The White Legs Of Glory
How Plaza Colonia went from the brink of bankruptcy to winning the Uruguayan Clausura
At the end of the 20th century, Plaza Colonia were drifting in the Uruguayan second division, an impossible distance from the economic and sporting might of Peñarol and Nacional. Last season, they won the clausura.
Uruguayan football turned professional in 1932. It wasn’t until 1976 that a team other than the big two won the title, Defensor becoming Uruguay’s third champion. Since then other champions have become slightly more common but, still, 79 of the 84 championships have been claimed by Peñarol or Nacional.
Plaza Colonia, also known as “los Patas Blancas” (The White Legs), were founded in 1917. They are based in the city of Colonia del Sacramento in southeastern Uruguay, a popular tourist destination for Argentinians that lies just across the River Plate from Buenos Aires. They began the season thinking only about avoiding relegation.
Their modern story begins in 2013 when their assistant coach Roberto ‘Chiqui’ García took over running the club and saved them from bankruptcy. Although they were struggling against relegation to the third tier, the takeover enabled them the following year to appoint Eduardo Espinel as coach. So greatly has his reputation risen that he has moved with his entire staff to the Chilean side Santiago Wanderers.
Espinel is a close friend of Diego Lugano, the former captain of the Uruguay national team. Lugano, who had played for Plaza Colonia on loan in 2001-02, was without a team after leaving Cerro Porteño last year and trained with the club. Numerous players have highlighted how he was a huge influence in encouraging Colonia’s players to be professional and to think positively, looking up rather than down. Plaza not only won the clausura, but beat both Peñarol, the apertura champions, and Nacional – although they were beaten by Peñarol in the play-off for the overall annual champion.
Plaza Colonia took a huge leap forward in 1967 when they moved into the Cinquantenaire Park Juan Gaspar Prandi, in the municipal park named after its founder, Alberto Suppici, with a capacity of 15,000. From then until 1999, the Patas Blancas competed in the regional leagues, known because their green and white colours were worn by some outstanding players such as Hugo Nelson Lacava Schell, who later took his immense promise to Boca Juniors without ever quite fulfilling it, Gilmar Villagrán, who had huge success in Argentina with Lanús, and the present-day Uruguay defender Mauricio Victorino.
In the nineties, the club directors began seriously to consider the possibility of moving from being a regional club to participating in national tournaments. To do that, they proposed a merger with the other club of the city, Juventud Unida, but the plan was rejected. It was decided, anyway, to take the risk and apply alone to the Uruguayan Football Association (AUF), which accepted them to begin in the second tier, but after just a year Plaza Colonia were promoted to the First Division.
Plaza’s coach at that time was Diego Aguirre, famous for his goal 10 seconds from time against América de Cali that won Peñarol the Copa Libertadores in 1987. He is now the coach of San Lorenzo in Argentina.
That 2001 team came very close to being named champions, but they lost their final two games, against Fénix and River of Montevideo, and finished runners-up, although it will have forever the memory of having twice beaten Peñarol (2-0 at home and 4-3 in the legendary Centenario Stadium). They qualified for the playoffs for the Copa Libertadores, but failed to make it through.
Once the season ended, Plaza Colonia sold most of their players and in the seasons that followed struggled to retain their top-flight status. In 2005 they were relegated and couldn’t even take part in the first part of the following season’s championship because of a lack of funds. Their resurrection came in 2007, when they decided to focus on players from their own youth ranks. They were almost promoted in 2008 but finally returned to the top flight in 2014-15.
Both fans and press highlighted the midfielder Matías Caseras as the team’s key player. He is an offensive playmaker, who used to play behind the attackers but in pre-season he was told he would not be considered because Espinel wanted players who were better suited to marking opponents as he shifted from 4-3-1-2- to 4-4-2. Caseras accepted the change of approach and asked to be used as a central midfielder. He came off the bench in a friendly with Plaza trailing and after a while launched himself at the feet of an opponent. From the bench a voice screamed, “That's what we want!” It was not Espinel but the sports club manager, Carlos Manta. From then on Caseras became established at the heart of the side.
Also important were the 24-year-old goalkeeper Kevin Dawson, the defender Guillermo Padula, who has since joined Villarreal’s B side despite being only 18 and the strikers Nicolas Dibble, who has moved to Peñarol, and Germán Rivero, an Argentinian.
The departures are an inevitable part of South American football but, in August, Plaza Colonia made their debut in international competition against Blooming in the Copa Sudamericana. Nobody can quite be sure they won’t be challengers to win that.