By Langley King


Before European colonial powers interfered, Uruguay was inhabited by a small tribe of indigenous people, the Charrua Indians[1] In the 1500s, Spanish explorers began to settle Uruguay, yet most of them were driven away by the Charruas, who fiercely resisted the colonial power.[2] Catholic missionaries also began to settle the region in 1624, forming permanent settlements, which slowly helped the Spanish gain more power and control.  By the 1680s, Portuguese from Brazil had settled Colonia do Sacremento as a rival port to Buenos Aires, while the Spaniards continued to establish power on the opposite side of the country.[3] Thus began a long Spanish-Portuguese rivalry, using control over Uruguay as a symbolic measure of each country’s overall power in the “Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay”[4] region.  In the early 1700s, the Spanish founded Montevideo as a military stronghold, in an attempt to cement it’s control over the region.  At this point, almost all of the indigenous people had been exterminated, following patterns similar to much of Latin and South America.

The continuous fighting between Spanish, Portuguese and occasionally British colonists clearly defined Uruguay’s early history throughout the 19th century.  However, as more Uruguayans began to identify more with the newly developing region than the colonial powers, rebellion began to unfold. Jose Gervasio Artigas emerged as the country’s first national hero when he organized the first revolution against Spain in 1811.[5] This revolt did not completely sever ties with external powers, as Portugal annexed Uruguay to Brazil in 1921.[6] However, Uruguayan revolutionaries declared independence from Brazil in 1825 and, with the help of the Argentine military, gained independence within three years.[7]

As a new nation, Uruguay experienced simultaneous times of relative stability and strife, as different parties sought to gain power.  Two major political partied emerged during this time, the Colorados, the traditionally mestizo and minority party, and the Blancos, the traditionally Caucasian and European party.[8] Despite the political changes, Uruguay established a stable economy and, due in large part to this, continued to face a huge influx of European immigrants throughout its first 100 years.[9]

José Batlle y Ordóñez

José Batlle y Ordóñez

When Jose Batlle y Ordóñez became president in 1903, Uruguay entered into its most extensive political and economic development.  Batlle’s large-scale reforms spanned the political, social and economic realms, as he instituted “an extensive welfare program, government participation in many facets of the economy, and electoral laws that increased political representation of minority opposition parties”.[10] Uruguay’s social programs were so productive that many nicknamed Uruguay the “Switzerland of South America”.[11] Batlle’s second term as president ended in 1915, yet his legacy continued to influence Uruguayan politics throughout the early 10th century and both World War I and II.  This time in Uruguayan political history is often viewed as the calm before the storm, as the next decades of political history were fueled with dictatorship and repression.

Brief Racial History

Scholars rarely turn to Uruguay as an example of extreme racial tensions or inequalities, yet slavery’s shadow still looms over everyday life for Uruguayans of all racial backgrounds.  In fact, Uruguay’s long history of welcoming immigrants, often political refugees, allows the nation to pride itself as a tolerant haven.[12] However, in recent years Uruguayans have noticed a new focus on racial issues that were before largely ignored.

Blacks in Uruguay originally came to the country as African slaves, most often sent to work in the cities as servants and construction workers.[13] When slavery was officially abolished in 1853, slaves constituted over 25% of the population in the capital city of Montevideo.[14] While the situation of slaves and slavery was never reached as large-scale levels of brutality as it did in the United States or the nearby Caribbean, underlying attitudes about racial inferiority left over from slavery still permeate Uruguayan society.  The racial inequalities are most obvious when observing direct statistics.  As of 2007, only 65 blacks (1% of the population) has graduated college, there were no black political leaders, and less than 50 black professionals in the entire country.[15] The annual “Candombe” celebration is many black’s only chance to celebrate their black, slave heritage.  The carnival occurs across Uruguay and is characterized by huge parades that feature traditional music and dancing associated with the early Uruguayan slave cultures.[16]

Click to see video of a Candombe celebration in Montevideo, Uruguay

Football History

It was this combination of political and racial history that led to Uruguay’s emergence as a football force in the international game.  As in other colonized nations, football was brought the nation by the colonizing forces, both in the form of missionaries and conquistadores, who brought the sport as a reminder of home and as a distraction from the difficulties faced abroad.[17] European immigrants, who continued to relocate to Uruguay after it gained its independence, helped to ensure that football maintained popularity throughout its history.  In fact, as football emerged during early 20th century as an international phenomenon, Uruguay was at the center of the competition and prestige.  On May 16th, 1901, the first international game ever to be played outside of the United Kingdom took place in Montevideo.  In this game, Uruguay beat Argentina, beginning the long-standing football rivalry between the two neighboring countries.[18] It is a ironic that this rivalry would be one of the most heated in the region, even though Argentina had helped Uruguay politically and aided its own troops into fighting the European colonial powers.   It seems that even that favor was not enough to quell the Uruguayan fan’s passion for the sport.

In 1913, the Uruguayan national team was taken over by Italian immigrants and officially became known as Peñarol.[19] The new Italian coaches added new, European techniques to the Uruguayan’s game, and added a new perspective very unique to Uruguay’s early team.  Having foreigners, albeit Europeans, as coaches, the Uruguayan teams did not struggle with diversity as did many of their counterparts around the same time.  Instead, Uruguay’s football teams became some of the most diverse in the world.  When, in 1916, the first South American championship game was held between Chile and Uruguay, the Uruguayans easily won, 4-0.  More remarkably, however, was the diversity of Uruguay’s lineup, as two of their starters, Isabelino Grádin and Juan Delgado, were both black.[20] At this point, Uruguay was the only country in the world to have black players on its national team.[21] The Chilean team went so far as to accuse Uruguay of wrongfully allowing these two descendants of slaves to play.[22] The Chileans only apologized after Uruguay threatened to take the issue to the diplomatic level.

When the Uruguayan football team invaded the Paris Olympics of 1924, it continued to stun European football fans by winning gold and demolishing the other teams.  Uruguay then went on to win the gold in the next Olympics, as well, in Holland in 1928.  This time, Uruguay truly proved to the other teams, some of which represented countries that had once held power in Uruguay, that it “was not a mistake”.[23] community that even a small country can produce amazing talent and skill.The star of these Olympic games was José Leandro Andrade, the son of a former slave and the first black footballer in the Olympic games.  Andrade not only led Uruguay to international football prestige, but fought many racial prejudices with his skill on the pitch.

After winning these two Olympic titles, Uruguay was the natural choice to host the first World Cup in 1930.[24] This set of games is often thought of as Uruguay’s golden era of football, as the small country defeated Argentina, its biggest rival, 4-2 in the final game.  Political revolt would strike three years later, forcing Uruguay into a stretch of civil unrest that kept it from another World Cup until 1950.[25] Yet Uruguay will forever hold the honor as the first best team in the world, at least with the FIFA World Cup as the determining factor.

1930 FIFA World Cup Final (Uruguay-Argentina)

José Leandro Andrade

José Leandro Andrade was born in the border town of Salto, Uruguay, on the morning of October 1st, 1901.[26] Leandro’s heritage was unique, however, as his father,  Ignacio Andrade was 98 years old at the time of Leandro’s birth, and had been originally brought to southern Brazil as a slave from West Africa.[27] Leandro Andrade lived the youth common to many Uruguayans at the time.  His family had neither running water nor electricity, and his mother and sister used the two beds in his home, as he and his two brothers spent their nights on the home’s dirt floor.[28] Andrade and his brothers were infamous in Salto for “sus diabluras” [29], and even though Andrade was one of the best students in the local school, he was also one of the first of his age to abandon school and his education.  Indeed, one of the only things that kept Andrade in school so long was his daily “compensation”[30]: after lessons he and his brothers were allowed to play football in the schoolyard.  It was here that Leandro Andrade found his passion, as he developed his skill in the dirt outside his school.

Jose Leandro Andrade

As Andrade reached adolescence, he, like many poor youth, “had a burning desire to go to far away places, far from the small town where he lived.”[31] It is unknown exactly when Andrade left Salto for the allure of the capital city, Montevideo, but Andrade was still young, likely in his early teens.

Once in Montevideo, Andrade tried out for and easily made the national team.  However, financial needs meant that Andrade could not realistically pursue football exclusively.  Instead, Andrade forged his living as a carnival musician, entertaining crowds of Uruguayans with his skill dancing the tango and playing the drums.[32] When he needed extra money, Andrade also worked as a shoe-shiner in between performances.[33] This was not unusual at the time, as Uruguay’s football team during the early 1920s was dominated by men like Andrade who “were workers and wanderers who got nothing from soccer but the pleasure of playing.”[34]

Andrade was Uruguay’s star the Paris and Holland Olympics in the 1920s. In Paris, with Andrade as its leader at halfback, Uruguay went from being virtual unknown in the international football scene, to being revered champions both on and off the field.[35] Parisians nicknamed Andrade “The Black Marvel”, and Andrade enjoyed his newfound celebrity, staying in Paris for a short time after the games and relishing in all aspects of French culture.[36]

Andrade and his teammates at the 1924 Olympics in Paris

Andrade and his teammates at the 1924 Olympics in Paris

In the Holland Olympics, Andrade was once again the star of the game, more because of his legendary name, however, and less because of his level of play.  In fact, when Uruguay composed its team for the 1928 Olympics in Holland, Andrade had barely made the team.[37] He had contracted syphilis years earlier and was a significantly different player in these games. Nevertheless, Andrade still drew national attention in these games, and out-performed many of his teammates.  He continued his play in the 1930 World Cup, still holding the imagination of football fans worldwide, with many “the ever-growing soccer crowds of those years still wanting to see the black world star Andrade.”[38] Andrade even scored a goal in the four matches played and was ultimately elected to the All-Star team as right halfback.[39]

Although he would live for almost three more decades, these games were the last in which Andrade would garner international respect and adoration.[40] His deteriorating health led to a deep depression, fueled by a failing marriage and alcoholism.  Yet what Andrade did for race in Uruguay and around the world cannot be overlooked.

When Andrade stepped on the field in the 1924 Olympics and showed his pure athleticism, he was also challenging popular racist ideologies of the time that emphasized the physical and mental superiority of whites.[41] The respect he garnered from other white, European players, suddenly demonstrated the possibility of blacks commanding admiration and honor among white counterparts. Furthermore, as Andrade gallivanted around Paris before and after the games, he allowed Europeans to see sophistication and class in a black man, traits many Europeans rarely before associated with his race.[42]

However, the simple nickname given to him by the French press, “The Black Marvel”, demonstrates on its own a deep underlying racism that even Andrade could not change.  While it shows that Andrade himself greatly impressed much of Europe, it also shows that he was still viewed as an anomaly among his race.  Perhaps most telling is the fact that Andrade was this “marvel” only a few years before Hitler’s reign capitalized on the idea of Aryan superiority and forced it on almost all of Europe.[43] Clearly, while Andrade did much for black footballers and began to open the minds of many fans and players, it was impossible for him to completely address the root racism prevalent in much of Europe at the time.

Adolph Hitler

Each year leaders from several world football organizations gather in Rome to elect new Football Hall of Fame members and declare the “Player of the Year.”  In this Hall of Fame, José Leandro Andrade is still the only Uruguayan football player within the top twenty players of all time.[44] Ironically, the last few years of his life he had spent “a total alcoholic and blind in one eye”[45], barely recognizable as the athlete that he had once been.  Yet, upon his death, newspapers around the world were filled with his obituaries, none of which mentioned Andrade’s decline as an athlete.  Instead, the world outwardly mourned the loss of a legendary man who had long ago left the football pitch.[46] Andrade, although he died an average, poor Uruguayan, was only remembered as the player who, with his irreplaceable style of play, captured the imagination of all football fans, and brought his country and his race to the world’s attention.

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Works Cited

[1] Political Overview: Uruguay Country Review”. Web. 4 December, 2009. < http://content.ebscohost.com/pdf19_22/pdf/2008/DYH/01Jul08/27898643.pdf?T=P&P=AN&K=27898643&EbscoContent=dGJyMNLe80Sep644wtvhOLCmrlGep7NSr6y4SLGWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMPGsr0y0r7dMuePfgeyx%2BEu3q64A&D=bth>

[2] “Encyclopedia of the Nations: Uruguay History”.  Web.  4 December, 2009.  < http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Americas/Uruguay-HISTORY.html#Comments_form>

[3] “Uruguay History”.

[4] “Political Overview”.

[5] “Political Overview”.

[6] “Uruguay History”.

[7] “Political Overview.”

[8] “Uruguay History.”

[9] “Political Overview.”

[10] “Political Overview”

[11] “Uruguay History.”

[12] Nash, Nathaniel C. “Uruguay is on Notice: Black Want Recognition.” The New York Times. 7 May 1993: A4+. Print.

[13] Villaverde, Amelia.  “Colour Blind.” New Internationalist December 1991: 43.  Print.

[14] Bucheli, Marisa & Porzecanski, Rafael.  “Racial Inequality in the Uruguayan Labor Market: An analysis of wage differentials between Afro-descendants and whites.” Web.  2 December 2009.  < http://www.bcu.gub.uy/autoriza/peiees/jor/2008/iees03j3410808.pdf>

[15] Nash, 4.

[16] Nash, 4.

[17] Darby, Paul. Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance. London: Frank Cass, 2002; 23.

[18] Murray, Bill. The World’s Game: a history of soccer. New York: University of Illinois, 1998; 30.

[19] Murray, World’s Game; 33.

[20] Galeano, Eduardo H. Soccer in sun and shadow. London: Verso, 1998; 38.

[21] Galeano, Soccer; 39.

[22] Mason, Tony. Passion of the People?: football in South America. London: Verso, 1995; 30.

[23] Galeano, Soccer; 45.

[24] Murray, World’s Game; 64.

[25] Galeano, Soccer; 55.

[26] Morales, Franklin. Andrade: el rey negro de Paris. Uruguay: Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2002; 12

[27] Morales. Andrade; 26

[28] Morales. Andrade; 43.

[29] Morales. Andrade; 35. Translation: “their mischief”

[30] Morales. Andrade; 35.

[31] Morales. Andrade; 31. Exact wording: “sin saber por qué, ardía en deseos de irse lejos, lejos del andurrial donde vivía.”

[32] Morales. Andrade; 45

[33]Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2006; 246.

[34] Galeano, Soccer; 45

[35] Morales. Andrade; 56

[36] Galeano. Soccer; 47

[37] Gumbrecht. Athletic Beauty; 251.

[38] Gumbrecht. Soccer; 251.

[39] “ContiSoccerWorld – FIFA World Cup Star 1930: Jose Leandro Andrade.” Web. 18 Oct. 2009. <http://www.conti-online.com/generator/www/uk/en/contisoccerworld/themes/02_fanzone/04_stars/1930-andrade-en.html>.

[40] Morales. Andrade; 163.

[41] Morales. Andrade; 58.

[42] Gumbrecht. Athletic Beauty; 246.

[43] Morales.  Andrade; 58.

[44] Morales. Andrade; 62.

[45] “Conti-Soccer: FIFA World Cup Star”

[46] Morales. Andrade; 179.

Photo Credits
Uruguay Flag Illustration – Photoillustration by Will Flaherty

4 thoughts on “Uruguay

  1. Marcela

    Good article, some background is a bit generalized. Indeed Peñarol was first a cricket club. Soccer was brought to the country mainly by the Brits who built the railroads. Furthermore, (and I have charrúa descent), there were other indigenous groups, derived mainly, as the charrúas are, from the tupi guarani branch , (genoas, chanas, and some more I can’t recall at the moment). Cheers.

  2. Hernanes

    You are right, Julio. English immigrants brought football to Uruguay, but against what you pointed out previously, Peñarol was the name of the first club in the country. Formally also called C.U.R.C.C. There are many documents signed for presidents of the traditional opponent club (Club Naciómal de Football) that confirm this fact.

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  4. JulioCG

    Well, it was a generally good article, but the introduction of soccer to Uruguay, and the story of its national team, is completely wrong. Soccer was not brought to
    Uruguay by Conquistadors, but by English immigrants. Pen~arol was not the name of our first National Team (they didn’t even exist as a club; they were the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club first). Uruguay’s first match in 1901 was a loss of 3-2 against the Argentines. Do a bit more research, I’m not THAT well read on Andrade’s life, but I know for sure that those things I’ve pointed out were incorrect.

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