How Uruguay became a factory of soccer players for export

How Uruguay became a factory of soccer players for export

(CNN Spanish) — “All Uruguayans are born screaming for a goal and that is why there is so much noise in the maternity hospitals, there is a tremendous noise.” These well-known words by Eduardo Galeano summarize the football culture that has made a country of a few million inhabitants a veritable pool of stars. But they don’t tell the whole story: behind the success there is also a fierce structure that makes children highly competitive from an early age. A structure that makes it possible to identify the next Luis Suárez, Federico Valverde or Darwin Núñez… and that also leaves thousands along the way with invisible scars.


The “maestro” Tabárez —the former coach of the Uruguayan national team and former school teacher who educated generations of players and fans with a particular philosophy of “the path is the reward”— explained years ago in an interview with CNN en Español the factor that In his opinion, such a unique case returns to Uruguay. “This is one of the countries with the greatest soccer culture in the world. And I define soccer culture as the people of that country have soccer as one of the important things in their lives. And not only the fans: you love them from home, the grannies”, he said shortly before the 2010 World Cup.

Rivers of ink have flowed about the passion of Uruguayans for soccer. If you live in Uruguay or visit the country, you don’t even need to read: a tour of Montevideo is enough to notice the omnipresence of the round ball on asphalt, grass and sand.

Enthusiasm reaches its peak at the time of the World Cup —the first of which Uruguay organized and won in 1930—, when the passion for the ball is added to the passion for the light blue. They reach four verses by Jaime Roos, one of the greats of national music, to illustrate it: When Uruguay plays three million run / The needles run, the heart runs / The world runs and the ball spins / The pingo of illusion runs.

For children, but not recreational: this is the “industry” of children’s soccer in Uruguay

But it is not just a passion shared by three million people. No way. Uruguay has a solid structure that organizes children’s soccer and, according to several experts consulted by CNN en Español, explains the emergence of stars who, before learning to divide, are already emerging as export professionals.

First of all, the figures, which speak for themselves: more than 65,000 children from all over the country, that is, almost four out of every 10 boys between the ages of six and 13, play organized championships in the so-called “baby football.

More than half a century ago, in 1968, the National Baby Soccer Commission was created in Uruguay, a governing body for children’s soccer that since 2000 has been known as the National Children’s Soccer Organization (ONFI).

There is a pyramidal structure that promotes a competition early on that, according to its director Eduardo Mosegui, is the differential of Uruguayan soccer. “Children’s soccer is competitive from the moment it starts. It has very little of a recreational nature like other disciplines,” he told CNN. And this means that, in his view, from a very young age players know how to face complex situations and move forward.

Reproduction of a photo of the Deportivo Artigas baby soccer team where Luis Suárez (back row) used to play when he was five years old. (Credit: Miguel Rojo/ AFP/ Getty Images)

And also children learn to compete with the rules of FIFA. Children four or five years old are already being taught the same rules that govern professional soccer, according to Mosegui, with which they gain a wealth of knowledge and experience from an early age.

In a country that has a tenth of the territory of Mexico and 40 times less population, there are about 600 children’s clubs and the structure “reaches all towns, from the largest to the smallest,” says Mosegui. “Sometimes there are places where there are no public services but there is a children’s soccer club,” he sums up.

The structure combines, perhaps like an industry, public-private participation: the clubs and leagues have autonomy but at the same time there is a line of work that depends on the national government.

“We believe a lot in the soccer institution. In other places, they bet a lot on the academy, the schools, the technical training. We believe that here they bet on the club, they bet on the competitions, they bet on identity,” he adds. .

Uruguay cannot let even one escape

And then the children become sportingly combative. In Uruguay, the idea that you have to win is rooted, explains sports journalist Ricardo Piñeyrúa to CNN.

“And then the baby Soccer It’s contradictory because from the teaching point of view one would say ‘it can’t be because they yell at the kids, they direct them badly, they force them to break the ball because what matters is winning’ but there is also a component of combativeness since they start playing soccer,” he says.

Talent is formed and shown. Pierre Sarratía, from the formation of the National Football Club, one of the two most popular teams in the country, explains that from very early on after the organization of the competitions, teams are put together and “in these teams there are always scouts from Montevideo clubs or also contractors who earn their living with this”.

“And then they are like ships that drag everything at the bottom of the sea. There is no footballer who goes through these meshes. They drag everything. There is little chance that a boy in Uruguay will not come out if he is good.”

Sarratía, a Frenchman, explains that Uruguayans also know that, since there are only three million of them, “they don’t have the right to let people escape.” If there is a talent, you have to recruit it.

Something similar said to CNN Roque Máspoli, the former world champion goalkeeper in the “Maracanazo” of 1950, shortly before he died in 2004: “Only Argentina has a children’s soccer network as wide as the Uruguayan. Since children they play championships. This means that almost no talent escapes in Uruguay”.

Not all that glitters is gold: the “mortgaged childhoods for hope”

Seen from the outside, this structure may seem like a gold mine. But it is not for everyone. Not even for the majority.

Behind the parents’ desire for their son to become a soccer prodigy there is, of course, an economic question beyond the love of the ball. “Soccer is like a carrot, if they pursue it they will achieve economic and social position,” explains Piñeyrúa, which makes Uruguayans, whether they do well or not, fight to make a career.

But the vast majority stays by the wayside. In fact, according to the statistics handled by the journalist Jorge Señorans in the book The hidden face of baby socceronly 0.14% “is saved financially”.

The rest remain on the sidelines, with childhoods “mortgaged by hope.”

“It is very likely that if the little boy is packed or excited about the possibility of being a professional player, he will come and tell you, mom: ‘I don’t want to study anymore, because I’m going to play soccer, I’m going to be a soccer player. “What do you back down with there? There are families that suddenly impose themselves and the mother says: ‘No, this is not negotiated, the study is not’, but there are others that suddenly do not have the preparation or sufficient means to try to instill in the child that the parallel activity of football has to be accompanied by studying, then the child stops studying, but does not arrive and then has to go out and face life without adequate preparation. That occurs in many cases” , he explained in an interview with the En Perspectiva program after the launch of the book.

This is just one of the many threats of baby soccer, which is perhaps the best kept secret in Uruguayan soccer. But, of course, it does not prevent tens of thousands from putting on their boots every weekend, with the dream of reaching the top of the stars’ firmament and trying to add another star to the Uruguayan shirt, as an ace of best in the world at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games and at the 1930 and 1950 World Cups.