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.