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Hello soccer fans! Well, this is a bittersweet moment for El Bolso. All good things must come to an end, and this is the last installment in my groundbreaking History of Nacional series. Today I’m going to talk about how the Tricolores have dominated the Uruguayan soccer scene in the 21st Century. I mean you know me, I could write 2,000 words on each and every one of the many titles Nacional has won in the last decade and a half, but I thought one single post (well, a two part one, so Jobu doesn’t go blind editing it) collecting all of them together would give you a better idea about the ongoing, dominant success the Tricolores have built over the last 15 years. Let’s get to it!

 

El Campeón del Siglo (no, really)

 

Last time, I talked about the 1998 season, when Nacional broke a 5 year league run by Peñarol. Well, the next year the Aurinegros regained the title, beating the Tricolores in yet another final, and it looked like business as usual in Uruguayan soccer. You know how in a lot of these posts I talk about a great season or run, and it looks like Nacional is on top of the world, but immediately after they fall back into mediocrity? It looked like it would happen yet again. Peñarol was now on a streak of 6 titles in 7 seasons, and more importantly it was conventional wisdom that Nacional just didn’t have the guts to beat their rivals head to head when it mattered. They were in our heads big time, fans. That’s what made what happened next all the more shocking.

 

Basically, what happened is that Nacional just took over as the premier club in Uruguayan soccer. I’ll go over the stats at the end, but let’s just say that, so far in the 21st Century, the Tricolores have won 9 league titles, the same number as every other team combined. Every other team combined. No one else has won more than 4! That’s what I call dominance. Let’s take a look at the season-by-season breakdown.

2000

A young Alejandro Lembo lifts the 2000 Uruguayan League trophy. (Pueblo Tricolor)
A young Alejandro Lembo lifts the 2000 Uruguayan League trophy. (Pueblo Tricolor)

 

This was Hugo De León‘s third season in charge, and after losing the 1999 final to Peñarol (with all the psychological baggage that this entailed) he needed to get back on track quickly. At the same time, however, he had the benefit of a core of seasoned (but still relatively young) players who had come up through the club’s youth divisions together: current club GM Alejandro LemboMario RegueiroFabián CoelhoÓscar Javier MoralesMarco VanziniGustavo Varela, and others. They also had elder statesman Rubén Sosa to provide on-the-field leadership. The team raced through the Apertura tournament, finishing 8 points clear of second place Danubio, but hit a rough patch in the Clausura. They finished in 3rd place, 5 points off the pace. The winner, and Nacional’s finals opponent, was none other than Peñarol. DUN DUN DUN!

 

I know I said last time that 1998 was a turning point, and it was, but this was also a key moment for the Tricolores. Everybody in Uruguay (including Nacional’s own fans) expected another choke job, but that’s not what they got. Nacional’s defense carried the day here, smothering Peñarol’s attack throughout both final games. In the first match the Tricolores got a penalty kick conversion from forward Sergio Daniel “Butter” Martínez (so nicknamed because of his reputation as a softie) and held on for a 1-0 win. Martínez converted another PK early in the return game, and even though the Manyas were able to tie it before the half, that was the best they could do. Nacional won the series by a 2-1 aggregate and was once again league champion. More importantly, the team had finally beaten Peñarol in a head to head playoff. De León’s team had finally shown the world their marbles.

 

2001

 

El Loco celebrates in 2001, his "blonde ambition" period. (La Voz del Interior)
El Loco celebrates in 2001, his “blonde ambition” period. (La Voz del Interior)

 

Man, that De León guy sure was a sucker for making history! In his 1st year as coach, he broke up the Quinquenio. In his 3rd season, the Tricolores beat Peñarol in a final playoff for the first time in decades. Now, in his 4th year, he looked to lead the team to their first back to back titles since the early 1970s. Of course, this being Uruguay, he would have to deal with a completely different tournament format to do so. This was the Clasificatorio era, 2 years of just utter pain and confusion. The season began with a preliminary tournament: there were 3 groups, one with 7 teams, one with 6, and one with 5 (look, don’t think about it too much or attempt to do maths, it’s for the best). The teams played a single round robin against all 17 opponents. The top 2 teams in each group moved on (the group tables only counted games between same group opponents), as did the best 4 teams in the general table (counting ALL games now) that were not among the group leaders. The 10 surviving teams then played single round Apertura and Clausura tournaments, while the bottom 8 teams played a special league to determine relegation spots. Look, I have no idea why they did this. It was a fucking mess. Let’s just move on.

 

Peñarol won the Clasificatorio; Nacional won their group and placed 4th in the overall table. The Apertura was won by Danubio, with Peñarol 1 point behind and Nacional 4 points back in 3rd place. That means the Tricolores would have to win the Clausura (there was no annual table this season, because isn’t this format complicated enough, why do you want to add even more complexity?) to have a chance at repeating. That they did, with Danubio 3 points behind and Peñarol 5 back. There were 3 top teams in the league that season; each won one of the short tournaments, but while Nacional and Danubio faced off in the final, Peñarol would be watching on TV. What can I say; I’m sure if this had happened in the 80s or 90s the Manyas would have deployed their shady political operatives and there would have been a last minute rules change to allow them to be part of the final playoff. In 2002 that kind of thing was done with.

 

In the first final, Nacional found itself down 2 goals in the first 15 minutes, but fought back for a 2-2 tie. Vanzini tied it in the 36th minute, but not before a forward who had transferred from Defensor at the beginning of the season started the comeback 4 minutes earlier. That young man’s name? Washington Sebastián “El Loco” Abreu, the person my firstborn is most definitely NOT named after (and don’t you go telling Mrs. El Bolso otherwise). The Crazy One had arrived, and nothing would ever be the same. In the second final Nacional fell behind again, this time in the 3rd minute, but once again fought back. Abreu (yes, him again!) tied the game at the quarter hour mark, and Varela scored the winner 15 minutes into the second half. Just like that, the Tricolores were back-to-back champions.

 

2002

 

Chengue Morales in his Celeste glory days. (Ovacion Digital)
Chengue Morales in his Celeste glory days. (Ovacion Digital)

 

Well fans, it had to happen sooner or later, and in 2002 it happened; after winning 3 league titles in 4 years and single-handedly changing the course of Uruguayan soccer history, De León resigned as team manager. He was probably sick of fighting with the coaches’ union about his title (that’s not one of my jokes, I’m pretty sure that’s why he left). Hired to take his place was a fellow 1988 Libertadores and Intercontinental champion, José Daniel Carreño. Carreño had started his managing career at Wanderers 2 seasons earlier, but the leadership felt he was ready for bigger and better things, and in his first year he didn’t disappoint. By the way, Carreño is currently the head coach of Qatar’s national team, so he’s done pretty well for himself.

 

The tournament format was unchanged from the previous year; on the one hand, it’s great that the AUF decided to stick with something for longer then 5 weeks, but on the other hand this particular format was TURR-ible! Peñarol, looking to regain some semblance of prominence in the local scene, won the Clasificatorio (they won it both years it was played, which, gold star for winning a meaningless trophy!), then came in second place in both the Apertura and Clausura. What did they get for all of that effort? NOTHING! Too bad, so sad. Anyway, Nacional won the Apertura by 4 points; they clinched the title in the next to last week by winning the Clásico which, how fucking sweet is that? The Tricolores slipped in the Clausura, winning only 4 of 9 matches, and Danubio took first place by a single point over the Manyas.

 

So once again, Nacional and Danubio faced off for the league title. In the first final Danubio once again took the first lead, but Vanzini tied the game and Horacio “El Chino” Peralta (people said he played like Álvaro Recoba, so he got stuck with the nickname even though he does not look Asian at all) scored the game winner in the 90th minute. Peralta started out at Danubio (like Recoba), moved over to Nacional (like Recoba) and was sold to Inter Milan (like Recoba). Geez, put a little more pressure on a guy! He never reached Recoba’s level or accomplishments, but he was always a solid player with a great touch and the ability to open the game for his teammates. I should say “is,” because El Chino II is still active today, having led humble Cerrito to the 2016 Uruguayan Amateur League title and a spot in the Second Division. Anyway, Nacional had the advantage going into the second final and added to it with an early Andrés Scotti goal. Remember him from the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Copa América? It’s actually pretty amazing how many future Uruguay stars pop up in these recaps. Danubio tied the game in the second half and was pushing forward for the goal that would even the aggregate score, but 2 minutes from time the Tricolores got the clincher from Richard “El Chengue” Morales. That’s right, the man who put the Celestes in the 2002 World Cup (also, the man who took them out of it). Nacional had won their 3rd title in a row; that’s as many titles as they won between 1978 and 1997. More importantly, they had managed to win one without De León at the helm.

 

2005 Especial

 

El Loco and his magical mystery undershirt during the Parque Central grand reopening. (Pasion Tricolor)
El Loco and his magical mystery undershirt during the Parque Central grand reopening. (Pasion Tricolor)

 

After the threepeat (shhh! Nobody tell Pat Riley I said that) came a couple of close-but-no-cigar seasons. Carreño’s second season ended with a league finals loss to Peñarol, so the club decided to replace him with a third straight 1988 team member: Intercontinental Cup hero Santiago “El Vasco” Ostolaza. Ostolaza, the current U17 Uruguayan National Team coach, spent a year with the Tricolores, losing the 2004 league final to Gerardo Pelusso‘s Danubio team (remember that name). So Ostolaza got canned, and this time the club’s Executive Board decided to abandon the former-1988-player pattern. Just kidding! They hired Martín Lasarte.

 

Lasarte was coach for 24 months and won 2 league titles. How’s that for efficiency? First up was the 2005 Uruguayo Especial, which was a single round robin, 6 month tournament that was used to move Uruguay away from a calendar year schedule and into the European August-to-June model. Why? Because. Just… because. It worked out so well that 11 years later we’re about to have another shortened season to get the league back on the old schedule. Winning! Anyway, this was a pretty special year for Nacional, as the club celebrated the reopening of the famous Parque Central, host of the first ever World Cup match. The old stadium had been undergoing substantial renovations (which continue to this day, as Nacional continues to invest in their historic neighborhood stadium rather than building an antiseptic house of lies out in the boonies), and was finally ready to once again host games.

 

As for the league itself, Nacional came into the last round of the tournament tied with Defensor Sporting for the lead. Defensor beat Cerrito 1-0, and Nacional got a 97th minute penalty kick score from Loco Abreu to down Rocha 3-2. A championship playoff was set up to settle the tournament, but Defensor’s leadership were in a tizzy about the penalty call, so they decided not to show to the final game. Stay classy, Defensor. The walkover win gave Nacional the title.

 

2005/2006

 

Hey, remember this guy, the BEST GOD DAMN PLAYER IN THE WHOLE WORLD? (Televisa Deportes)
Hey, remember this guy, the BEST GOD DAMN PLAYER IN THE WHOLE WORLD? (Televisa Deportes)

 

The 2005/06 season was the first one on the new calendar, and it was truly special. The aforementioned Rocha FC became the first (and until a few weeks, the only) team from outside the capital city to win any sort of official tournament by finishing first in the Apertura, 2 points above the second place Tricolores. Even more history was made in the Clausura as Peñarol finished dead last, the only time one of Uruguay’s big two teams has done so. A couple of Manya fans were walking away from the stadium after the team’s match with Cerro when they happened upon a family waiting for the bus home. The father was wearing a Cerro jersey, so these guys stabbed him to death in front of his kids. What the fuck. League authorities penalized the team by taking away 12 points, which left them in last place and did nothing whatsoever for the grieving family. I mean, some guy got killed in front of his family for wearing a god damned soccer jersey. Really people?

 

Nacional won that Clausura by 3 points over Defensor and met Rocha in the finals. The Tricolores traveled to Rocha for the first game and pretty much settled the matter with a 4-1 win. The third goal was scored by a young man from the Salto department (Uruguay is too cool to have provinces), way up in the northwestern part of the country: no, not Edinson Cavani, the other guy from Salto; yes, that’s right, THE BEST GOD DAMN PLAYER IN THE WHOLE WORLD, Luis Suárez, who had finally broken through to Nacional’s main squad. The return game was a mere formality, but Nacional won that one too, 2-0. TBGDPITWW scored the first goal in this one, and Nacional won their 5th title in 7 seasons.

 

And that’s all for now, fans! I’ll be back next week to talk about the last decade of Nacional glory. Until then, here’s a video celebrating the reopening of the Parque Central and some of the best moments of that 2005 season:

 

El Bolso

About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.

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