Uruguay

In the entire World Cup history, no country smaller than Uruguay has ever managed to win the tournament. This historical moment came to pass in 1930, when Uruguay had a mere 1.75 million inhabitants. During their colorful history, they’ve won another World Cup in 1950 and more than a dozen Copa América titles, making them the most successful team in the history of the competition. They’re known for their sky-blue kits and the garra charrúa football philosophy.

Main trophies

Olympic football tournament: 2
World Cup: 2
Copa América: 15

Player records

Most games played: Diego Godín (159; as in 2022)
Top goalscorer: Luis Suárez (68; as in 2022)

Stats

Uruguay football team picture from 1930
The World Cup team of Uruguay in 1930.

History

Early dominance

Uruguay played its first match in 1901, narrowly losing to Argentina 2-3. These two teams would continue to play each other on a regular basis, playing close to 30 matches by 1916. That same year, Uruguay also participated in the inaugural South American Championship (later known as Copa América). With two victories over Chile and Brazil, a 0-0 draw against Argentina in the final round was enough to claim the first major trophy.

In Angels with Dirty Faces, Jonathan Wilson writes: “Uruguay went to the 1924 Olympics as unknows; they left having redefined soccer”. Uruguay was superior the other participating teams and won the final 3-0 against Switzerland. The success led to a national holiday in Uruguay and a breakthrough for South American football as a whole.

By 1930, the team had won five more South American Championship titles, three of which were claimed on home turf. During this period, they also became the first team from South America to compete at the Olympic Games, traveling to Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928. Their style of play based on short passing gave them an edge against the European competition, which resulted in them winning two gold medals.

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The inaugural World Cup

These triumphs did a lot for Uruguay’s reputation as a football nation, which led to them being chosen as the host nation for the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Another reason why Uruguay was chosen lied in the fact that they were celebrating the centenary of their first constitution. The team won both of its group matches, defeating Peru 1-0 and Romania 4-0. In the semi-finals, they trounced Yugoslavia 6-1, setting up the decisive game against Argentina.

Though Uruguay scored first via Dorado, the Argentines managed to take the lead before the break. However, the second half was all Uruguay, who scored three more goals to clinch the first World Cup trophy. At the age of 31, Uruguayan manager Alberto Suppici remains the youngest coach to win the World Cup. The country celebrated the title along with the team, and the following day was declared a national holiday.

Boycotts and titles

Unfortunately, Uruguay never got to defend its crown. Due to some European teams boycotting the inaugural World Cup, the team refused to participate at the 1934 edition. Four years later, no South American teams except Brazil took part in the tournament due to the fact that Europe got to host two World Cups in a row. Combined with the outbreak of WWII, this led to Uruguay being absent from the competition for 20 years.

On the home continent’s soil, things were going much better. Uruguay won two more South American Championships in 1935 and 1942, cementing their status of a football powerhouse. Their performance at the latter tournament was particularly impressive, as they recorded six victories in as many matches against the best competition on the continent. In the final round, they took the trophy home by defeating the previously unbeaten Argentina 1-0.

The Maracanazo

In 1950, Uruguay finally got another chance to compete at a World Cup. Due to the luck of the draw, they were placed in Group 4 along with France and Bolivia. However, France decided to withdraw from the tournament just before it started, giving the organizers no time to restructure the groups or invite a replacement team. In the only remaining group game, Uruguay thrashed Bolivia 8-0, qualifying for the final round.

The final group saw Uruguay paired with the other group winners: Spain, Sweden, and hosts Brazil. They proceeded to draw 2-2 against Spain, with team captain Varela scoring the equalizing goal in the 73rd minute. The match against Sweden was even more dramatic, as Uruguay came back from behind to win the game on a late-game brace by Miguez. Meanwhile, Brazil won both of its games with the scorelines of 6-1 and 7-1.

Uruguay football team picture from 1950
The World Cup team of Uruguay in 1950.

This set up the decisive match between Uruguay and Brazil. In front of 200,000 spectators at the legendary Maracanã, Brazil seemed destined to win its first World Cup. After a dominant 45 minutes, the hosts took the lead early on in the second half. Then, Uruguay shocked the home crowd by overturning the score via its two best players: Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia. By the time the match ended 1-2, the stadium was filled with absolute silence.

Tumbling down

With two World Cup titles in two appearances, Uruguay was ready to go for the trifecta in 1954. They cruised through the group stage, recording two victories over Czechoslovakia (2-0) and Scotland (7-0). In the quarter-finals, they defeated England 4-2. However, their run came to an end against the “Mighty Magyars” in the semi-finals. Despite another late-game comeback, they lost 2-4 in overtime. In the third-place match, they were defeated by Austria 1-3.

With most of the Maracanazo generation retiring from national football, La Celeste began struggling to make an impact. After missing out on the 1958 World Cup, they failed to advance from the group stage at the 1962 edition of the tournament. Four years later, they managed to make it to the quarter-finals, but they were no match for the high-flying West Germany. In a decidedly one-sided game, the European side dismantled Uruguay 4-0.

Though these results were relatively disappointing, the team could find some solace in its South American Championship campaigns. During this period, Uruguay claimed three more tournament trophies in 1956, 1959, and 1967. The latter tournament -- which took part in Uruguay -- was also the final South American Championship ever played. After an 8-year break, the competition was relaunched as Copa América in 1975.

The low point

In 1970, Uruguay was ready to make another run at a World Cup trophy. Following a mixed performance in the group stage, they defeated the Soviet Union 1-0 in the quarter-finals. In the semi-finals, they lost 1-3 to the Pelé-led Brazil despite taking the lead early on. In a closely contested third-place match, they were defeated by West Germany 0-1. At the 1974 World Cup, they finished last in a group containing the Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium.

As it turned out, this was just a prelude to three decades of underachievement. From 1978 to 2006, Uruguay qualified for just three out of eight World Cups. On two of those occasions, they went out in the round of 16, with the third appearance being a group stage exit. At their lowest point, their FIFA ranking fell to #76. On the bright side, they were still competitive at the Copa América, winning three titles during this period.

Coming back

Slowly but surely, a new generation of players started appearing at the national team. At the 2010 World Cup, La Celeste could count on a talented attacking trio of Diego Forlán, Luis Suárez, and Edinson Cavani. Though the team had always played with grittiness and tenacity -- a style known as garra charrúa -- this was the first time in decades that they were able to field a team that was good enough to exploit this philosophy to its fullest.

In a group containing France, Mexico, and hosts South Africa, Uruguay finished first with two victories and one draw. In the round of 16, Suárez scored a brace to lead the team to a tough 2-1 victory. The match against Ghana saw Suárez use his hand to block the ball from entering Uruguay’s goal, which resulted in him getting a red card and Ghana earning a penalty. However, Gyan missed the resulting kick and Uruguay eventually won the game.

Without Suárez, the squad tried to adopt a defensive posture for their semi-final match against the Netherlands. This strategy failed, and Uruguay lost the match 2-3 despite giving their opponents a scare by scoring in stoppage time. In the third-place match, Uruguay traditionally had to settle for fourth place, losing to Germany 2-3. This was the team’s best result in 40 years, and Forlán was voted Player of the Tournament.

A new hope

Following another successful Copa América campaign in 2011, this generation of players returned for the 2014 World Cup. Following a shock defeat to Costa Rica in their opener, they managed to recover by defeating England 2-1 and Italy 1-0. On the negative side, Suárez got suspended again. This time, he bit Chiellini on his shoulder, which resulted in a 9-game ban. In the round of 16, the weakened Uruguay was eliminated by Colombia 0-2.

In 2018, Uruguay was placed into a group containing hosts Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Despite not performing at maximum capacity, they won all three games. In the round of 16, a Cavani brace helped them defeat the Ronaldo-led Portugal 2-1. However, Cavani got injured near the end of the game, leaving Suáred to lead the line against France in the quarter-finals. Despite a solid defensive effort, Uruguay lost to the eventual champions 0-2.

FIFA World Cup results

Uruguay has participated 13 times in the World Cup (FIFA World Cup qualification not included).

Chile's performances in the World Cup
Year Result Notes
2018 Quarter-finals  
2014 Round of 16  
2010 4th place  
2006 Not qualified  
2002 Group Stage  
1998 Not qualified  
1994 Not qualified  
1990 Round of 16  
1986 Round of 16  
1982 Not qualified  
1978 Not qualified  
1974 4th place  
1970 Not qualified  
1966 Quarter-finals  
1962 Group Stage  
1958 Not qualified  
1954 4th place  
1950 Winners 2nd tournament title
1938 Decline to participate  
1934 Decline to participate  
1930* Winners 1st tournament title

* Host nation

By Martin Wahl

Logo

Uruguay national football team logoIn the middle “La Asociación Uruguaya de Fútbol" (Uruguayan Football Association), the name of the governing body of football in Uruguay is written in uppercase letters. The four stars on the top indicate the gold medals in the Olympics and the two World Cup champions.

References:
Jonathan Wilson, Angels with Dirty Faces (2016)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uruguay_national_football_team
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_in_Uruguay
https://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/associations/association=uru/men/index.html
Image sources:
1. Unknown
2. Unknown