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El Bolso is back with another installment in his history of Nacional series. This week he talks about heated rival Peñarol!

By now you’ve heard me talk about the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club (CURCC for short) and Peñarol as Nacional’s main rivals. In fact, this topic is very controversial in Uruguay. As with any competition, Peñarol and Nacional look for any opportunity to make themselves look better at the expense of the other: which team is older, which has won the most titles, etc. There are a few facts that are beyond discussion: one is Nacional’s status as the first true Uruguayan soccer club. Another (unfortunately) is Peñarol’s international prowess: five Libertadores Cups and three Intercontinental championships, which trump Nacional and their three Libertadores, three Intercontinentals, one Interamerican, and one South American Recopa. However, both clubs have staked a claim on being the Decano (the oldest existing club in the country) and the one with the most national championships. How is this possible? It all has to do with the history of CURCC.

Ridin’ the Rails

CURCC team picture from 1905, clearly taken while on break from shooting a Guinness ad. (Wikipedia: Public Domain)

CURCC was a sports club founded in 1891 by a local railway company for its workers, in the neighborhood of Villa Peñarol. As the name implies, cricket was the high visibility sport practiced there, but rugby and soccer were also played. This is not strange even by modern standards; unlike US professional sports teams, Uruguayan clubs, like many in the rest of the world, are actually non-profit organizations that provide several services and competition opportunities to their members. For example, Nacional fields first division men’s teams in both soccer and basketball (as well as one of the premier women’s soccer teams in the country), maintains a strong road cycling squad, and has a long history in sports like volleyball and chess. In Spain, Barcelona is a European power in soccer, basketball, handball, and women’s soccer. When I was a wee lad, my parents signed me up for swimming lessons at Olimpia, which is a traditional basketball power in Uruguay. So CURCC’s status as a multi-sport entity was par for the course.

CURCC was one of four clubs that founded the first Uruguayan soccer league in 1900, and the winner of its first two championships. In 1902, however, young upstart Nacional finished first, and they would win the 1903 championship as well (see my earlier article for that crazy story). Over the next decade CURCC (three titles), River Plate (not related to either the Argentine powerhouse or the current Uruguayan first division team of the same name), and Montevideo Wanderers (still active today) would dominate the league, with Nacional going through a down period partially caused by the loss of several key players to smallpox. However, they won their third title in 1912, came in second behind River the next year, and looked to renew the rivalry with CURCC.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Caption: Present day Peñarol squad. If they’re the same team, where did all the funky mustaches go? (Jikatu: Creative Commons)

That’s when it all changed (cue Behind the Music dramatic music). On December 13, 1913, CURCC’s native members decided to break away from the established leadership (still controlled by British and railroad company elements) and founded a separate soccer entity: the Club Atlético Peñarol. The team was located in the same neighborhood as the old CURCC, and maintained the yellow and black color scheme; some consider it a new entity because of the break with the CURCC leadership, while others think of it as a continuation of CURCC’s soccer legacy (CURCC never played organized soccer after Peñarol’s founding, although it existed as a sporting club until 1915). I’ll let you figure out what color jerseys each group prefers.

So depending on how you think of the CURCC- Peñarol split, the latter has won either 43 or 48 national titles. Since Nacional has won 44, this is more than just an argument about being the oldest team: it’s really about deciding which team is the most successful on the local scene. Peñarol points to the fact that FIFA recognizes 1891 as the club’s founding date; Nacional to various documents that imply the creation of a new institution— the debate goes on and on.

It’s Complicated

Albion team photo, 1898. Sorry, I’m fresh out of mustache jokes. (Wikipedia: Public Domain)

To further complicate matters, there’s a third club called Albion. It was one of the founding members of the original league and was born three months before CURCC, so it would seem to have a claim at being Decano. However, it plays in the third level of Uruguayan soccer as an amateur club, and it has not participated continuously in official activity. Still, some Nacional fans point to Albion as another challenger to the throne, and there are rumors that Nacional partly funds the club in order to muddy the waters.

Yet another wrinkle is the fact that there was a split in Uruguayan soccer in the mid-1920s, leading to a new league formed by breakaway teams, including Peñarol. The new league played in 1923 and 1924 alongside the official federation tournament, with Peñarol winning the first championship. After no football was played at all in 1925, a tentative agreement was made to play a joint tournament in 1926, also won by Peñarol, before the rebels were re-absorbed into the main federation in time for the 1927 season. Peñarol’s 48 championships include these two trophies, so an argument could be made that the official total is really 46 (or 41 if CURCC’s wins are ignored). There are a lot of murky areas to argue about, which keeps sports journalists and bar owners happy.

El Bolso’s Ruling

If you’ve been following Peñarol over the past decade, this scene will look VERY familiar. (Jikatu: Creative Comons License)

So where do I stand in this argument? Nacional and Peñarol are the bedrock of Uruguayan soccer, two great teams with storied pasts both locally and internationally. Regardless of which one you root for, you have to agree that they are both head and shoulders above the rest of Uruguayan soccer and they have traded dominance of the local scene back and forth throughout the decades. Frankly, I could not care less which is the older team, or who has more championships. Since the start of the new millennium, Nacional has won eight of 13 national tournaments, while Peñarol has two cups to show for their effort, the same as Danubio and one more than Defensor Sporting. I’d love to argue about what happened or didn’t happen a hundred years ago, but frankly, I’m way too busy looking at all these new trophies.

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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