New Zealand and Uruguay as sporting equivalents.

As some readers know, I was raised and have worked professionally in South America, primarily in Argentina, with extended stays in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. I also played soccer for 30 years and coached and refereed for ten of those. Eventually, injuries took their toll but the blessing is that even while growing slower I was able to play into my 40s. Then I moved to NZ.

Needless to say, I am following the World Cup closely and am quite pleased with the results so far. Before the games began my rooting  preferences (as in fan support, less the dirty-minded get other ideas) were 1) Argentina; 2) Uruguay; 3) Chile; 4) Paraguay; 5) USA; and 6) Brazil. Being an adoptive Argentine I am not a big fan of Brazil (because the rivalry is pretty intense and often ugly), but will take any South American country over others in the final. So far so good.

What struck me as I watched Uruguay advance to the semi finals is how much they are the mirror image of NZ when it comes to sporting history. Uruguay is a small, agro-export dependent country with a population of 4 million. It has won two soccer world cups, the last 60 years ago, and has never fully realised its footballing potential ever since. Uruguayans love their soccer with passion and most boys grow up dreaming of being soccer heros (it remains a largely male sport in Uruguay). But until now, the last decades have been one of World Cup frustration for the “charruas.”

NZ is another agro-export dependent country of about 4 million. Rather than soccer it is rugby that is the national sport. In spite of being a perennial favorite it has only won one World Cup, and that was 25 years ago. In spite of dominating the world rankings and being the stuff of boyhood dreams, the All Blacks have failed to live up to the hopes and expectations many Kiwis place on them when it comes to the ultimate rugby prize.

Which is what makes the All Whites accomplishments all the more remarkable in comparative perspective. In making the World Cup and then achieving three ties against teams ranked far higher than them, including defending champions Italy, the national soccer team overachieved beyond reasonable expectation. This would be the equivalent of Uruguay qualifying for the rugby World Cup, then managing to tie Scotland, Ireland and South Africa in the group stage! The latter is simply inconceivable even though rugby is in fact played in Uruguay and some of its players have played professionally abroad. 

All of which is to say that what the All Whites did, however modest their ambitions, is truly remarkable. Now if only the All Blacks can emulate the charruas and at a minimum make the semi-finals of the rugby World Cup next year. Playing at home should at least guarantee that, which makes the charrua return to form in a tournament held abroad all the more satisfying for supporters like me. That having been said, my heart and hopes always rest with Argentina in spite of their mercurial coach, who may seem crazy to outsiders but who has hit all the right buttons in bringing his team to the verge of World Cup glory (and I must admit to being very skeptical about Maradona’s coaching abilities until the World Cup began). Should the albicelestes get by Germany tonight (no  mean feat), they stand a good chance of making the nation proud, although that could mean playing Uruguay in the final. So, for the moment, all I can say is “Viva Uruguay!’ and “Vamos Argentina!”

PS: Kate Nicholls and I wrote a book in 2003 that explicitly compared NZ and Uruguay in terms of their insertion in the global political economy and their labour politics, so it is not that crazy to see the sporting parallels as well. I am also aware of Kiwi accomplishments in a slew of other athletic endeavours (such as triathlon, my other sporting love), but am limiting this comparison to the major national sport and its lesser valued (male) team equivalent in terms of how they have performed on the world stage.

15 thoughts on “New Zealand and Uruguay as sporting equivalents.

  1. Germany is going to beat the Argies, I’m picking them to win the cup this time around. :o)

  2. Dave W: Although they are a very good team that plays a fluid game, German arrogance as well as their inexperience may prove to be their undoing. They have a lumbering defense and have not seen the type of tight, short pass possession displayed by the Argentines (BTW “Argies” is a British insult akin to kaffirs or hajis in the minds of Argentines, so please consider that when referring to them). I do agree that the German superb counter-striking will pose problems for the flawed Argentine defense, but if the game is played openly I believe that Argentina will get its revenge for 2006.

  3. Ah my apology’s I wasn’t aware of the insult factor of that word. :o(
    I can’t edit the post now, but feel free to correct it if you wish.

  4. No problem DaveW. I figured as much and was just giving you a head’s up, which might also be good for other readers to know.

    On the real issue: let’s see who gets to smile tomorrow.

    BTW–the daily murder rate in Brazil just jumped several notches. I wonder why that might be?

  5. Actually Pablo Semi-Final rugby for the All Blacks at home will be a fail on a par with Italy, albeit not quite as bad as France. We have only won it once, twenty four years ago, despite being recognised as the favourites for most of the intervening competitions

  6. DavidW.: You own me on this one, because the Germans won fair and square. Let me grieve in peace.

  7. On the real issue: let’s see who gets to smile tomorrow.


  8. I’ve gotta say it seems at this stage that the Germans are going to bring the Cup home.

  9. Yeah. My crack the other day about the european dominance of footballing talent (written when non-European teams made up five out of eight semi-finalists, and three out of four favourites) looks a bit weak now.


  10. Yea, there was a point when the European teams seemed to be having an absolute howler of a tournament. In retrospect people seemed to be treating ‘the European teams’ as ‘France, England and Italy’, and all three of them were actually pretty shoddy looking just on the basis of pre-tournament form.

    I would personally like to see Holland win, but it’s not likely. (And apparently the Dutch are second only to England in endlessly drawing up tedious WW2 metaphors every time they play Germany)

  11. Hugh – interestingly, at least in the footballing context, the Dutch seem to refer to their own team as Holland. Hence the chant “Hup Holland!”.

  12. That’s so weird. In almost every other context they’re very eager to point out that Holland = / = The Netherlands.

  13. Oh well, Uruguay is out so I have to extend my grieving period a few more days. I am now rooting for Spain to beat Germany and if they do not, then the Dutch in the final. I favour controlled offensive-minded football over defense and counter-attacking styles, so the Dutch and Spanish suit my preferences. But I also must say that the Germans are impressive, and given their youth, a force to be reckoned with for years to come. They also play pretty cleanly, which is a credit to their organisation and skills.

    One other word. Less readers think I had no fan interest in the All Whites, I in fact did. But it was more of a morbid interest rather than a genuine hope for success given their modest talents (sort of looking at a Fiat 600 in a demolition derby). As the post noted, I am now extremely impressed with what they accomplished. One thing is certain, the AW goalie is gonna be a millionaire somewhere in Europe.

  14. As proud as I am of NZ’s sporting successes I don’t think they add up to the achievements of little Uruguay in the world’s only global game.

    Not only two world cups but 14 Copa Americas and some of the greatest players such as Enzo Francescoli and Alvaro Recoba. And also the home of Penarol and Nacional, two of the greatest clubs in the world.

    And let’s not forget that unlike NZ their economy and living standards have been compromised by periods of political instability, including the appalling Bordaberry military regime of the mid70’s – mid80’s.

    So Uruguay really is the ultimate little country that punched above its weight. Plenty of respect and admiration from this kiwi…

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