Eduardo Galeano described it as the “second discovery of America”. Deploying a modern, fluid and organised football never seen in Europe, Uruguay dispatched all opponents with ease to win gold in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Uruguay were joined by Argentina at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, defeating their neighbours in the final to win back-to-back Olympic golds. When Uruguay hosted – and won – the first Fifa World Cup in 1930, there was no doubt that the best football in the world was being played on the River Plate. 

They say that the revolutionary football displayed by the South Americans was born in the shadows of the tight, uneven urban spaces of Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The great Uruguayan coach Ondino Viera called it the “Uruguayan school of football”, a unique game developed “without coaches, without physical preparation, without specialists.” With just himself and the ball, the Uruguayan rejected the rigid, physical play of those who brought the game to their shores in favour of an imaginative, expressive football.

Romantic as this raw and spontaneous Creole style appeared, there was something distinct about the Uruguayans who, despite sharing a similar style with Argentina, had the upper hand over their rivals in the critical contests of the 1920s and 30s. Some attribute the difference to the garra charrúa, that supposedly innate determination and courage that helped the Uruguayans achieve near-impossible feats. How else could these little South Americans challenge – and surpass – their giant neighbours? A deeper look shows that superior defensive organisation and tactical balance helped the Uruguayans overpower the more expressive Argentina.

While Europe largely accepted rioplatense supremacy, the British were predictably dismissive of the South American style. Perhaps blinded by a cultural bias, the founders of the game failed to see that the Uruguayans were different. Indeed, the world’s first footballing power may not have been there without their deep admiration for those who, along with introducing football, brought across the Atlantic a set of sporting ideas that would inspire the early development of a distinctly Uruguayan game.

Since their first glimpse of the strange game of the “crazy English”1, the Uruguayans shifted from curiosity to admiration to imitation. The leisurely and educational practice of the British community was swiftly adopted by Uruguayans navigating life in an ever-growing and changing Montevideo. As in many other countries, football provided an escape for both locally born and recently arrived Uruguayan workers, young men relishing the little time away from work to connect with their neighbours.

“Instinctively he realised that in that sport he would find satisfaction in his manliness and intelligence,” the brothers Juan Antonio and Mateo Magariños Pittaluga recounted in Del Futbol Heroico (1942), a nostalgic look at the early years of the Uruguayan game. For them, football provided rioplatense men the opportunity “to develop energy, audacity, vivacity and artistic sense; because it was, in short, a crystallisation of physical and spiritual strength, synthesis of emotion and health. Since then football ceased to be an absolute English game to become a Creole game.”

While this liberating, self-made football marked the beginning of the game’s creolisation, the Uruguayan remained attached to the less desirable aspects of the English game – namely a physical, kick-and-rush style. This style of football was consolidated when informal barrio kickabouts became more organised and competitive, with improvisation and artistry overshadowed by an unorganised and at times violent play. Perhaps the style was the legacy of the game’s beginnings in Montevideo, with the Creole desperate to prove himself against the British sportsman. Uruguayans were becoming obsessed with victory.

International contests were crucial indicators of Uruguay’s footballing and national progress, with club and national sides regularly competing against their Argentinian neighbours from the late nineteenth century. Despite efforts by football authorities and politicians to portray such contests as acts of fraternity between two friendly countries, Argentina-Uruguay matches regularly ended in unsavoury incidents both on and off the pitch. 

While the rioplatense rivalry remained an important measure of footballing progress, the first genuine test for the Uruguayans came in 1904 with the visit of Southampton, the first tour of the region by a professional side. Following a series of dominant performances over clubs and league XIs in Buenos Aires, the English team arrived in Montevideo to much local excitement. Although a profound footballing moment for Uruguay, the tour fell in the midst of a months-long civil war, following an insurrection by the conservative rural-based Blancos against the Montevideo-based liberal Colorado government of the recently-elected president José Batlle y Ordóñez. With battles raging just kilometres away, Uruguayans young and old filled the Parque Central desperate for an escape.

Southampton trounced the Uruguayans 8-1. The slick short-passing game of the English provoked bewilderment, striking a cruel blow to Uruguayan sensibilities. The locals felt they had progressed enough to stand toe to toe with their English teachers. Instead, defeat brought to light deficiencies hampering the Uruguayan game. Such a dominant display by the professionals, however, couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of this team of Uruguayans so desperate to defend the local game against the British creators. 

The Uruguayans’ desire to prove themselves against the professionals was reflected in a bizarre second-half incident. Southampton had already scored seven and the local crowd were dejected. Then came a spark from Peñarol’s Juan Pena, who dribbled through a number of opponents before firing a shot at goal. While his effort was held safely by Southampton’s George Clawley, an unidentified Uruguayan teammate barged the English goalkeeper into his own goal with the ball still in his hands. The goal stood, the stadium erupted. The joyous crowd invaded the pitch, hoisted Pena onto their shoulders and carried the forward around the ground in celebration. Such was the excitement that it took 15 minutes to clear the field and restart play. The professionals scored an eighth, but it couldn’t sour that one sweet moment. 

First contact with the English professionals shone a light on the raw and impulsive home-grown Uruguayan game. The Uruguay goal itself was an act of pure imagination and spontaneity, as if supplanted directly from a barrio kickabout, while the sheer desperation and cynicism in the goal shows an early ‘garra’ element in the Uruguayan game. Quite simply, however, the goal reflected the desire of a group of players eager to defend their local game against the masters. The utterly devastating defeat didn’t matter, for the unbridled emotion generated by that contentious, unsporting goal showed how football could generate national pride.  

The effectiveness of international football contests to reflect a sense of Uruguayan nationality was soon identified by the country’s political elites. Just months after the Southampton match, an end to Uruguay’s intermittent decades-long conflict promised a time of political stability under the presidency of José Batlle y Ordóñez, who served two terms from 1903-1907 and 1911-1915.  Aligning himself with an unrepresented working class that had developed in Montevideo as a result of mass immigration and urbanisation, Batlle transformed a Uruguay ravaged by economic turmoil and political violence into a pacified, educated and prosperous social democracy. Batlle dreamed of converting Uruguay into a ‘Model Country’ whose progressive social and labour legislation, modern infrastructure and educated population could not only convert the small country into a regional leader, but bring it to a level of development befitting the most powerful, ‘civilised’ nations of the world. 

While hostility towards British economic interests in Uruguay played a major part in his thinking, Batlle, educated at a Montevideo English high school, was an Anglophile. An admirer of their sporting culture in particular, the president saw in the British a model to which the Uruguayan should aspire. Football would go on to play a role in Batlle’s presidencies, used not only to include the masses in his reform program, but to project his own visions of an ideal citizen onto the people. Batlle’s visions were articulated in his newspaper, El Día, which was the country’s most popular newspaper. A platform for Batlle’s ideas, El Día sought to inform and include the recently arrived masses under a homogenised Uruguayan identity. 

Decades before Juan Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Batlle was using football to unite the nation. El Día was the first newspaper in the country to include a dedicated sports section in its pages, becoming a trailblazer in football coverage. The newspaper’s sports editors and writers were all ‘football men’ and Batlle allies, including one of the founders of Nacional, Pedro Manini Rios, as well as Héctor Rivadavia Gomez and the Mibelli brothers, Celestino and Robert, leading figures in the founding and early history of the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (Conmebol). 

That football attracted the country’s most influential public figures was a true reflection of the game’s popularity. With rapid economic and demographic changes in Montevideo continuing into the first decade of the 20th century, football was increasingly adopted by thousands of newly-arrived immigrants seeking activities to integrate into urban life. By 1905 football was Uruguay’s most popular cultural practice, with the president of Albion – the country’s first club dedicated exclusively to football – boasting that “this game has today reached such a development in our country that it is practiced just as much as in Britain, the nation of its origin.” 

While Uruguay were establishing themselves as a true footballing country in their own right, Britain continued to be a point of reference for those within the game. A glance at contemporary Montevideo newspapers reveals a fixation across the Atlantic, with Uruguayans founding clubs such as Oxford, London and Manchester, while teams with more interesting names included Cake Walk Football Club, Powerfoll [sic] Football Club and Old Man FC. Namesake clubs were also formed, with Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Bristol FC, Sunderlan [sic], Liverpool and Everton to name a few. Importantly, these clubs were in their majority founded and run by non-Anglos. While football was used to defend these distinct, local identities, Uruguayans retained an admiration - reflected through imitation – for those who introduced the game decades prior.

The excitement generated by anything British continued in 1905 when Nottingham Forest toured the region. Montevideo was the first stop, with Peñarol representing the local game. The professionals once again dominated, 6-1 the score. The crushing loss did little to prevent the spin of Uruguayan journalists, however, with the capital’s newspapers celebrating the Uruguayan defeat as among the narrowest of any of the English tour games in Argentina or Uruguay2.

While giving rise to national pride and excitement, the tour once again highlighted the continued lack of development in the Uruguayan game. Though artistic and free, the absence of what was considered an inherently British tactical discipline and collective work impeded any real progress for the local game. The backward state of the Uruguayan game continued the following year during the visit of a South African XI, with another two years passing before the locals could identify the solution. 

The transformation of Uruguayan football began one night in Buenos Aires in 1908. Peñarol – officially known as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club – visited Ferro Carril Oeste for a friendly and beat their hosts 5-0. The result, however, was overshadowed by one player from the Argentinian side. Peñarol’s players and officials remained fixated on him. The way he moved the ball, the way he moved himself, it was all different. He would intercept the ball in his own half, but he refrained from banishing it down the pitch. Instead, he carried the ball through the midfield, bringing his teammates into the game through short passes along the ground, to the feet. Surely, this was one of those inventive little Creoles Galeano and Ondino alluded to? No. His name was John Harley.

Born in Glasgow in 1886, Harley travelled to Buenos Aires in 1906 to work as an engineer for the Buenos Aires Western Railway company. From there he continued the development of another passion, football. Short and lean, Harley was a physically uninspiring centre-half yet possessed a different, Scottish version of football - the passing game. 

The Scot’s intelligence and technique left a mark on Peñarol legend José Antonio Piendibene. For him, Harley was the ideal teammate, a leader always looking to combine with others. The Scot’s passing game from centre-half produced a level of cohesion between defence and attack never-before seen in Uruguay, a country whose footballing philosophy remained largely attached to the English long ball. While talented individuals and local teams such as Nacional challenged British hegemony with a more technical, short-passing style, long, aimless balls by defenders and midfielders persisted in Montevideo. Harley could strike a balance between these two seemingly opposing philosophies and before long the Scot accepted Peñarol’s offer, making the journey across to the Uruguayan capital the following year.

Harley immediately won the adulation of Peñarol fans and the attention of Uruguay’s footballing public. Nicknamed el inglés, ‘the Englishman’, Harley captained Peñarol for eight years, uprooting the one-paced, long-ball game, replacing it with what became known as cortita y al pie, a game of short passes to the feet. Rather than simply adding a short-passing game, which had already existed, Harley orchestrated plays from centre-half, reorganising his team into an intelligent, orderly, yet technically expressive unit. A result of Harley’s innovations was the development of a new type of centre forward in Uruguay. In what appears to an early example of the Danubian School, Peñarol’s centre forward Piendibene would drop into the midfield, linking with the centre-half to initiate plays from deep. 

Under Harley’s influence, combinations became the aim of every team, with the passing game a new way of thinking. For many the style was not a big departure from the Creole way, generating hopes within Uruguayan football opinion that the local game was ready to reach the next level of development. Such an optimistic outlook would soon be tested with the arrival of another group of English professionals. 

Tottenham and Everton arrived in the region in June 1909. Within days the two played a 2-2 draw in Palermo, Buenos Aires, in front of over ten thousand Argentinians. Observing with a keen eye, Uruguayan journalists drew comparisons between the visiting professionals and the home-grown Uruguayans. With Tottenham due to play in Montevideo the following week, El Día prepared a detailed analysis of what they saw as the English style. The conclusions were damning.

“The English professional plays more intelligently than the Uruguayan,” the report began. “They combine, use their heads well and know exactly where they are going to pass the ball.” The Uruguayan, however, “runs aimlessly, bombing the ball without any plan or thinking.” El Día went on to criticise the Uruguayan game. “In regards to our players,” explained the writer, “we already know our tactics. We abuse the practice of dribbling. There are no combinations. A player will complete a thousand pirouettes, then pause whenever he wants until he is ready to pass the ball, but he has already lost the opportunity and time.”

The paper continued, “The play of the English forwards, on the other hand, is far different. Dribbling is extremely rare, with their five forwards supporting each other to produce a unique and triumphant feeling. They always combine, always moving with a precision and efficiency like five fingers to a hand, for to achieve what they propose they must work together.” The English display was a victory of collective ideals over Creole individualism, a backlash against what was until then the Uruguayan way.

El Día rejected the prevailing belief that local football involved long, aimless kicks or excessive dribbling. “With the English, you will not see long balls to the moon or to the sun, because the English respect the stars. The English leave the atmosphere for the aeroplanes. The English laugh at the applause, they laugh at the gambetas [in-and-out dribbles]. They go for goal, because as they themselves say, ‘time is money’ … or goals!” 

Arguments attributing the gap in styles to the technical superiority of the English footballer were rejected by El Día. “What we want to emphasise is not that our play is inferior to that of the professionals, but that our tactics are diametrically opposed.” The paper suggested that Uruguayan teams were capable of playing with the “same technique, applying similar norms and resources” as the English sides. Victory against the professionals didn’t matter, for “it is one thing to equal and another very different to learn to play with intelligence … through this, and only this, will we progress in this sport.” 

The Uruguayans faced Tottenham on June 10. “More than the desire to win” El Día’s preview said, “the coming of the British presents us with the chance that our players can learn the art of playing and that the public, that great mass that many times has vibrated with enthusiasm for their team, can advance the merits of football in the fullness of its art and finery.” The lesson went beyond football to a more refined, very British sporting culture, with the Uruguayans urged not to “lose their enthusiasm in their play, but know how to lose decently.” Through the proper behaviour of both footballers and spectators the nation could be truly represented.

The English thrashed the Uruguayans 8-0.

El Día’s conclusion was clear. “Once again, the English have shown they are the masters.” For Uruguayan football journalists, Tottenham played “like a machine”, unleashing a precision and collective effort that completely overran the stunned local side. The art of passing, the rhythm and combinations, the intelligent movement of both the players and the ball – it was all missing from the Uruguayan game. “The one great lesson the Uruguayan needs to take is not to pause with the ball, not to leave it still. With the head, with the body, with the feet, in every way these people dominate the ball and the play with perfection.”

The next game was against Everton, with the media build-up a repeat of the last. Everton’s team was given plenty of attention in newspaper previews, particularly Bert Freeman, profiled as “the most dangerous forward in the world”. Expectations were low. The game was to be enjoyed by Uruguayans, to learn from the masters and appreciate what was deemed the art of good football. Hopefully the locals could put up a decent fight.

That they did. The game ended 2-1 to Everton, the Uruguayans describing the loss as a win. The crowd, delirious from what had previously seemed an impossible result and performance, invaded the pitch, hugging the players. A match report described the game as “an epic moment, a brilliant materialisation of the hopes of an anxious public.” Despite an Everton official attributing the lacklustre English display to an enormous pre-game banquet stuffing the English players, local satisfaction could not be diminished. 

After the final whistle, the Everton captain Jack Taylor was interviewed by an El Día journalist eager to learn how the professionals viewed the Uruguayan game. Taylor, who had served as the game’s referee rather than playing, observed the Uruguayan as “more audacious, more dangerous than the Argentinian. While playing fewer combinations than the Argentinian, Uruguay’s midfielders possessed great skill and an infallible tenacity.” Despite the questionable paraphrasing by the local journalist, the conclusion was clear. All the ingredients for a great team were there, what lacked was organisation and a clear plan.

That plan was initiated by a group headed by Héctor Rivadavia Gomez, Colorado Party deputy and El Día editor, who most likely contributed to the newspaper’s glowing admiration for the play of the English visitors. Returning to the Liga Uruguaya de Football as president, Gomez set out to make Uruguay a footballing force, with international contests providing the most effective measure of progress. To achieve this, Gomez created an official selection committee that, under his leadership, was responsible for calling up the best possible team to represent the local game. 

It came as no surprise that Uruguay’s football authorities looked to the British for a solution to the country’s footballing backwardness. Harley was hastily approached by Gomez and was appointed player and unofficial manager of the national team. The Scot’s first game for his adopted Uruguay came two months later in Montevideo, the centre-half a standout in a 2-2 draw against Argentina. From there Uruguay’s tactical development began to mirror that of Peñarol, with Harley encouraging his new compatriots to keep the ball, play it along the ground and combine with their teammates in a more dynamic and intelligent way. 

The national team built upon Harley’s teaching by injecting its own uniquely Uruguayan expressions. Players in the national team included the scrappy Carlos Scarone, known for his mastery of the ball and general tenacity and drive, while young dribblers like River Plate’s Santiago Raymonda (River Plate of Montevideo, that is) ensured a continuation of the region’s distinct dribbling style in the face of British-inspired reform. Creole individualism thus combined with increased movement to produce a dynamic, purposeful yet artistic game. 

Uruguay’s hybrid footballing style was becoming increasingly synonymous with pride and joy for the nation. In May 1910, a football tournament was held in Buenos Aires as part of the centenary celebrations of the Revolución de Mayo with Uruguay and Chile joining their Argentinian hosts. Uruguay prepared intensely, Harley an ever-present leader in the practice matches to determine the best possible line-up. El Día noted the confidence brewing in Montevideo, even stating how the national team showed the “garra of a powerful team”. 

Uruguay began the tournament in style, brushing aside Chile 3-0 in the first official encounter between the two countries, Harley enjoying a particularly excellent second half. A friendly win against a full-strength Alumni side once again lifted spirits in the Uruguay camp. Confident in the progress of their physical and mental development, the Uruguayans would face hosts Argentina, keen to spoil the centenary party. 

Tragically, on the morning of the final game Harley succumbed to a leg infection and was forced to undergo surgery. The omission proved to be decisive. Argentina defeating a dejected Uruguay 4-1, while Harley received moving homages across the pages of the Montevideo press. 

On 15 August 1910, Uruguay had the chance to avenge the May humiliation when it hosted Argentina for the Lipton Cup. Played at the Belvedere ground in Montevideo, the contest was also significant in that it was the first in which the sky blue shirt, La Celeste, was worn by Uruguay, an initiative of Montevideo Wanderers delegate Ricardo Le Bas. Despite his ineligibility due to foreign player restrictions, Harley continued to work with the national team, participating in all of the national side’s practice matches leading up to the contest.

Uruguayan hopes were realised, the local side brushing aside the Argentinians 3-1. ‘Finally! Finally!’ exclaimed El Día, the joy of the paper’s editors impossible to conceal, “nobody who has seen our play yesterday can doubt the vitality of our football.” El Día announced that “our people have come to realise that games are won by fighting, without weakness, with all the lavishness of efforts that claim victories and sacrifices.” Determined and fearless, the garra charrúa underpinned Uruguay’s national style.

However, “not only did the energy and courage employed determine the Oriental victory”, El Día stressed to its readers. “Far from that. What decided the victory were the tactics of the forwards.”  In addition to the superior style of football deployed, the Uruguayan players were becoming increasingly disciplined in their tactical approach. John Harley’s influence was paying dividends less than a year after he joined the national side.

The progress of Uruguayan football was again exhibited three months later, with Uruguay facing Argentina twice in Buenos Aires for the Argentina Honour Cup. John Harley was back at centre-half for Uruguay, with the rivals fighting out a tense 1-1 draw. In their match report, El Día praised Uruguay’s combination work as something of “real brilliance”, with Harley’s efforts “the sum of two players”. Alongside the Scot were teammates Piendibene and Carlos Scarone, their link up play in Peñarol clearly moving across to the national team. 

A fortnight later the Uruguayans returned to Buenos Aires, thrashing their hosts 6-2. Having “combined with a science” to defeat a lacklustre Argentinian outfit, the win further confirmed the progress of the Uruguayan game. The highest praise was reserved for the forwards, who combined like “five fingers to the hand”, a throwback to the praise heaped upon the English professionals the previous year. Uruguayan passing and movement “drove the Argentine opponents crazy” according to El Día, who lauded the “collective purpose” of a team that, once again, showed the superiority of collective effort over individual excess. 

For the next two years Harley’s innovations converted Uruguay into a footballing force, with the country winning the 1911 edition of the Lipton Cup. By then playing at least six times a year, the games against Argentina provided Uruguay with a platform to show how far they had progressed. 

Swindon Town visited Uruguay in July 1912. The importance of the visit was reflected in the Uruguayan XI’s preparations, with practice games attracting up to two thousand spectators. While the game itself ended 3-0 to the visitors, the Uruguayans were not fazed. “Our football has progressed,” announced El Día the following day, calling the result “unjust”. “If you remember the games from years back,” the paper recounted, “from Southampton to Everton, teams that did what they wanted with us.” Now Uruguay could adapt to their opponents, possessing the intelligence to determine when to be protagonists or when to remain defensive. Standing toe to toe with the English professional and not disgracing themselves, the Uruguay XI showed they were capable of achieving footballing greatness. The consummation of Uruguay’s newfound footballing identity, however, would come in a series of internationals against Argentina.

The 1912 Lipton Cup had Montevideo consumed once again, with the Uruguayans presented yet another opportunity to set themselves apart from their ever-imposing neighbour. Public anticipation was reflected in the intensity of Uruguay’s preparations, with the national team practicing for weeks ahead of the contest. John Harley was involved as usual, taking his place as captain of the B team to instruct play. Durán, taking the place of the ineligible Harley at centre-half, was praised for his A-team performance. The Nacional player was everywhere, always looking to link up with the front five with “notable enthusiasm” according to the paper.  “Harley has a rival” it claimed after the final practice match. Witnessing the professional level of training teams and the arrival of an early, local heir to Harley, Uruguayans were confident of a memorable era for their football.

Uruguay utterly dominated the Argentinians, victorious by two goals to nil to win their third straight Lipton Cup. “Never in any of our stadiums [has] the enthusiasm of thousands of spectators resonated as vibrant and flattering as yesterday,” El Día reported after a mesmerising contest, with both teams intriguing the local crowd with a series of persistent, aggressive attacks. Through their superior physical and mental strength, however, the Uruguayans could not be broken down nor contained by their rivals. “The superiority of the Uruguayans was incontestable,” said a match report. “The intelligence in the play, the endeavour in the spirit and the strength in the muscles, ensured for them victory, that at no time the Argentinians deserved. The Lipton Cup has rightly stayed in Uruguay. Is there anyone who puts it in doubt?” 

Two weeks later the teams met on August 25, Uruguay’s day of independence. In front of more than 10,000 Uruguayans crammed into the Gran Parque Central, Uruguay defeated Argentina 3-0, a fitting end to a week of national celebrations. “It can be said that yesterday football paid, with its virile homage, the most beautiful of tributes to commemorate the splendours of our independence.” Montevideo’s match reports overwhelmingly credited Uruguay’s defenders as the most influential performers on the field. Through their ‘security, strength and intelligence’, the Uruguayans maintained an organised defence in the face of a dangerous Argentinian side.  If both Uruguayans and Argentinians played well, then, why such a difference in the final score? El Día was unequivocal, “because the victors had more resolve, more courage.” The ants had won out against the cicadas once more.

They say that in the history of Uruguayan football there is a before and after 1912. The games against Swindon Town and Argentina left Uruguayans convinced that their football – a mix of mental strength and scientifically precise passing and movement – was superior to that of the Argentinians. For the political elites of the country, the games of 1912 confirmed football’s effectiveness in articulating an ideal national character. The national football style reflected this, with Uruguay’s triumphs a celebration of the country’s aspirations to become a prosperous and modern nation. 

Galeano was right. The Creoles took the game of football and made it an art form. Before it was unleashed onto the Old World, however, that art was first organised both on and off the pitch. Looking to the British as the model, Uruguayan football authorities sought to incorporate a scientific approach to weigh down what they saw as an excess of individual play. What was a free and expressive football dominated by aimless long balls and dribbling would need to be reformed in order to reach the level of the revered professional. 

While the civilising purpose of Uruguay’s football and political authorities is obvious, tactical reform did not represent a rejection of the home-grown rioplatense style. Indeed, the native dribbling style wasn’t overshadowed by combination work or tactical discipline, but enhanced through the figure of John Harley, who helped fast-track the development of tiny Uruguay’s distinct national style. The victories against Argentina in 1912 marked the early stages of a footballing journey that, 12 years later, would culminate with the young Uruguayans not only competing with but surpassing the most advanced and ‘civilised’ nations of the world.