On the night of 23 April 1919, the Uruguay national team boarded the steamer Florianópolis at the port of Montevideo. Joining them were the Argentinian and Chilean delegations, with all three destined for Rio de Janeiro to contest the third Campeonato Sudamericano, as the Copa América was then styled. Montevideo was brimming with expectation. Uruguay, undefeated champions of the tournament’s first two editions in 1916 and 1917, were looking to consolidate regional supremacy. Nearing midnight, an anxious but optimistic multitude assembled at the docks to wave farewell to their footballing heroes. 

By 1919, football was already a crucial part of Uruguayan identity. From the turn of the century, Montevideo’s working classes – mostly immigrants and their children – swiftly adopted and used the game to make sense of the social, political and economic changes gripping their ever-growing city. But football’s story went beyond simply integrating and unifying Uruguay’s mainly immigrant, working-class population – it was a part of a longer quest for national survival. Besieged by their giant neighbours Brazil and Argentina, both of whom harboured expansionist ambitions over their territory, Uruguayans found in the football pitch not only a place of refuge but a place to fight back- a place to prove their right to exist.

Uruguay’s footballing identity was closely tied to international competition. Since they first witnessed their compatriots take on British Navy sides in the 1890s, Uruguayans were infatuated with the international game. Early club representatives were soon replaced by the Uruguay national team which, especially since that first appearance of the Celeste shirt in 1910, became the most potent, unifying symbol of the nation. Increasingly obsessed with proving themselves against powerful foreign opponents, Uruguay had in Argentina the perfect adversary. With more than 50 official internationals contested by 1919, no two countries faced each other as often as the rioplatense cousins. 

And by 1919, Uruguay seemed to have the upper hand over their rivals. The shift began in 1909, when the Glasgow-born draftsman John Harley arrived in Montevideo and helped transform the Uruguayan game. Playing at centre-half for Peñarol, Harley introduced the Scottish passing style into a Uruguay still held prisoner by the long ball. In a few short years, a hybrid game grew in Montevideo. Mathematical in its passing, dynamic in its movement and creative in its expression, the game also came to incorporate a creeping caution, a pragmatic approach perhaps necessary for such a small country. This home-grown style was underpinned by what has become the most identifiable characteristic of Uruguayan football today – a combative, heavy marking game. Perhaps a legacy of those early internationals against the bigger bodies and at times violent play of the British navy men, this physical style struck a difficult but ultimately effective balance with the more aesthetically pleasing combination game. And after series of convincing victories over Argentina in 1912, Montevideo’s superiority was confirmed and the Uruguayan school of football born. It would go on to dominate the world a decade later. 

But before taking on the rest of the world, Uruguay first had to reach the summit of South America. The country looked to stand out as much off the football pitch as on it. Indeed, the founding of the Confederación Sudamericana de Football (Conmebol) in 1916 was thanks largely to the efforts of a Uruguayan, Héctor Gómez. An influential public figure as journalist and politician, Gómez was elected president of the Liga Uruguaya de Football in 1907. Caught up in the progressive mood sweeping Montevideo at the time, Gómez oversaw the development of not only an intensely democratic football culture domestically, but also an open, outward-looking Uruguayan footballing identity. And in July 1916, at the first Campeonato Sudamericano in Buenos Aires, Gómez grasped the opportunity to put forward his Confederación proposal, which was ratified in Montevideo by Brazil, Argentina and Chile in December that year. At a time when the First World War was ravaging Europe, South American nations – with Uruguay at the vanguard – were coming together through football.

But these lofty ideals of continental unity were put to the test in 1917 when Montevideo staged the second Campeonato Sudamericano – the first officially organised under the auspices of Conmebol. Backed by an enthusiastic home support, Uruguay were crowned champions without losing or conceding a single goal, the title decided by a strike from the teenager Héctor Scarone in the final game against Argentina. The hard-fought and at times heated nature of the rioplatense final only intensified in the fallout when, bitter from defeat, the Argentinians unsuccessfully protested against the Chilean referee Juan Livingstone’s supposed favouritism towards the locals. What began as an optimistic demonstration of South American brotherhood had quickly descended to another acrimonious episode in the Argentina-Uruguay rivalry. 

The previous year, another protest directed at Uruguay tarnished the first Campeonato Sudamericano in Buenos Aires. After Uruguay devastated Chile 4-0 in the tournament opener, an outraged Santiago journalist cabled the Chilean delegation claiming that Uruguay had fielded two “African professionals” in their team. The journalist went further, urging their compatriots to lodge a formal protest. The incident sparked a mini-diplomatic incident, resulting in the Chileans swiftly distancing themselves from such accusations. But the damage was done, Uruguay settled into a familiar siege mentality, and went on to become the first champions of South America.

And a large part of that 1916 triumph was thanks to those two “African professionals” – Juan Delgado and Isabelino Gradín. 

Despite offending Chilean sensibilities, Delgado and Gradín were already household names in Montevideo. Delgado became Uruguay’s first black football star, breaking out as a 21 year old in 1912 for Central FC. Playing mostly from centre-half, Delgado’s elegant ball play and defensive skills captivated the city so much so that the following year he made his Uruguay debut. The midfielder’s talent reverberated internationally, with Boca Juniors convincing him to traverse the Río de la Plata in 1914 for a six-month stint in Bueno Aires. Another two years of impressive domestic and international performances allowed Delgado finally to make the jump to one of Uruguay’s main clubs, Peñarol. 

Awaiting Delgado at his new club was Isabelino Gradín, whose fame had already reached meteoric levels. The forward burst into Uruguayan consciousness after making his Peñarol debut in 1915 at just 17 years of age. Quick and hardworking, Gradín’s tricky dribbling and powerful shot made fools of his markers and opposing goalkeepers alike. Just months after his first division debut, Gradín was called up to Uruguay, and has been a national favourite ever since.

Delgado and Gradín were both crucial to Peñarol’s 1918 league triumph, the club’s first since 1911. Delgado was hailed as John Harley’s successor, beginning a tradition of influential Peñarol centre-halves that would continue through Álvaro Gestido, Obdulio Varela and Néstor Gonçalves. Gradín’s national celebrity went beyond the football pitch to the running track, as he won gold for Uruguay in the 200m and 400m at the inaugural South American Athletics Championships held in Montevideo in 1919. A month later, the two were called up to Uruguay’s Campeonato Sudamericano squad, where they were joined by Peñarol teammate, goalkeeper Roberto Chery – the one they called the Poet.

Born in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja in 1896, Chery grew up around the corner from Gradín in the Barrio Sur, a working-class neighbourhood in which recently arrived immigrants lived and mixed with Montevideo’s Afro-Uruguayan community. With football providing much of the city’s youth a chance to escape their cramped tenement life, Chery and Gradín, along with another local, Antonio Campolo, spent hours and hours playing on the streets. The three became inseparable and, after joining more serious neighbourhood sides, achieved their dream in 1914 when they were snapped up by Peñarol. But while Gradín made his first-team debut the following year, Campolo and Chery were made to bide their time. 

Chery cut an awkward, intriguing figure. With his tall, gangly frame, protruding facial features and bohemian air, the young goalkeeper stood out amongst his peers. And while some attribute Chery’s ‘Poet’ nickname to the gracefulness of his fearless, outstretched saves – with some saying he would come out of his goal singing – the reality is that Chery was indeed a writer. The more partisan types say he began his poems with ‘Oh Peñarol, yo te saludo’.

The Poet finally made his Peñarol debut on Christmas Eve 1916, in the Copa de Competencia final against Rosario Central in Racing Club’s ground in Avellaneda. Joining his friends Campolo and Gradín before 15,000 hostile Argentinians, Chery kept a clean sheet as Peñarol dispatched the Liga Rosarina champions 3-0. The Poet was faultless in goal, with one Montevideo newspaper declaring that, based on that performance alone, the 20 year old had “won the right to continue occupying the goalkeeping role in the first team.” Despite the widespread praise for Chery, however, Peñarol continued to rely on more experienced goalkeepers, with the former Dublin FC (from Punta Carretas) keeper Antonio Márquez Castro kept as first choice for the upcoming season. 

A sudden illness in the Márquez Castro family presented Chery with another opportunity in May 1917, against none other than their great rivals Nacional in the Copa Albion final. Chery was “colossal” in goal according to one Montevideo daily, making countless heroic saves before play was suspended due to bad light after 150 minutes, with the scores level at 1-1. The Poet retained his spot for the deciding contest a month later, with a Campolo penalty and a brilliant individual effort from Gradín handing Peñarol a 2-1 victory. With two Cup triumphs in a handful of appearances, Chery’s big-game credentials were clear to all. Indeed, in the nine times he faced Nacional over his career, he would lose only once. 

Chery duly won his starting spot in 1918, continuing his exceptional performances as Peñarol won the league title. League champion in his first full season, for Chery the sky was the limit and the sky blue inevitable.

Calls for Chery’s inclusion in Uruguay’s squad intensified as the 1919 Campeonato approached. For the previous decade, La Celeste’s goal had been the dominion of Cayetano Saporiti, who was Uruguay’s record appearance-maker at the time. But the Montevideo Wanderers keeper wasn’t getting any younger and, with re-generation needed, opinion grew so increasingly in favour of the Poet that, right until the start of the tournament, it was a toss of the coin between the two. 

Uruguay left for Rio with a formidable squad, their attacking options especially frightening. With the leading centre-forward José Piendibene out through injury, Uruguay’s front five was headlined by Gradín and Nacional’s Ángel ‘El Loco’ Romano, the ‘master of the pirouette’, whose dribbling skills had dazzled crowds on both sides of the Río de la Plata for almost a decade. Joining them were the fiery Scarone brothers, Carlos and Héctor. The former starred in Uruguay’s famous 1912 side when playing for Peñarol, achieving notoriety – and causing a split in his family – when he moved to their rivals Nacional two years later. And when he faced his former team at the Gran Parque Central for the first time in July 1914, with his Peñarol-mad father cheering against him in the stands, Scarone lashed out against his ex-teammates, calling them a bunch of mangiamerdas – “shit-eaters” in Italian – unwittingly gifting Peñarol fans the nickname Manyas which they have carried on proudly to this day. Héctor followed his older brother to Nacional, and at 20 years of age was already a local star destined for greatness. He would go on to be the world’s best forward and Uruguay’s top scorer for almost a century. 

The beginning of the tournament was delayed after news that the steamer transporting the visiting delegations would take up to nine days to arrive in Río. The Florianópolis was transformed into a roving training camp for Uruguay, with the defending champions training, relaxing, and socialising with the other delegations, particularly the Argentinians with whom they reminisced over the countless battles they had fought over the years. 

One of the strongest friendships struck on that journey to Río was between Roberto Chery and his Argentinian counterpart Carlos Isola. Joining River Plate in 1913, Isola had already represented Argentina at the 1916 and 1917 Campeonatos Sudamericano. The two shared much in common. They were of similar age, played in one of the most challenging, under-recognised and lonely positions for two of their respective countries’ biggest clubs, and were now tasked with defending their national teams’ goals in the region’s most important international tournament. For those nine days out on the water, the more experienced Isola took Chery under his wing and by the time the delegations arrived and settled in the Hotel Nice unbreakable bonds had been forged.

But this rioplatense brotherhood was quickly put on hold, with Uruguay and Argentina set to face off in the opening game of the tournament at Fluminense’s Estádio das Laranjeiras. Uruguay’s line-up remained unconfirmed until the last minute, with the Chery-Saporiti question causing division in the Uruguay camp. On one side, Chery was supported by his teammates and the rest of the Uruguay delegation, while on the other side, Héctor Gómez, that still overwhelming, powerful figure, pushed for Saporiti’s inclusion. Perhaps owing to the high-pressure nature of the debut and Saporiti’s vast experience, Chery was made to look on from the bench for the tournament opener.

Uruguay started the game positively, the Scarone brothers putting the defending champions two goals up after just 23 minutes. Argentina pulled one back 11 minutes from half-time through Carlos Izaguirre. Then, with a slender lead at the break and wary of the importance of early victory, the Uruguayans made a surprising modification to their tactics. Rather than trusting their attacking talents, Uruguay preferred caution, sitting back and allowing the Argentinians the ball and space. And just as the Uruguayans seemed to have Argentina’s excessive individual play under control, the defender Manuel Varela put the ball in his own net to make it 2-2 with just 10 minutes left. Five minutes from time, however, Gradín, the game’s leading performer and already a favourite with the locals, unleashed a 30-yard drive past Isola: after tense final moments, Uruguay held on for a 3-2 victory in yet another typical Rioplatense struggle.

While the win confirmed Uruguayan superiority and virtually assured a third straight South American title, the Montevideo press lamented the defensive turn of their compatriots. “We could’ve and should’ve played differently,” wrote one newspaper correspondent, who went on to plead for a return to “more expressive, purposeful [football], more deserving of applause”. Complaints about Uruguayan conduct didn’t end there. The following day, Manuel Bernárdez, the Uruguayan representative in Rio, complained about several altercations between the Scarone brothers and Brazilian fans during the Argentina game. Embarrassed particularly by the younger Héctor, who was accused of making obscene gestures to the local crowd, Bernárdez demanded that the brothers be expelled from the team. The Uruguayans were quick to protect their stars, however, with Héctor’s denial enough for the matter to be swiftly dropped. 

The tournament continued to be marred by tensions between Rio locals and the visitors. Following Brazil’s 3-1 win over Argentina, a large group gathered at the Hotel Nice to celebrate the win and harass the defeated Argentinians, forcing an anxious Uruguayan delegation to considered changing hotels. These incidents were but a continuation of the scandalous scenes just hours before, with the English referee Robert Todd receiving a barrage of insults and threats throughout the Brazil-Argentina clash. The intimidation seemed to work, with the Englishman later admitting that, fearing reprisals, he had made numerous decisions in Brazil’s favour, the most significant when he disallowed what seemed a perfectly legitimate Argentina goal from Pedro Calomino with the game at 0-0. What could well have been a different result ended in victory for Brazil, setting up an inevitable deciding final game against Uruguay.

But first, Uruguay had to face Chile in their second game. And here Chery was given his chance. Perhaps owing to the relative weakness of their opposition, Saporiti was rested, allowing the Poet to make his Uruguay debut on May 17.

And at half-time all was going to plan, with Uruguay replicating their opening game by going two goals ahead through Carlos Scarone and José Perez. In the second half, however, the Uruguayans retreated once again, handing the initiative to the Chileans. A flurry of attacks followed, but Chery was up to the task, making several key saves and playing with the security and confidence of a national team veteran. All signs pointed to the start of a long, successful international career. Saporiti’s heir had arrived.

That all changed in the final minutes of the game. After one final Chilean attack on goal, Chery leapt desperately to attempt another remarkable save, crashing into the turf. But this time the Poet stayed down for longer than usual, writhing in pain.

Uruguay went on to win 2-0, and would face Brazil in the third and final game of the tournament on May 26. Thanks to the host’s controversial win over Argentina, both were locked on 4 points, and only victory would be enough to secure the title. The Uruguayans were quietly confident. Perhaps motivated by the increasingly hostile surroundings, along with the questionable officiating, it seemed like it was the Celeste camp against the world, and they were as determined and optimistic as ever. Optimism intensified after news that Chery was back training after his fall, with the Poet’s name featuring in Uruguay’s predicted line-up in the days leading up the big game. 

Just hours before kick-off, though, Chery collapsed at the team hotel. Immediately taken to the Santa Casa de la Misericórdia, the Poet was diagnosed with a hernia, but doctors were optimistic of a full recovery. And in the hospital Chery stayed, alone, as his teammates went to face the hosts in the deciding match.

In a repeat of their first two games, Uruguay once again established an early 2-0 lead through the local favourite Gradín and villain Carlos Scarone, but Neco pulled one back before half time. At the break, pockets of the local crowd, sensing inevitable defeat, began to retire from the stadium. But the Brazilians were handed a lifeline at the resumption of play when Uruguay, just as they had done against Argentina and Chile, retreated into their own half. Encouraged by the extra space, Brazil pressed ahead and attacked the Uruguayan goal, until Neco sent the crowd into delirium with a 63rd minute equaliser, the game ending 2-2. The stadium erupted at the final whistle, with spectators invading the pitch in celebration. And once again, poor referee Todd was caught in the middle and set upon by several locals, before the Uruguayan keeper Saporiti and the official Angel Minoli intervened to escort the Englishman off the pitch.

Uruguay’s collapse was met by predictable backlash in Montevideo. After accepting “the excellence of Brazilian football”, which seemed to have caught up with the rioplatense powers, the Uruguayan press lashed out against their side’s negative tactics and listless performance. But this was about more than just football tactics – it was about national integrity. “There is no excuse for the conduct of our compatriots,” wrote one conservative daily, lamenting the absence of the “one characteristic that has been shown [by Uruguay] on infinite occasions: heart and soul.” The Uruguayans were panicking about the real possibility of losing their supremacy.

On May 29, Rio de Janeiro was brought to a standstill for the final deciding contest, with Brazil’s president even declaring a partial holiday for public workers. A packed Estádio das Laranjeiras witnessed an epic, nervous struggle, with both sides failing to score after regulation time. After 120 minutes, the game remained goalless, forcing yet another 30 minutes of football. Then, two minutes into the third period of extra time, a Saporiti save fell into the path of Arthur Friedenreich, who converted what would be an agonising Brazilian winner. After 150 minutes, the longest match in Campeonato Sudamericano history, Brazil were crowned South American champions for the first time. 

And Uruguay had no choice but to recognise the champions, with the captain Alfredo Foglino congratulating his Brazilian counterpart with an effusive embrace at the final whistle. While normality would be restored the following year when the Uruguayans beat Brazil 6-0 to win a third South American title in Santiago, the 1919 tournament revealed an ever-present anxiety of La Celeste. That fear of defeat would be a constant in the Uruguayan mindset to this day. 

While perhaps a minor hiccup in Uruguay’s journey towards global supremacy, the 1919 Campeonato Sudamericano represented a turning point for Brazilian football. Led by their first international superstar, ‘El Tigre’ Arthur Friedenreich, Brazil were now a serious contender in South America. The tournament was even more significant for the presence of Uruguay’s black stars Juan Delgado and fan favourite Isabelino Gradín who, perhaps more effectively than the elite, mixed-heritage Friedenreich, showed their Afro-Brazilian admirers that they too could reach similar heights.

Roberto Chery’s strangulated hernia required emergency surgery, but the peritonitis could not be controlled. At 7.45pm the day after Uruguay’s defeat, with the Peñarol captain José Benincasa by his side, the Poet was pronounced dead. He was 23.

The Uruguay squad were inconsolable. Distraught at the loss of their teammate, the players were in no state to contest the Copa Río Branco against Brazil, which had been scheduled for the following month. With the game all but called off, Argentina, led by they captain Carlos Isola, stepped in and insisted they take Uruguay’s place, but with the contest renamed the Copa Roberto Chery as a homage to the fallen Poet. The day after Chery’s death, in a demonstration of those lofty ideals of footballing confraternity upon which Conmebol and the Campeonato Sudamericano were founded, Argentina donned the sky blue of Uruguay, while the Brazilians wore the colours of Chery’s club and love, Peñarol. The two played a 3-3 draw, the proceeds of the match given to Chery’s family and the trophy donated to Peñarol. 

The gesture of solidarity from Brazil and Argentina was applauded back in Uruguay, where tributes for Chery had been pouring in from Montevideo’s football clubs, sporting institutions and leading cultural and political figures. The loss of the Poet extended far beyond Uruguay’s borders, with messages of condolences and solidarity sent from Buenos Aires to Santiago bringing the region together in collective grief.

Chery’s premature death also brought together Uruguay’s fiercest club rivals. For Nacional, the pain of tragic loss still lingered, for it had been only a year since their one of their own, Abdón Porte, had taken his life at the Gran Parque Central. Remembering the solidarity from Peñarol at the time, Nacional offered their social club for Chery’s wake, while sending a book of heartfelt condolences to their rivals. The following week the two teams gathered at the Gran Parque Central to honour Chery in a benefit match for his family, a game featuring the Poet’s Barrio Sur friend, Antonio Campolo. And if only for 90 minutes and in the most tragic of circumstances, footballing rivalries were put aside.

A week later, the Uruguay squad had returned to Montevideo by land, still broken, still defeated. Sometime later the steamer São Paulo arrived, with the Argentinian delegation and Conmebol president Héctor Gómez on board. And with them was the body of the Chery, home fifteen days after he had passed. Draped in the Uruguayan flag, the Poet’s casket was brought to land by members of the Argentinian team, led by his friend Carlos Isola. 

Chery was carried from the docks to the headquarters of the Asociación Uruguaya de Football, a crowd of thousands waving national and club flags in tow. After thousands more passed by Chery’s casket to pay their respects, the Poet’s remains were carried out by Uruguayan and Argentinian players including Benincasa, Isola and Gradín. Accompanied by a cortége spanning four blocks, the Poet was taken to the coastal Central Cemetery in Barrio Sur, near where he and his friends had spent their afternoons chasing a ball and their dreams. 

And there an impromptu memorial for Chery took place, with eulogies given by a Uruguayan FA representative, the Peñarol president Lorenzo Batlle Pacheco and another on behalf of the Peñarol players. Then, Isola stepped up to give a moving speech to his dead colleague. 

“Poor Chery!” cried Isola, his words drowned out by the immensity of the sea. “He died outside his so beloved land […] far from his home, separated from his poor old lady, but surrounded by the love of those who saw in him a dignified companion.” The last person to speak was a nameless child, perhaps a friend or family member, or just one of the many carasucias of Chery’s barrio with dreams of footballing glory. And after one final cry of “Viva Chery”, the Poet’s remains were taken to Buceo Cemetery, where he was laid to rest. 

If his life had not been cut so tragically short, Roberto Chery might have been part of Uruguay’s Olympic Generation. With the Poet there, perhaps Isabelino Gradín might have reconsidered his refusal to travel to the 1928 Games, joining Chery and Antonio Campolo for a European adventure that would have read like true footballing poetry. And if he indeed was a poet, one wonders what Chery might have written about that triumphant journey with his friends, which took them from the barrio to the top of the world.