Thursday, November 13, 2008

League Spotlight: Uruguay / Primera Division

Those of you who that have been following our regular feature 'League of the Week' will have by now spotted two things: (1) editions of 'League of the Week' have been anything but regular of late, and (2) this feature you're reading now seems to be more or less the same thing but with a different name.

There's a reason for that. We've decided to rename 'League of the Week' to 'League Spotlight' as, frankly, we couldn't keep up with the pace of researching and writing a sizeable feature like this along with all our other stuff on a weekly basis. We therefore thought we'd take a more flexible approach by bringing you the same feature whenever we could, but without any specific guarantees as to its regularity.

And with that weak excuse out of the way, let's crack on with today's League Spotlight and further to a request some time ago from Chris C Paul at Football Overdose we're on the road to Uruguay and their Primera Division...

Yes, Uruguay - twice world champions but these days an also-ran in the global game. While the national team labours on in the vague hope of capturing a qualifying berth for the 2010 World Cup, its top domestic league remains a melting pot for some of the most well-known clubs on the planet.

Back in days of yore when the champion clubs from Europe and South America played for the FIFA Intercontinental Cup, it wasn't unusual to find a Uruguayan club in the Final. Penarol appeared in three of the first seven from 1960 onwards, and two of those they won against Real Madrid and Benfica.

Nacional were the next to take part, beating Panathinaikos in 1971 and Nottingham Forest in 1980 before Penarol returned to see off Aston Villa in 1982. Both teams would enjoy one more appearance in the Final - Penarol losing 2-1 after extra time to Porto in 1987 and Nacional beating PSV Eindhoven on penalties the year after, but since then there's been nothing. Uruguayan club football, it seems, has been left behind by the rising fortunes of other countries in South America.

But is the Uruguayan First Division just a perennial two-horse race and do Penarol and Nacional still have the game by the throat these days? Not any more, so it seems, but change has only recently started to happen.

Despite Nacional or Penarol winning all but one of the league titles between 1992 and 2005, some new names are now starting to emerge. The current champions are Defensor Sporting, renowned for their ultra-defensive approach and a hot bed for talent that often finds greater exposure abroad.

Last season, they won the Torneo Apertura and went onto beat the Penarol 2-1 on aggregate in the two-legged Final.

Now at this point we should explain that the Uruguayan First Division is played out in two halves (as in many other Latin American countries). The first half of the season is called the 'Opening Tournament' (Torneo Apertura) while the teams play each other again in the second half, known as the 'Closing Tournament' (Torneo Clausura). The winners of each tournament play each other in a Final at the end of the season to decide the overall champions.

All of which is frightfully messy and not a little unnecessary, but never mind. Defensor are currently in sixth place in the Apertura, three points behind second-placed Danubio who are the only other team to break the Nacional/Penarol cycle by winning the championship in 2006/07.

Danubio can claim to have had many well known players pass through its doors over the years. One-time Middlesbrough curio Hamilton Ricard played there in their championship-winning season while the likes of Alvaro Recoba and Ruben Sosa - both legends of the national team - also donned the diagonal sash of La Franja.

They also have the current leading scorer in the Primera Division, Sergio Leal, who recently arrived from Gimnasia in Argentina and has so far scored six goals in this season's Apertura. But what of the two giants and biggest rivals in the Uruguayan top flight, Penarol and Nacional? What's to know about them?

Well Penarol, famous for their yellow and black striped shirts, are one of the oldest clubs in the world created around the workforce of the local British-owned railway company back in the late-1900's. They've been Uruguayan champions more times than any other club (36) and have been runners-up for the last two seasons.

They're obviously still a team to be reckoned with and having such strong support means they're justified in making regular use of the nearby Estadio Centenario - the monolithic stadium that staged the first World Cup Final in 1930. Not that they can call the Centenario their own, mind you - they have to share it with their fiercest rivals, Nacional.

Winners of five out of the last ten championships, Nacional are based in Montevideo... but then again so are 13 of the other 15 teams in the Primera Division. Historically speaking, it's played a big part in Uruguayan football and provided most of the players for the national teams that won the 1928 Olympic soccer tournament and the World Cup of 1930 (above left). Also, as eluded to earlier, they're the only team to win the Intercontinental Cup (World Club Cup) three times.

And to leave you in no doubt as to their credentials, Nacional are also currently top of the league, one point ahead of Danubio. So who else do we need to know about before we draw a line under this little old summary?

Well there's Liverpool... no, not that Liverpool - Liverpool FC Montevideo, so named (supposedly) because some of the club's founder members had heard of the English port and like the sound of it. They've never won the league but are currently fourth in the Apertura and managed a third place finish back in 1995. Further success is long overdue, one feels...

Then there's River Plate, third place last season and eighth at the moment, Cerro, a relatively unknown quantity but currently third in the table, and Bella Vista who won the league title once in 1990 and were third in 1998.

To be honest, there are many other teams that make up the top division in Uruguayan football, but the important ones are those listed above. Some might say even they are doomed to achieve only limited success for the simple reason that any player showing a feint glimmer of quality tends to get snapped pretty quickly by another club in another country.

A case in point can be gleaned from the team that started in Uruguay's last World Cup qualifier against Bolivia a month ago. Of the eleven players that kicked off, only two - Carlos Bueno of Penarol and Hugo Arismendi of Nacional - play their club football in the Primera Division.

And that's why there's a kind of forlorn air about Uruguayan league football. As much as the fans get behind their teams and cheer them on to their next victory or their next trophy, they must surely be aware that in the overall scheme of things, the Primera Division barely shows up on the world football radar.

Whether their star will rise again, though, one can't be sure, but at least Uruguayan club football has a proud history that many countries would yearn for. That alone is something to be rather proud of.

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