Hello fans, it’s time for the last installment in El Bolso’s homage to Nacional’s 1980 team. Today, the hard work pays off for Mujica, Gesto and their merry band as they sweep away all pretenders and lay their claim to the title of best team in the world.
Nacional again won a draw to determine the order of the final’s two games (you go, Dante Iocco!); the decisive match would be played in Montevideo. The first game took place, then, in Porto Alegre, which is the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost Brazilian province and the only one that shares a border with Uruguay. Porto Alegre, which translates to “Happy Port,” is one of Brazil’s major cultural and economic centers, but at this time its sporting identity was still under construction. The two big time teams based there, bitter rivals Internacional and Gremio, were still poor sisters to the major powers in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Prior to 1980, they had combined for just two Libertadores appearances, both by Inter: a first round elimination in 1976 and a semifinal appearance the year after that (remember that this means they simply won their first round group to advance). Now Inter were in the finals and expected to win it all, led by top shelf Brazilian national team stars like defender Mauro Galvao, forward Falcao (no, not the one that plays for Colombia now), and midfielder Jair. Jair is well known to Uruguayan fans, as he soon moved over to Peñarol and starred in an Intercontinental Cup win in 1982, earning the game’s MVP award and the brand new Toyota that went with it (see the next section for an explanation). Evidently the Peñarol players had agreed that whoever won the car would sell it and split the proceeds with the rest of the team; Jair kept the vehicle for himself, setting off a huge blow-up, because creating unwanted drama and playing outside the rules are apparently in Peñarol’s DNA.
Anyway, this was Inter’s big chance to finally focus international soccer’s attention on Porto Alegre, but they would have to get past Nacional to get there. On July 30th, somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand Uruguayan fans descended on the Brazilian city (which is unheard of for a visiting team in this type of competition) and cheered their hearts out as Nacional held on for a scoreless tie. Mujica tasked Espárrago with nullifying Falcao’s creativity, which the veteran midfielder was able to do. That was all she wrote for the first final, with the advantage shifting to the Uruguayan side as they traveled back home. The second game was played in the Centenario on August 6th; a full-to-the-gills stadium greeted Nacional’s players with deafening cheers and a fireworks display that delayed the start of the game by several minutes (today that would probably cost Nacional the game and get the stadium suspended, but hey, those were different times). The game started with Nacional pushing for the opening goal, and 35 minutes into the first half it came: a dangerous free kick from just outside the right corner of the penalty box was quickly taken by Morales, who faked a shot into the box and instead sent a short pass down the line to Moreira. “Chico” immediately lifted a cross to the far post, where Victorino out-jumped his defender and headed the ball downwards, under the outstretched hands of Inter’s goalkeeper, and into the net. Victorino would score the deciding goal in two more major international tournaments over the next few months (the Intercontinental Cup with Nacional and the Mundialito with Uruguay), capping an astounding run of skilled finishing and good fortune. Nacional would hold off Inter’s challenges, in no small part thanks to a monster effort by Hugo de León that the rugged defender would parlay into a juicy contract with Inter’s nemesis Gremio mere months after the end of this game, and he would lead the Brazilian Tricolores to a Libertadores Cup win in 1983 (over defending champions Peñarol, no less). But all of that would come later. For now, Nacional was once again the best team in South America.
In the local tournament, Nacional started the second half of the season just like they ended the first, winning 6 straight games to run their streak to 10 wins in a row. They beat Bella Vista 3-0 to avenge an earlier beatdown, and then conquered Progreso (2-1), Rentistas (a 4-0 win days before their first match against Internacional), Huracán Buceo (a predictably lackluster 1-0 effort just after their defeat of the Brazilians), Wanderers (2-1) and River Plate (4-0). Having all but assured themselves the title, they hit a rough patch, including a scoreless tie with Cerro, a 1-0 loss to Sud América, another scoreless tie against Peñarol, and a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Danubio, the only team the Tricolores did not beat all year. The fans started to get a little nervous as the clinching win was delayed.
With three games to go and the trophy not yet secured, everyone looked to the September 21st game against Defensor. Thankfully, the Violetas once again rolled out the welcome mat, losing 1-0 on a goal by Morales and clinching the title for the Tricolores. Nacional’s players and fans were able to celebrate the championship right on the turf of their own Parque Central. Nacional would finish the season by beating Miramar 3-2 and tying Fénix 2-2, closing the books on a campaign in which they won 19 out of 26 games and lost only 4, scoring 53 goals to 21 against, and earning 41 of a possible 52 points. Wanderers finished second, 6 points back, and Peñarol took third place.
All the Trophies
While the season was technically over at that point, there were still other related trophies to win. Uruguay had obtained FIFA’s permission to organize El Mundialito (the Little World Cup), a friendly tournament featuring five of the six nations that had won world titles to that point: la Celeste, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Italy. England, the sixth champion, refused to participate, citing a crowded international schedule and the human rights violations being perpetrated by Uruguay’s ruling military junta, so the Netherlands, losers of the last two finals, were drafted in their place. Uruguay rolled through the field, beating the Dutch and the Italians in group play by identical 2-0 scores, and besting Brazil 2-1 in the final. The 1980 Libertadores champions provided six starters for that team: keeper Rodríguez, defenders Moreira and De León (by then already playing at Gremio), midfielder De la Peña, and forwards Morales and Victorino; a seventh player, Luzardo, was a backup. Nacional players scored four of the six Uruguayan goals: Morales opened the scoring against Italy from the penalty spot, and Victorino scored a goal in each game, including the tournament winner against the Brazilians (no other player in the tournament had more than one goal).
Following Uruguay’s triumph, Nacional traveled to Tokyo to play European Champion Nottingham Forest in the Intercontinental Cup. Until that year, this tournament had been played as a home and away series, but it was in danger of being canceled. European teams complained about long trips and mistreatment of players and fans; more than once, UEFA had sent runner-up teams when their champions refused to participate. Toyota, then trying to establish itself as a global brand, saw this as great marketing opportunity; they drove a dump truck full of money up to FIFA’s headquarters for the rights to hold a single game final in Japan. They also offered a brand new car to the game’s most valuable player. We all know that “It’s all about the Benjamins” is FIFA’s unofficial anthem, so you won’t be shocked to hear that Toyota got their game: on February 11th, 1981, bleary-eyed Nacional fans tuned in at an ungodly hour to watch their heroes battle the best Europe had to offer. Forest featured established England national team stars Peter Shilton and Trevor Francis, and someone else you may have heard of: Brian Clough, the former Derby County and Leeds United manager whose early coaching days inspired the movie “The Damned United.” If you haven’t seen that, you really, really should. It has Mr. O’Brien from Star Trek TNG and DS9 as the rival coach and everything!
In any case, winning the Libertadores was nice, but Nacional had a chance to make a truly worldwide impact. Other than Daniel Enríquez taking De León’s place in the back and Denis Milar replacing De la Peña (injured in the Mundialito), this was the same starting eleven that had defeated Internacional, and once again they did not disappoint. Ten minutes in, a long ball down the right wing was corralled by Moreira, who sent a cross into the heart of the penalty box. With three defenders waiting to clear the ball, Victorino (if I needed to tell you he was involved, then you haven’t been paying attention) stepped in front of one opponent to take possession, hopped on one leg in front of a second to set his body up the right way, and kicked it hard and high, past Shilton and into the opposite corner of the goal. The game was just beginning, but that would be the only goal that day. Forest tried to equalize, but it was Nacional who came closest to scoring again: the referee disallowed two Uruguayan goals, one by Luzardo and another by Bica. Both those goals would probably count today, but back then passive offside was a foreign concept, so the score remained 1-0 good guys (correctly, in my opinion). Nacional was able to hold on for the win, and the world once again belonged to the Tricolores. Victorino got the car, Nacional got the cups, and Japan got a chance to host a premier international soccer event, which they did until the FIFA Club World Cup replaced it in 2004.
Breaking Up the Band
So what happened to the golden team? Even with several key starters (Espárrago, Morales, and Blanco) near the end of their careers, Nacional believed they had a dynasty in the making; that was not to be. As we already saw, defensive lynchpin Hugo de León was gone even before the Intercontinental final (he’d return years later to lead another Nacional world-beater, the last Uruguayan team to win a major international tournament). The player development staff whiffed on several prospects and wasn’t able to replace the departing talent with free agent signings. But the key was the Victorino situation. Having been separated from the squad after the first Interamericana final along with Washington González, he was the cause of a vicious internal war: club executives and fans wanted the team’s best center forward in many years on the field, while Mujica and Gesto, with the support of some players (particularly the 1971 veterans) categorically refused to play someone whose behavior they viewed as unprofessional. As we learned in part one of this story, he was loaned out to Deportivo Cali for six months, defusing the immediate situation, but his return at the end of that period was the spark the lit the powder keg. The coaches were told to play him and, true to their word, they resigned. The ongoing controversy had already cost Nacional both the local tournament and a spot in the 1981 Libertadores final, both to Peñarol; now Nacional had lost the engineers of its incredible run. Victorino never flourished outside of the Mujica-Gesto system, and Nacional was left with neither their star scorer nor their miracle-working coaching staff. They won a Uruguayan title in 1983 only after importing a slew of well-paid stars, and that would be that until the next (and last) magical year, 1988. I’ll tell that story next time.
Highlights of the second Libertadores final played in Montevideo:
Highlights of the Toyota Cup win against Nottingham Forest:
- The Charrúa Report: On the Right Foot - March 14, 2017
- The Charrúa Report: Campeones! - February 14, 2017
- The Charrúa Report: 48 Is Enough - January 11, 2017
- The Charrúa Report: Nico and the Sounders - December 14, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: King of the Single Rounders - December 12, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: Senseless - December 6, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: The Bum’s Rush - November 28, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: A Bump in the Road - November 16, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: Is It Priceline Time? - November 12, 2016
- The Charrúa Report: Closer to Fine - October 13, 2016