Uruguayan passion for soccer helps make friends in distant places

July 6, 2010

URUGUAYUruguay’s run to the last four of the World Cup is something of a fairytale, despite the Luis Suarez handball incident – the tiny nation with a glorious soccer history, their squad led by a scholarly coach and a dashing striker, battling on to write a new chapter as its bigger, more illustrious neighbours fall by the wayside.

I followed Uruguay for a while in this World Cup campaign but my link with them goes back a few years. I thought it worth sharing because if soccer is a sport that unites the world, the Uruguayans have played their part beyond the spotlight.

In 1986, Uruguay had an ugly reputation. In the World Cup match against Scotland in Mexico, which I watched in a north London pub, Jose Batista hacked down Gordon Strachan in the first minute to earn a place in the record books as the tournament’s fastest sending off. A violent game followed ending in a 0-0 draw which saw Scotland out and Uruguay through.

Several years later, I was based in Bangkok for Reuters and spent much of my time in Cambodia, a country in a desperate state, reeling from decades of war.

Among those taking part in a huge international peacekeeping force were the armed forces of Uruguay and Chile and one day in 1992, I found myself cruising up the Mekong River with a Uruguayan Marine patrol, heading to their base in Khmer Rouge-controlled territory. The soldiers cradled their rifles and sucked on matte tea pipes. When we got there, the flags of Uruguay, Chile and the United Nations flew over the jungle encampment.

In the middle, the soldiers had set up a soccer pitch and cries of “gola” rang out as people kicked and chased the ball around. The troops played each other and invited local kids to join in. In a remote , desolate part of the world, the sessions were a highlight of the day.

The Latinos and the Cambodians had bonded in the most joyous way. Words like “gola” and “penal” entered the Khmer language in those parts. It was a sweet thing.

Some years later on a South America vacation, I visited the lovely old Uruguayan town of Colonia and found that the battalion that served in Cambodia had their home base there. In the museum, there amongst the Napoleonic uniforms and displays of historic battles against the Spanish, the Brazilians and the Argentinians, were snapshots of the U.N. soldiers posing with Cambodian kids clutching soccer balls in front of the goalposts.

Flash forward to last week and after a two-hour drive across the flat, dry South Africa veldt I arrived on World Cup duty in the mining town of Kimberley, where Uruguay’s soccer squad had established its base camp in a hotel next to the world’s biggest hand-dug mine hole – the Big Hole.

Uruguayan flags hung from city lamp posts and people wore T-shirts declaring support for “La Celeste”. The local Diamond Fields Advertiser newspaper trumpeted their successes under the headline “Home Town Heroes”.

Although in the world of modern soccer, some players lead a closeted life, team and city seemed to take a shine to each other as Uruguay progressed through the group stage – beating South Africa on the way – and into the knock-out rounds.

Before the final training session, dozens of girls and boys were let in to meet the players, who signed T-shirts, balls and bits of paper with grace and humour. Striker Diego Forlan, one of the stars of this World Cup, posted pictures of a barbecue at the hotel on Twitter for all to see.

The president of the Uruguayan FA, Sebastian Bauza, announced the setting up of a programme to develop soccer in Kimberley over the next few years. Uruguyan trainers will come over to coach youngsters and some of the South Africans will get to go to South America. “We have a moral obligation.” Bauza said.

When the team bus left the hotel for the airport and the showdown with Ghana in Johannesburg, the hairdresser who had trimmed Forlan’s blond locks and a woman who had been given a Uruguay scarf by coach Oscar Tabarez were among those by the roadside to bid them farewell. The hotel staff serenadad them with “Shosholoza”, an old South African work song urging “Go Forward”.

The Sky Blues may or may not beat the Netherlands for a place in the World Cup final, and debate over the Suarez handball will go on for a long time. But there are corners of some foreign fields that are forever Uruguay.

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