How tiny Uruguay dominates Copa América and the World Cup

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the U.S. men’s national team squares off against Uruguay, in some respects it looks like a mismatch.

The U.S. has 340 million people, with a seemingly endless supply of economic resources. Uruguay has just 3.5 million people and sits between two behemoths of South America, Argentina and Brazil. By population, Uruguay is the second-smallest nation at the Copa América, behind Jamaica. The U.S. is the largest.

Yet when the two teams step on to the turf at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday, it will be Uruguay that is expected to win. The team boasts players at some of the top clubs in the world, including Liverpool forward Darwin Núñez, Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde and Barcelona defender Ronald Araújo.

There is history too: Uruguay has won two World Cup titles to go along with a quartet of fourth-place finishes and 15 Copa América titles.

So how does Uruguay manage to achieve so much with less resources than its rivals?

At its core is the Garra Charrúa. Literally translated, it means the “Claw of the Charrúa” but it refers to the warrior-like spirit from the indigenous Charrúa people, who fought the conquistadors in present-day Uruguay to the bitter end.

“It’s like when you don’t have that last breath but you always want to give more,” said former Uruguay international Diego Forlan to “These Football Times” back in 2020. “Sometimes, in the last minute, against big teams, you never expect to have the chance to win, but there is that Garra that everyone talks about in Uruguay.”

It’s an ethos that is passed down, generation to generation, from the first to the 26th player in the squad, even as the term defies an easy explanation. It’s a belief that seeps into every pore, and is felt rather than have to be explained.

“What a hard question, you’re killing me,” backup goalkeeper Franco Israel told ESPN when asked about Garra Charrúa. “I don’t know, it’s something we carry since birth, maybe because we generally have less opportunities, or because we come from much more precarious places. Because we always have that hunger, of always having to fight from adversity, and to always have to fight for that place, always the competition itself.

“The competition there is in soccer. We all have it since we’re young, of always wanting to win, to be there. And what happens in Uruguayan soccer is amazing, from youth soccer to the Garra, of always making a great effort.”

That spirit has been there from the sport’s earliest international encounters. Uruguay won the inaugural Copa América in 1916. It won back-to-back Olympic titles in 1924 and 1928. Those are still considered world titles, which explains why there are four stars and not just two on Uruguay’s jerseys.

La Celeste then claimed the first two World Cup titles it participated in, the inaugural tournament as well as the 1950 edition in which Uruguay famously defeated Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.

That fusion of history and spirit provides a formidable soccer foundation.

“You almost go through two generations of people thinking that Uruguay is the best in the world. It doesn’t matter if Scotland or England invented the game. Like, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that when Uruguay plays, Uruguay wins,” said former U.S. international Tab Ramos, who was born in Uruguay and lived there until he was almost 12.

“It doesn’t matter who you play against, like, we’re supposed to win the game,” he added. “And I think that mentality of winning is likely what makes the game so competitive and what makes the players and the team so competitive.”

The sport of soccer permeates the entire culture too from the earliest of ages. Orlando City and former Uruguay midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro recalls there being fields everywhere, though sometimes finding one required some improvisation.

“We have football in our blood,” told ESPN. “You can see small and big fields around the street and everyone wants to play. Even if you don’t have a field to play, you make one. You play with paper, with books, with socks. You smell football around your house. You play in the school, in the street, in your club. When you are child, woman, boy, everyone wants to play football.”

Ramos recalls “baby football” in Uruguay being intense, with parents on the sidelines. If a player didn’t show potential by the time they were 12, then the door to a career as a professional was pretty much shut.

“It’s a pretty harsh environment where I remember at seven and eight years old playing games that we had to win, like, our derbies against the team from like two blocks away,” he said.

That isn’t to say that Uruguay has had things entirely its own way over the years. From 1974 to 2006, there were five occasions when Uruguay failed to qualify for the World Cup. The competitive nature of South American qualifying played a big part in that, but there was also a realization that the Garra Charrúa was no longer enough.

It was after that period that Oscar Tabarez, the godfather of modern day Uruguayan soccer, took over. He helped revamp the Uruguayan youth system, pushed players to head abroad and helped usher in a generation of breathtaking talent. The group included Forlan, defender Diego Godín, along with forwards Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez.

Suarez seemed to epitomize the new generation, one that was willing to do anything, both fair and unfair — who can forget his bite of Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup, or his handball on the line against Ghanta in 2010 — in order to win. But Tabarez was the glue that made it all work.

“Oscar was one of the most important coaches in our history, for me especially, because I played with him many years,” Lodeiro said. “And I grew with him and learned about football. But for Uruguay, he represents a lot. The people really like him. He’s a great coach, but also, he’s a very good person, very good human. The values that Tabarez represented are the values that Uruguay likes.”

But all good things must come to an end. A lackluster finish at the 2022 World Cup spelled the end for Tabarez. A brief spell with Diego Alonso followed. But now the team is managed by Marcelo Bielsa, nicknamed “El Loco” for his extremely aggressive attacking philosophy, one that starts out as 4-2-3-1 but can quickly morph into 2-4-4

Uruguay wants to get the ball wide as fast as possible, with outside backs Matías Viña and Nahitan Nández pushing forward. It’s all with the aim of getting the ball into the opposition box as quickly as possible, the better to exploit the talents of Nunez. Against Panama, Uruguay had 11 shots in the first 20 minutes, four on target. Defensively, the man-to-man marking aims to cause maximum chaos for opponents.

“I will always love Tabarez because he taught the team that the journey is the true reward, but we now needed a manager who can show us that we can also play more than reactive football. That we can be protagonists in matches,” said Sebastian Auyanet, who is a Uruguayan media consultant and engagement journalist at Now This.

“And Loco is so good at implementing his own thinking, and that’s what we needed,” he said. “A total reset. I don’t know if we will win Copa América or win titles, but what I do know — and it’s what we’ve seen from Bielsa when he managed Chile — is that he will produce football that represents not just the team but what the country is all about.”

That’s why the U.S. will need to be not only locked in mentally when it faces Uruguay on Monday, but also aggressive enough to get at the Uruguay defense. Bielsa’s tactics are physically demanding, and his team’s ability to execute will be tested in what is expected to be a game that the U.S. will likely need to win.

“I know how intense that game is going to be — man-to-man all over the pitch,” said U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams, who played under Bielsa when the two were at Leeds United. “I know how high intensity they can play, and he’s brought that quality now to Uruguay.”

Other qualities, like the Garra Charrúa remain eternal for Uruguay. It’s that spirit that the U.S. will need to bring to their own game come Monday.

ESPN’s Diego Muñoz contributed to this article.