trade doesn’t favor Uruguay in comparison to their larger neighbours, but if we’ve learned anything from history it’s that the small nation should never be counted out of a fight on the pitch. Especially one against its two large neighbors. Speaking on the Low Limit Futbol Podcast, Jessie Losch quipped, “We rely on other nations for so many things. Football is ours.”
Modern laws often restrict the usage of slash-and-burn agriculture. It can be harmful to certain ecosystems, dangerous for those involved, and (perhaps most importantly) destructs the natural beauty of jungles. There is something so primitive about burning whole sections of forest that, once industrialisation spread throughout the world, made the practice distasteful.
Perhaps, in a similar vein of thinking, Uruguayan football has gone out of fashion. The early Olympic-winning, World Cup-trailblazing squads had the element of demarcation on their side; the world had yet to turn the sport into a full-blown commercial event. A small South American nation winning the inaugural “World Cup” was conceivably somewhat trivial, especially overseas. Once football turned truly global, Uruguay’s success was burnt down and ground into ash, just like the Guaraní preparing a field for harvest.
But that’s not entirely true. La Celeste has succeeded on multiple occasions since the 1950 Maracanã triumph. Some tip the Suárez-led Uruguayan coalition to venture deep into the knockout round in Russia despite being the second-smallest country in the competition, population-wise. “This year, for the first time in a while,” writes Jessie, “ I see real hope, with a mix of youth and veterans.” They are good, and the overlapping history of persistence and teamwork can only strengthen them on the pitch.
And you know what? I wouldn’t pass out in pure shock if they won the whole thing.