Uruguay has turned into a nation of traumatologists. A population of 3.5 million has been hanging on every medical bulletin giving an update on the left knee of Luis Suárez. Can he recover from keyhole surgery in time for the World Cup? What are the risks of rushing back too early? It is not easy to work out what has suffered the most damage – the cartilage of Liverpool’s star striker or the optimism of the Uruguayan people.
No one in Uruguay needs reminding of what happened the last time the World Cup was held in Brazil. Back in 1950, their team silenced a massive crowd of nearly 200,000 in the newly built Maracana stadium, striking back to beat the hosts 2–1.
They have not won the tournament since. If they have any chance of doing so, then Suárez will surely have to be not just fit, but in form.
The attacking heroes of that 1950 triumph were winger Alcides Ghiggia and inside forward Juan Schiaffino, who weighed in with a goal each. So complete a player is Luis Suárez that he manages to combine many of the virtues of both.
The Liverpool striker has the thrust down the flanks and intricate dribbling at pace of Ghiggia, coupled with the penalty-area smarts, the subtlety and the finishing capacity of Schiaffino. Already Uruguay’s all-time top goalscorer, Suárez is a one-man forward line.
He is a worthy heir to their tradition – but there is a difference. Suárez is a Uruguayan hero for the globalised era, when a country with a population of little more than three million has no chance of holding on to its best players.
True, Ghiggia and Schiaffino both moved to Italy – and even ended up playing for the Italian national team. But they only crossed the Atlantic when they were, respectively, in their mid and late 20s (26 in Ghiggia’s case, 29 in Schiaffino’s).
Both spent years as idols with Montevideo giants Peñarol – Suárez came through the ranks at Nacional, their great rivals. But his spell in the first team was short. He made his debut at 18, and had already been linked to Flamengo in Brazil when he joined Groningen in Holland at the age of 19. A year later he was snapped up by Ajax, and after three and a half seasons in Amsterdam came the move to Liverpool.
Bigger clubs and bigger leagues meant bigger headlines, not all of them positive. But however controversial his antics, most Uruguayans remain proud of him. He is one of their own. He is from the working-class background typical of most Uruguayan players – and his life got harder when he was nine years old. His parents split up, leaving his mother to take care of six children (one of his brothers is a footballer in El Salvador). Without paternal control, the adolescent Suarez nearly went off the rails, drinking too much and training too little until a youth coach at Nacional gave him an ultimatum – shape up, or get out.
He is a prime example of “garra charrua”, the will to win, of which Uruguay’s 1950 triumph is the most famous example. Literally, “garra charrus” translates as the claw of the Charrua tribe, who used to inhabit the land that in 1830 became the Oriental Republic of Uruguay.
The Charruas were virtually wiped out in the early stages of European colonisation. But to this day, the Uruguayans like to claim the fighting spirit of the tribe as their own birthright. And, more than anything else, it is the national sport that brings this fighting spirit to the surface.
“Other countries have their history,” goes the famous phrase, “Uruguay has its football.” The first kings of the global game, Uruguay did not lose a World Cup match until going down to the great Hungarians in the semi-final of the 1954 World Cup – a match considered by some contemporary judges to be the best ever played up to that point. From then on, with football catching on all over the planet, it became increasingly hard for Uruguay, with its tiny population, to compete on equal terms.
Defeat hurt. It felt like a betrayal of the nation. Uruguayan teams at times responded by kicking their opponents as if they were trying to repel hordes of invaders. Suárez is an extreme case – he even got sent off on his international debut, a friendly against Colombia at the start of 2007. But his on-field antics – winding up opponents, even biting them – are understood in Uruguay in this context; he does what it takes to win, even if in the heat of the moment this carries him over the line of all reasonable behaviour.
At the time of his spat with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, Suárez received a striking amount of support from his Liverpool team-mates. They know him off the field. The public perception may be of a hothead who has indulged too much in his national passion for red meat, but away from the pitch Suárez appears docile and civilised – which, in contradiction to the “garra charrua” self-image, are also strong Uruguayan virtues.
At the start of the 20th century Uruguay was the first country in the world to introduce a rudimentary welfare state. Indeed, this thinking helps explain their early prowess at football; introduced by the British, it started with the elite in South America, and filtered down the social scale. In Uruguay it did so especially quickly. The star of the first Copa America in 1916 was Uruguay’s Isabelino Gradín, a black striker of humble origins. At the time it was unthinkable for Brazil to field such a player.
Today Uruguay has the fairest distribution of income in South America. Montevideo is a gentle, even melancholic capital city, with little of the in-your-face aggression of Buenos Aires or exotic threat of Rio de Janeiro.
But such calmness is put to one side when the national football team take the field. Brought up on tales of heroism, recent generations had known nothing but frustration – until Suárez and company reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup, and then won the 2011 Copa America in Argentina.
Suddenly, Uruguayan kids discarded their Cristiano Ronaldo shirts. Instead, they wanted to wear the sky blue of their own national team, preferably with the number nine of Luis Suárez on the back. And now, with the World Cup about to kick off, they pray that he will be fit to wear it on the fields of Brazil.
Tim Vickery is South American football correspondent for the BBC