The Uruguayan Clásico: Montevideo’s schismatic derby

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Uruguayan Clásico

If there is one date in the calendar we football fans look for every season, it’s derby day. Luckily, for those who preside in England, we are blessed with choices when picking which to watch. From the fiery contests between Newcastle and Sunderland to the energetic thrills and spills of the North London Derby – football is the beating heart of our nation.

Remarkably, however, that is a term that should be used loosely when contrasting the passion and prestige of the sport across the Atlantic. Although rather overshadowed by its neighbours in recent decades, Uruguay is home to the first-ever World Cup and football in the Spanish-speaking country is the cradle of civilization, much like it is in Brazil and Argentina.

Whether it’s the silhouettes of children playing football on the beach, to the backcloth of the setting sun that embodies the undying love the Uruguayans have for the sport or the scenes of cage football that take place in the inner fragments of the rundown metropolis that is Montevideo, the country boasts a loyalty to their cherished sport transcendent to the rest of the globe.

Not only do they claim an immense adoration, though, as the football played on the biggest stage also showcases a repugnance between two age-old rivals that stretches as far back as before the teddy bear was invented. Uruguay is home to the oldest derby outside of the United Kingdom through the Uruguayan Clásico, which has been evenly contested between Club Nacional de Football and Club Atlético Peñarol since their first encounter in 1900.

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The Superclásico, as they call it, may not be in the same bracket of coverage as other Latin American derbies like that of Buenos Aires’ River Plate vs Boca Juniors – but the face-off between Uruguay’s two behemoths can easily hold a candle to the calefaction of their continent counterparts.

Between them, the two clubs have won 99 of the 118 contested Uruguayan league titles since its inception (Peñarol 51, and Nacional 48). They’ve also shared eight Copa Libertadores, Latin America’s equivalent of the Champions League, and their time-hallowed malignance has traipsed through the anarchy of monumental proportions.

Mostly, this has been an identifiable feature on the pitch.

But as this story will tell, the antipathic relationship between the two clubs has often ventured off the pitch, spilling over into the crowd. As recently as 2019, a 24-year-old Nacional fan was shot dead during title celebrations – possibly a knee-jerk reaction to another successful season over their rivals or a retort to the 2016 shooting that resulted in the death of one Peñarol supporter and the injuries to two others.

The Uruguayan Clásico is a derby day that never fails to live up to expectations. There are dark episodes within its history, as well as light ones, but for football fans across the globe who thrill seek, it is a fixture on the calendar that should be ticked off.

The Origin & early years

As aforementioned, the first encounter between these two clubs was in 1900, the year when the zeppelin was invented, but history suggests these clubs go back further than the 19th century. On September 28 1891, 118 employees of the British Railways Company founded a sports club by the title of Central Uruguay Cricket Club (CURCC for short).

Whereas many British-founded sporting institutions around the globe during the British Empire were limited to ex-pat contributions, the CURCC was open to all. It featured British railway workers, local-born Uruguayans, as well as an influx of immigrants from Germany, Spain, and Italy.

Shortly after its birth, fans started referring to it simply as Peñarol – the district of Montevideo where the team played – because it was an easier name to say. To this day, though, there is controversy over the club’s identity. Although FIFA and AUF (Uruguayan FA) recognise CURCC and Peñarol, which had completely disbanded from the railway company in 1914, as the same club, Nacional fans claim that their club, founded in 1899, is the older of the two.

Nevertheless, Peñarol still honours its supposed origins through its iconic black and yellow striped home kit that was inspired by the colours of Stephenson’s Rocket, the world’s first train.

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On the other side of the tracks, on May 14 1899, Club Nacional de Football was founded by members of two early pioneer clubs,  Montevideo Football Club and Uruguay Athletic Club. Importantly, it was the first football club in Uruguay to be formed by natives, born from the frustration of the growing influence that immigrants had on the country.

Nacional was, for the locals, a way to differentiate themselves at the time. They needed a place to call home, somewhere to play among other locals, a club to represent the people of Uruguay. In effect, Nacional emerged after Albion FC and Peñarol to reflect and emphasise the differences in social classes within the city – which undoubtedly played a role in the emergence of the Uruguayan Clásico.

While the colours that represented the club could be found in a combination of the merging clubs’ shirts, the director’s decision of wearing blue, white and red is taken from the flag of José Gervasio Artigas – Uruguay’s most celebrated national hero, who was a noteworthy figure in the fight for independence from the Spanish monarchy.

Towards the end of the 19th century, football in the southern hemisphere, especially in Latin America, was surging in popularity. Ultimately, it was the rising temperatures between Nacional and Peñarol which formed the basis of a football fever that gripped Uruguay.

25 May 1934 – The first episode of madness

It’s worth remembering that, by the time it was 1934, Nacional and Peñarol had faced each other on countless occasions, becoming the nucleus of a footballing nation that had hosted the inaugural World Cup just four years before. However, everything they knew about the derby was about to be stripped when the two met at the Estadio Centenario in a title-deciding playoff showdown.

The match was furnished by a wealth of talent. Since Uruguay, at the time, was the epicentre of the sport, the two most successful clubs profited from a drip-feed of international superstars such as Hector Scarone, Pedro Petrone and Lorenzo Fernández. As a result, the playoff skirmish couldn’t have been more militant, with either side flexing their firepower against each other in fear that their rival would secure bragging rights.

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Nevertheless, whilst the pedigree of each club was strengthened by the nation’s involvement on the world stage, it hadn’t felt like the derby was heading on a different flight path before kickoff. The calm before the storm was nothing more than a shuddering sense of want rather than need.

The want of success, the want of bragging rights, and the want to win; nothing simmered under the surface until May 1934, when the Uruguayan Clásico became much more than just a game.

Over two-thirds of the match had flown by before anything of note had happened. Things quickly escalated in the 69th minute when Bahia, Peñarol’s pacy winger over-shot a cross that was heading out of play, until a medical bag kept the ball from going out of bounds, leading to the rebound goal that would crush Nacional hearts late on.

Sparking furious protests from on the pitch and within the stands, the referee had assumed the ball bounced off the post before being converted by Braulio Castro. The referee, clouded by what had actually occurred, tentatively awarded the goal, but he was soon welcomed by incensed Nacional players that proceeded to attack the referee, leaving him requiring medical assistance urgently.

The outcome was three red cards (later turned into jail sentences) for offenders José Nasazzi, Ulises Chifflet and Labrage, and a disallowed goal that would later be converted to a replay of the fixture entirely when tensions only worsened. By the time the mayhem had relaxed in the aftermath of the goal, there wasn’t enough time to finish the full ninety minutes.

After what was later established as ‘The Derby of the Bag’, the match had to be replayed twice before Nacional clinched the title more than a year later, despite the deficiency in players at full-time (obviously!).

That infamous match set up a change in flight path for the rivalry. Whereas acrimony was always present in the decades before, it was in 1934 when the Uruguayan Clásico made a name for itself and staked a claim as one of football’s fiercest rivalries. Blood was spilled and ill will intensified, leading to great clashes further into the future.

October 1949 – “El Clásico de la Fuga”

From the aforementioned derby day onwards, Nacional ruled supreme, claiming six championships in seven years between 1940 and 1947. While they were gearing up for another Clásico, there was concern that the club of the locals was going to run away with it again, leaving Peñarol, who were on the ascent in the late 40s, in their tracks.

The first 45 minutes embodied an onslaught from Peñarol, though, and Nacional were trailing 2-0 at the halftime break. Alcides Ghiggia – who would later become a national hero for scoring the goal that broke Brazilian hearts in the 1950 World Cup – scored the opener before Ernesto Vidal latched on to Óscar Míguez’s saved spot-kick and doubled the advantage.

Igniting mass brawls on the pitch, Nacional not only conceded twice before the break, but they had also lost two players through red cards. From the perspective of the most successful Uruguayan football club, there was no way back, and to save their blushes (Despite it arguably ruining their reputation more), they performed an unthinkable stunt that disobeyed the laws of sportsmanship.

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The match, like many times before, failed to go the distance. This time, Nacional never appeared for the second half, escaping the stadium by climbing out of the changing room windows. To this day, Peñarol uses this particular derby day as a tool to beat Nacional’s ego – it is an act of embarrassment that is inscribed into the long-lasting history of the fixture.

Known now as ‘El Clásico de la Fuga’, it translates perfectly into English as ‘The derby of the escape’. It was a stain in an otherwise illustrious period in the club’s history, whereby, just eight years before, they conjured a 6-0 victory over their derby rivals in a first-team game and 4-0 in a second-team game on a day better recalled as ‘El día de diez’ (the day of 10).

The 1950 World Cup and the shaping of the rivalry 

A year later, Uruguay’s squad for the 1950 World Cup was comprised of nine Peñarol players, six from Nacional, and none from outside the capital. It flaunted the talents of the city and cemented the two clubs as the focal point of football in Uruguay. Montevideo became untouchable in this period, widening the yawning chasm between Nacional, Penarol, and the rest of the Primera Division.

The legacy of the 1950 World Cup triumph for Uruguay resulted in Nacional and Peñarol dominating the continent in the following years. They had already won their fair share of domestic silverware, but, in 1960, Peñarol won the first-ever Copa Libertadores and went on to triumph on four other occasions in 1961, 1966, 1982, and 1987. Nacional also have three successes in the competition in 1971, 1980, and 1988 (respectively, they reached a further seven finals).

Uruguay was a hub for football fever for decades, and alongside the continental superiority was glory on the globe. Nacional beat Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the 1980 Intercontinental Cup final, while Peñarol recorded famous wins in the competition against Eusebio’s Benfica, Gento’s Real Madrid, and Tony Barton’s Aston Villa.

Disappointingly, from the mid-80s onwards, the prosperity that Uruguay endured on the continental and intercontinental grandstands wasn’t as perpetual as nations such as Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina rose to distinction ahead of the former Spanish republic.

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Still, the 1950 World Cup conquest shaped the rivalry into a national derby that consisted of locally produced superstars, which was, even in those days, a rarity in fixtures that split a city. The legacy lives on into the present era as the two clubs remain at the fore of the nation’s football culture.

The modern-day derby

The lack of football each club plays outside of their home country nowadays has played a part in strengthening the competitiveness when the two lock horns at league level. From 2000 onwards, the Uruguayan Clásico hasn’t let up in violence on and off the pitch.

Particularly, in that year, derby day was uncontrollable. The two clubs marred the end of a 1-1 draw with brawls that led to the arrest of nine players and one coach, a usual occurrence in the oldest rivalry outside of the United Kingdom.

In the modern game, Nacional and Peñarol meet on a yearly basis, often to the backdrop of a furnace. It remains relatively unknown in the history of football rivalries outside of Uruguay, but as more talents are produced from the two clubs, such as Luis Suárez of Nacional and Diego Forlan of Peñarol, there is hope that the age-old rivalry, which forces Montevideo to halt upon the first blow of the whistle twice a season, will start to appear in more bucket lists for footy fans.

If Nacional and Peñarol can’t garner the attention from the rest of the world, though, at least they still have each other. A hatred that goes far beyond the pitch, the Uruguayan Clásico deserves the same recognition as any other derby.