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You knew this was coming, fans! While my beloved Uruguay may be long gone from the tournament, it is eternal in our memories. If I can write World Cup history posts about England and Germany, I can certainly show you what a country of barely three million people can do on fútbol’s biggest stage.

Here’s how Uruguay has performed in the World Cup:

Uruguay 1930: Fresh off world-shocking back-to-back victories in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games, Uruguay fought for (and won) the right to host the first ever independent World Cup. Of course, the big European nations didn’t look kindly on FIFA’s decision (or the month-long boat trip needed to get to Montevideo), so most chose to boycott the tournament: only four European teams entered the tournament. The hosts started off with a tentative 1-0 win against Peru and then beat Romania 4-0 to make it out of the group stage. They took Yugoslavia apart 6-1, then beat Argentina 4-2 (coming back from a 2-1 halftime deficit) to keep the cup in Montevideo.

Italy 1934: Bitter about the European cold shoulder of four years before, Uruguay (along with Argentina and Brazil) skipped this one on principle.

France 1938: Uruguayans hold grudges like no one else, plus the political situation in across the Atlantic didn’t exactly scream “European vacation.” The team decided to skip this one as well.

Brazil 1950: With the Cup back on American soil, Uruguay was once again a participant. A rash of last-second cancellations left only Bolivia in their initial stage group, but the Uruguayan players scored enough goals for two or three matches, beating the hapless Bolivians 8-0. In the second round group (there was no knockout phase in this tournament, because FIFA), Uruguay struggled to tie Spain 2-2 and beat Sweden 3-2, setting up a match up with Brazil in which the hosts needed only a tie to win the tournament. Uruguay went down 1-0 after halftime but rallied to score two late goals and make oodles of money for Brazilian therapists. You can read about that in more detail here.


Alcides Edgardo Ghiggia scores the goal that pushed Uruguay past Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final. (Getty Images)

Switzerland 1954: Uruguay entered the 1954 tournament unbeaten in World cup play, and that run continued with wins over Czechoslovakia (2-0) and Scotland (7-0). They soundly beat the English 4-2 in the quarterfinals and then faced the all-powerful Hungary in the semis. La Celeste went down 2-0 in the first half, but again rallied for two late goals to force overtime. With their historic captain Obdulio Varela hobbling around the field, Uruguay conceded two extra time goals and lost 4-2. They would play out the string by losing 3-1 to Austria in the third place game (Uruguay has always had trouble winning consolation games).

Sweden 1958: For the first time in history, the aging Uruguayans were eliminated during qualifying.

Chile 1962: Back in the Cup, Uruguay beat Colombia 2-1 in their first game, but then lost to Yugoslavia (3-1) and the Soviet Union (2-1) and was eliminated in the first round. Needing a late goal to move on at the expense of the soviets, Uruguay instead conceded a last-minute score to Valentin Ivanov, who reportedly celebrated by yelling “I win for me! FOR ME!”

England 1966: A new generation of Uruguayan players came to England to make their own history, and began with a scoreless tie against the hosts. They followed that with a win against France (2-1) and another scoreless tie against Mexico. In the quarterfinals, they faced off against West Germany in a game marred by a refereeing controversy. See, England really wanted to finally win something in the sport they claimed to have invented, and in the quarterfinals FIFA empowered them by choosing a German referee for the England-Argentina match and an English referee for Uruguay-West Germany. It worked: Argentina never recovered from the expulsion of their star Rattín because the ref “didn’t like how he was looking at me.” This was the first send-off in World Cup history, before red cards were in use. Meanwhile, Uruguay fell behind early and suffered two expulsions before the 60th minute, then surrendered three goals in the last 20 minutes as they pushed forward for the equalizer. Thanks, FIFA.

Mexico 1970: this was to be the culmination of a decade of hard work for Uruguay, and may well have been so if not for FIFA’s penchant for stepping on smaller countries and favoring the strong. Uruguay began their campaign by beating Israel 2-0, tying Italy 0-0, and losing to Sweden 1-0. They then beat the Soviet Union 1-0 in overtime (sorry, I used the “The Russian is cut” quote in a previous post already) and were set to face Brazil in the semifinals in the stifling altitude of Mexico City. The Uruguayans were already acclimated to the venue, having played there throughout the tournament, while the Brazilians had been hanging out in sea-level Guadalajara. The Jules Rimet Cup was hanging in the balance: it was to be awarded to the first team to win it three times, and three of the four semifinalists (the two South American teams plus Italy) had two titles already. It was at this point that FIFA unexpectedly changed the location of the match to Guadalajara, because FIFA. Maybe they really liked the tortas ahogadas. In any case, Brazil won 3-1 on the way to their third title and ownership of the trophy (which they of course lost). Uruguay was left with another fourth place finish after a 1-0 loss to West Germany. But that’s OK,  because they were a team on the rise, right?


The Brazilian and Uruguayan captains exchange pennants before their 1970 World Cup semifinal matchup. (Getty Images)

Germany 1974: this is where things started to go wrong. La Celeste lost to Netherlands (2-0) and Sweden (3-0) and eked out a tie against Bulgaria (1-1), to finish last in their group.

Argentina 1978: Uruguay was unable to get past the likes of Bolivia and Venezuela in qualifying, and watched this one from their living rooms (so close, yet so far away).

Spain 1982: With Peru and Colombia in the roles of qualifier spoilers, Uruguay is left out once again, despite fielding many of the same players that had just won the Mundialito and would bring home two Copa América titles before the end of the decade. What gives, dudes?

Mexico 1986: Uruguay was back in the Cup after 12 years, and started off on the right foot with a 1-1 tie against the powerful West Germans, which could have been a win if not for a late equalizer. Then came the Denmark game, a thorough 6-1 spanking that showed us how far Uruguay still had to go to regain its former glory. Still, this was the era where all you had to do to get through the group stage was be one of the best 3rd place teams, and Uruguay managed that after a plodding 0-0 draw against Scotland, in which the Celestes played a man down for pretty much the entire game after a first minute red card for José Batista. Batista was also the guy who seriously injured starting goalie and El Bolso hero Rodolfo “the Panther” Rodríguez a month before the Cup. Let’s just say he’s not high on my list of favorite Uruguayan footballers. Anyway, Uruguay marched on to the second round but lost 1-0 to eventual champ Argentina after a hard-fought game.

Italy 1990: Uruguay made it to this tournament thanks to an up-and-coming coach by the name of Óscar Wáshington Tabárez, nicknamed “El Maestro (the Teacher).” The Celestes held Spain to a scoreless tie but then lost to Belgium 3-1. Needing a win against South Korea to move on to the knockout stages, the Uruguayans tried time and time again to score; but were facing elimination until a Daniel Fonseca header in added time gave them the win. In the second round, they held their own against host Italy for over 60 minutes but eventually fell 2-0.

USA 1994: I am still angry about this one. With the Cup coming to El Bolso’s backyard, Uruguay failed to qualify. So much bitterness…

France 1998: Left out once again. Uruguayans wondered if the fútbol world had left us behind for good.

South Korea/Japan 2002: This is where history began: for the first time, Uruguay qualified for the intercontinental playoff (four straight appearances and counting!) and beat Australia by an aggregate score of 3-1 to earn a ticket back to the World Cup. Once there, they lost their first game to Denmark (2-1) but then held France to a scoreless tie (and probably should have won the game). This set up a do-or-die game against upstart Senegal; only a win would see them through to the next round. Uruguay promptly fell behind 3-0 at halftime (although one goal scored after a clear offside and another came on a penalty kick that was called on a blatant Senegalese dive), and that’s when coach Víctor Púa put in playoff hero Richard Morales and a blond-haired 21-year-old making his World Cup debut: Diego Forlán. Morales put one in one minute after the restart. Twenty minutes later Forlán scored what many consider the best goal of the Cup. A foul on Morales inside the penalty box in the 88th minute allowed Álvaro Recoba (my beloved “el Chino”) to tie the game, but that was as far as Uruguay would get.

Germany 2006: Australia got its revenge for the previous playoff, beating the Uruguayans in penalties after splitting two games, and Uruguay was once again left out of the World Cup. As a side note, a young(er) El Bolso was at the first matchup, a 1-0 Uruguay win in Montevideo.


Diego Forlán scores the last of his 5 2010 World Cup goals, this one against Germany in the 3rd place game. (Getty Images)

South Africa 2010: Off yet another tight playoff appearance (this one a 2-1 aggregate win against Costa Rica), Uruguay wasn’t expected to do much, and they looked overmatched in holding France to a scoreless tie in their debut. However, they handily beat the hosts 3-0 thanks to two Forlán goals, then took advantage of a Luis Suárez header to overcome Mexico 1-0 and take first place in their group. Two more Suárez tallies carried them past South Korea in the second round (2-1) and into the quarters. Facing the last African hope for a semifinal berth, Uruguay erased a 1-0 deficit thanks to a masterful Forlán strike and watched as Suárez was sent off in overtime for the handball heard round the world. It was on to penalty kicks, which ended in heart attack-inducing fashion. La Celeste dropped matching 3-2 decisions to Netherlands and Germany to finish in 4th place, their best World cup showing in 40 years.

Brazil 2014: You know all about this one: the loss against Costa Rica; sending home two World Champions; Suárez; the loss to Colombia. Is it the end of this cycle? Can Uruguay successfully replace its most successful generation in decades? Will its biggest star be able to stay on the pitch? Stay tuned…

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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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