The story of the Uruguayan cimarron dog is hardly known outside of the tiny South American country. And yet it is a fable that defines Uruguay’s footballing culture, one that is built on grit and an undying belief that victory is always possible.
The cimarron breed is native to Uruguay. They propagated throughout the country in the 18th century, living in the wild and adapting to the environment. But when they threatened local livestock, the dogs were hunted.
Sitting in a hotel cafe in Doha, former Uruguay centre-forward Sebastian ‘El Loco’ Abreu, known to World Cup fans for his shootout-winning Panenka penalty against Ghana during the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, reveals how Uruguay’s national team is still inspired by a historic canine. He is speaking ahead of Uruguay’s World Cup getting underway.
“I’ll tell you why our history is valued and respected on a sporting level, but also in life,” Abreu tells The Athletic. “The cimarron dogs were going to be exterminated. They threw them on a beach. What they didn’t know about them, is that they reproduced and rallied to defend themselves as a family.
“Then (general Jose Gervasio Artigas), our national hero, gave what is today his famous phrase: ‘If I can’t fight with my men, I’ll fight with my cimarron dogs.’ That’s where it started.” Artigas was a military general who fought against Spanish rule. He died in 1850.
Uruguay’s sporting identity can be traced back to Latin America’s war for independence against the Spanish empire. Today it is a country of under 3.5million people. And despite its lack of resources, Uruguay has long produced elite footballers.
They battle, grind out wins and are masters of being streetwise. So perhaps it makes sense that the country and its national teams identify with a dog that couldn’t be killed off and a Latin American liberator that valued the dog’s fighting spirit.
“They can minimize us. They can see us as a small country, a country with problems,” says Abreu. “But we’ll stand back to back. The centre-back is strong, a warrior. The defensive midfielder will harass you and breathe down your neck. The centre-forward will fight every ball like it’s his last, score and be a star.”
Seated alongside Abreu is the 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan. The two are in Qatar as analysts for U.S. based Spanish-language TV network Telemundo. After a bit of banter between the two former team-mates, Forlan gives his own take on what it means to play for Uruguay.
“We have a rich history. It’s our country we’re playing for,” Forlan says. “Just saying that gives me goosebumps.”
“We know what it takes for a small country like ours to compete alongside Argentina and Brazil,” he continues. “But on the pitch, it’s 11 versus 11. We understand we play against top sides, but we also know what we’re all about. Maybe we have less than (our opponents), but with what we have, we can compete.”
The two-time world champions arrive in Qatar with a number of talented players, including Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and their new poster boy, Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde.
They have a World Cup debutant manager as well. Diego Alonso, 47, was appointed in December after Oscar Tabarez’s 15-year run came to a screeching halt during CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifiers.
Uruguay lost four straight qualifiers through October and November, including drubbings to Argentina and Brazil, 3-0 and 4-1, respectively. At that point they were in danger of missing out on the World Cup.
Alonso, who has never coached at the international level, and was a year removed from being sacked by MLS side Inter Miami, took the reins. Uruguay climbed the South American standings and qualified in third place behind Brazil and Argentina.
Alonso is a fiery manager who rarely stands still on the touchline. He pushes the team forward and reacts to every touch, pass and tackle. He is the complete opposite of the stoic and reserved Tabarez, a former school teacher nicknamed “El Maestro”.
Uruguay’s World Cup began on Thursday at Education City Stadium in a 0-0 draw against South Korea.
Alonso is more attack-minded than his predecessor but he is still relying on many of the same players who were part of Tabarez’s battle-hardened sides. Diego Godin, Suarez, Martin Caceres and Cavani have now all played at four World Cups after featuring against South Korea.
That being said, Alonso has incorporated new players into the side — like goalkeeper Sergio Rochet, left-back Mathias Olivera and Manchester United winger Facundo Pellistri.
The opening Group H encounter showcased completely different styles of football. The Koreans are quick, technical on the ball and organised — with Tottenham’s Son Heung-min their danger man.
Uruguay are also tactically disciplined, but unlike the Koreans, they thrive on chaos. When Uruguay were put under pressure they reacted as they often do, with passion and aggression.
They made numerous sliding clearances inside their own penalty area, their midfield hunted the ball in packs and rarely lost a challenge.
Godin began to win his aerial duels and hit the post from a corner in the first half. Even Cavani, who replaced Suarez in the 64th minute, ran back to defend in his own defensive third then sprinted to get into position again.
Uruguay’s star is undoubtedly Valverde. Along with Rodrigo Bentancur, he is one of his country’s midfield orchestrators. He has freedom to get forward and nearly won the match in the 89th minute after skipping past his marker and banging a right-footed shot against post.
Minutes later in stoppage time, when Uruguay were caught upfield during a Korean counter-attack, Valverde sprinted towards his left flank and caught midfielder Lee Kang-in after a straight sprint.
Real Madrid’s prized midfielder then tackled Lee and sent both the ball and the player tumbling off the pitch. Valverde stood over Lee, fists clenched, and screamed into the air like a man possessed. His was a man-of-the-match performance.
“This was a dream come true,” Valverde told reporters after the match. “I have to thank my family, my team-mates and the technical staff, who made it possible. I really enjoyed this game, it was a beautiful experience. I finished the game well and I feel good. We are all sad not to have won the game but other than that, we gave it our all.”
When the final whistle blew, several Korean players fell to the ground exhausted. Others bent over, hands on their knees. The Uruguayans looked upset that the game had ended. A handful of them surrounded the French referee, Clement Turpin.
They weren’t happy that he had blown his whistle for full-time and stopped a promising attack by their full-back Guillermo Varela. However, they should take heart from a well-earned point.
Alonso was pleased with the players’ effort, saying: “Maybe we didn’t have as much fluidity as normal and perhaps we could have done better with one-versus-ones down the wings, but I’m still happy with my players. I’m sure this group stage will be determined on the final match day.”
Portugal, who are top of the group after beating Ghana, are up next on Monday.
(Top photo: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)