Hello soccer fans, El Bolso is here again with another chapter in the history of Nacional. Today’s story is a very special one: all about the 1980 season, when Nacional rose from the ashes of a forgettable decade and won pretty much everything they could possibly win. They even provided the backbone for a national team that beat the very best in the world! This is also the time when a young El Bolso fell in love with fútbol and with the Tricolores, so we’re going to do this Peter Jackson style. That’s right: this one is coming in three parts. Let’s get down to business.
Turn the Beat Around
After the many international successes of the 1960’s, Uruguayan soccer hit a bit of a rough patch in the following decade. After La Celeste’s fourth place showing in the 1970 World Cup and Nacional’s 1971 Libertadores and Intercontinental titles, there was nothing else to celebrate for a while, not even a measly Copa América. The national team missed out on the 1978 World Cup, literally held next door in Argentina, and probably would have been better off missing the 1974 edition as well. Nacional and Peñarol, in the meantime, could do no better than 5 semifinals and one quarter-final in the Libertadores between 1972 and 1979, which sounds pretty good until you compare it to the 8 combined finals appearances and 4 titles between 1960 and 1971. At least Peñarol could point to local success; Nacional couldn’t even do that. After winning four straight titles between 69 and 72, their only other win in this period was in 1977.
The situation going into the 1980 season was dire, and the team’s fan base opted for a change at the very top. In elections held that January a new club President was elected: Dante Iocco, a noted auctioneer and coin collector whose biggest sporting achievement to that point was being a member of Uruguay’s 1936 water polo Olympic team. Two days later, Nacional lost to Peñarol in the last game of the Liguilla. Back then spots in the Cup were handed out in a tournament that took place after the local championship was over. The top six teams from the season table played to decide the two teams that would represent Uruguay in the Libertadores; being national champions got you nothing but the right to play off against the Liguilla runner-up for their cup spot. The derby loss dropped Nacional into a first place tie against Defensor, and so a tiebreaking game was played four days later. Defensor won that and the Liguilla title, and Nacional was left with yet another game against Peñarol a few days later.
The new club leadership decided to take a huge risk by firing the coach and giving themselves only a few days to find a substitute. They were turned down by several candidates, including Luis Cubilla (remember him from 1971?) and Raúl Bentancor, fresh from leading the Uruguayan youth national team. Finally one of Cubilla’s former teammates, Juan Martín Mujica, was named coach despite having little prior experience, and was paired with up-and-coming trainer Esteban Gesto. What can you even do in 4 days? Whatever they did, it worked. Julio César Morales (yet another 1971 hero playing a big role in this story) scored twice, once from the penalty spot, and the 2-0 win put Nacional in the Cup and Peñarol on the outside looking in. It would only be the first of many happy days to come.
That 1980 Nacional squad was a mish-mash of different styles and personalities. Several veterans from the 1971 World Champions (Morales, “Cacho” Blanco, and Victor Espárrago, not to mention coach Mujica) were put together with a few players in the middle of their careers as well as fresh young talent coming up from the youth divisions. The same economic uncertainty that had caused so many coaching candidates to stay away prevented any game-changing acquisitions: other than Espárrago’s return from Spain, the only new faces on that team were Argentine midfielder José Rosauro Cabrera, coming from Rampla Juniors, and wingback Washington González, from Defensor. None of the kids promoted from within would have much of an impact either, (at least not during this season), so this was a team trying to bring existing pieces closer together rather than rebuilding. Gesto brought in his patented hardcore training regimen, and Mujica introduced several tactical wrinkles: switching the defensive alignment from a two back set to a stopper and sweeper arrangement, playing the wingers close to the sidelines to draw attention away from center-forward Victorino and putting Gesto’s hard work to good use by pressing opponents all over the field.
What they really did, though, was change the team’s attitude. Their emphasis on hard work and on-the-field results made Nacional into a team that would fight for every last ball, to the last second of every game. They made it clear that they didn’t care how well the players got along off the field (they didn’t; this group was very cliquish and divided along age and experience lines), and that it was either their way or the high way. Returning players Raúl Moller and Nelson Agresta had contracts that prevented Nacional from letting them go, so they were paid the entire season to sit at home. They had no place in the new order. Miguel Caillava is a different story. He made the mistake of refusing to take part in a light conditioning exercise engineered by Gesto, preferring to sit in the team bus smoking while the team walked around a park; he was shipped off to Argentina and would never play another game at Nacional again. This rigidity would come back to bite Nacional (see the section on Victorino below), but at the time it was just what the team needed. Mujica and Gesto made it clear that no matter what everyone’s differences were in real life, on the field the players were expected to back each other up and play as a team, just as it was the coaches’ job to support them.
So Nacional formed a starting eleven around a group of hard working players with a lot to prove. Rodolfo “the Panther” Rodríguez was in goal; the veteran Blanco and future club idol Hugo de León formed the center of the defense, with José “Chico” Moreira (later to spend some time in the MISL) and newcomer González on either side. The midfield was made up of Espárrago, Cabrera, and Eduardo de la Peña; up front Morales manned the left wing, Sergio Bica the right, and in the middle was a promising center forward named Waldemar Victorino. Other players that would figure in the heroics included wingback Héctor “el Indio” Molina, midfielders Denis Milar and Arsenio Luzardo, center forward Wilmar Cabrera, and diminutive right wing Dardo Perez. Later, when De León had parlayed his performance in the Libertadores final into a new gig in Brazil, Daniel Enríquez would come up from the farm to take his place for the Intercontinental Cup final. It was a small roster, but there was plenty of talent and a lot of smarts: De León became a renowned coach (at Nacional and elsewhere) as well as a candidate to the country’s Vice Presidency; Blanco and Enríquez both ended up in GM-type roles, and Espárrago’s coaching career led him to a brief stint in the Spanish first division. This was the team that would try to return Nacional to its former glory.
Profile: Waldemar Victorino
Of all the people who contributed to lifting this Nacional team to greatness (and just about everyone involved can point to at least one time when they singlehandedly kept the team on course), Victorino is perhaps the best representative of what this Nacional accomplished. He came out of nowhere, shone as brightly as anyone possibly could in that one short period of time, and soon thereafter disappeared into the ether. He wasn’t the biggest, or the strongest, or the most talented player on the team. He wasn’t even the favorite of the fans. He wasn’t in the spotlight for very long, but while he was there he had no peer. Let’s learn a little more about Waldemar Victorino.
The man they would call “Victorio” had a late start in soccer. He came to the youth divisions at Cerro when he was barely into his teens, but didn’t make an impression and left to take a day job at Montevideo’s biggest produce market. At the age of 22 he tried out for Progreso and this time he stuck around. He had started his career as a central defender, but they tried him out at center forward and he scored two goals in his first game, so he made a permanent move to the attack. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence: a certain Nacional defender by the name of Sebastián Coates started out as a forward in the youth divisions (you can tell anytime he pushes forward to support the attack). Maureen Franco (yes, his first name is Maureen), who came up as a wingback and actually played that position on Nacional’s top team a decade ago, made a switch to center forward when he moved to Cerrito (yes, Uruguayan soccer has Cerro and Cerrito, and even Cerro Largo), and was the league’s top scorer in the 2009/10 season. In any case, Victorino progressed at Progreso (see what I did there?) and was sold to River Plate (the one in Uruguay, not the one in Argentina) in 1975, after Peñarol plucked Fernando Morena away from the Darseneros (River is called that because it was founded near Montevideo’s main port; dársena means wharf). Morena would go on to become one of the biggest scorers in the history of Uruguayan soccer and soon left for Europe, so in 1979 Peñarol went back to the wharf to find his replacement. Victorino said thanks, but no thanks, as he was a big Nacional fan, and a few weeks later the Tricolores came calling.
He paid off immediately by leading the league in goals in 1979, so going into 1980 Nacional thought he was someone they could build around; little did they know what kind of season Victorino would have. He was the top scorer in the Libertadores and with Uruguay in the Mundialito, but the real story was that every time his teams needed a goal in a big spot, he was there. His canny header amid several Olimpia defenders set up De La Peña for what may be the most famous goal in Nacional’s history, and he scored the only goals in both the Libertadores and Intercontinental finals. He also scored game-clinching goals in each of Uruguay’s games in the Mundialito, including the tiebreakers in the final against Brazil. He may not have been the most technically gifted player, but he always seemed to be in the right spot at the right time. He was Nacional’s security blanket, as he allowed the team to control the pace of the game and concentrate on shutting down the opponent’s attack, knowing that Victorio would come through sooner or later.
Unfortunately, 1980 was the last time Nacional fans would get a chance to cheer him on. He was suddenly loaned out to Deportivo Cali of Colombia just before the 1981 season, after Nacional lost the Copa Interamericana against Pumas UNAM, the reigning CONCACAF champion. Rumors surfaced about bad behavior during the trip: Victorino had been caught by Mexican police with a stolen gold necklace, or perhaps he and Washington González had been found together in a compromising position, something that was still taboo in those days. Victorino himself claims that he and González had sneaked two women up to their hotel room after the initial loss in Mexico only to be caught by Mujica and Gesto, and that the coaching staff interpreted their behavior as a lack of professionalism and commitment to the team. Whatever happened, Nacional lost their offensive lynchpin and was unable to recreate the magic that had taken them to the very top of the soccer world.
Victorino spent a year in Colombia and returned for the 1982 season, after Mujica had left the team (coincidentally, to coach the Colombian side Deportes Tolima), but the magic was gone. He spent the next decade playing a variety of teams in Italy, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru before retiring in 1989. He eventually reconciled with Mujica and Gesto, and in 2011 he returned to the club that made him famous as coordinator of Nacional’s youth teams, a position that he held with great success at Veracruz of the Mexican first division.
In 2005, a young defender who started his youth career at Progreso made his debut at Nacional, helping to lead the team to two consecutive Uruguayan league titles. His name was Mauricio Victorino, Waldemar’s nephew. Mauricio returned to Nacional in 2007 after a brief stint at, you guessed it, Veracruz, and won a third league title in 2009, during current Tricolores coach Gerardo Pelusso’s first run with the team. That was also the year that Nacional reached the Libertadores semifinals, the first Uruguayan team to do so since 1991. His accomplishments landed him a spot on Oscar Tabárez’s national team as Uruguay took fourth place at the 2010 World Cup and won the Copa América the very next year. Unfortunately, no one thought to try him out at center forward.
Let’s stop there for now. Next time we’ll look in as Nacional takes its first steps towards glory.
Victorino scores the Mundialito Cup winning goal against Brazil:
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