Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered England, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Netherlands in this series. Today’s nation of focus is Uruguay.
When talking of South American powerhouses in the world of football, it is impossible to ignore Uruguay. Not only are they two-time world champions, they have also won the Copa America a record 15 times – a feat they share with Argentina. However, a great chunk of Uruguay’s success came in the early to mid-1900s. They won twin Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928. They also won the maiden FIFA World Cup, which they hosted due to being double Olympic champions. A second World Cup win followed in 1950. However, the team has declined in significance since then.
There were quite a few occasions when they didn’t even qualify for the World Cup. However, a resurgence in the late 2000s has seen them regain a sense of pride in the world football arena. But they always produced talented players.
As such, when talking about an all-time playing XI of Uruguay legends, it can be tough to nail down just one player in each position. Yet that is exactly what we will be doing in this list.
Here is what we at SportsLumo believe is the best Uruguay playing XI of all time.
Goalkeeper: Ladislao Mazurkiewicz – (Active from 1963-81, Uruguay caps: 37, Major career achievements: considered by many as the greatest goalkeeper of his generation, Notable clubs: Penarol, Atletico Mineiro)
Ladislao Mazurkiewicz is seen as not only the best goalkeeper to ever emerge from Uruguay, but from the continent of south America too. The shot-stopper of Polish descent was a key cog of a Uruguay side that were formidable opponents in the international scene.
With his calm and assured presence in goal, Uruguay won the 1967 Copa America and finished fourth in the 1970 World Cup. Such were the magnitude of his performances that Lev Yashin, the Soviet Union goalkeeper widely seen as the best ever in that position, named Mazurkiewicz as his successor.
He also won seven trophies during his time at Penarol. He was also successful at Atletico Mineiro and America Cali, winning a league title each. Few if any goalkeepers to emerge from Uruguay have come close to matching his level of play.
Right-back: Jose Nasazzi – (Active from 1918-37, Uruguay caps: 41, Major career achievements: won two Olympic gold medals and the first ever FIFA World Cup, Notable clubs: Bella Vista, Nacional)
Jose Nasazzi is believed by many to be Uruguay’s best football player ever, never mind their best defender. An imperious presence in defence who could do it all, Nasazzi is best remembered for his impeccable leadership skills. Indeed, he was nicknamed El Gran Mariscal or ‘The Grand Marshal’ because of that.
Nasazzi was at the helm of the Uruguay sides that won two Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928. He would lead them to further glory, winning the first-ever FIFA World Cup. Such were the level of his performances at the 1930 World Cup, he was named the player of the tournament.
He would also win the Copa America four times with Uruguay. Besides that, he found plenty of domestic success with Bella Vista and Nacional. No list of Uruguayan greats will ever be complete if Nasazzi is not on it.
Centre-back: Jose Santamaria – (Active from 1948-66, Uruguay caps: 20, Major career achievements: won 17 trophies through his career, Notable clubs: Nacional, Real Madrid)
Jose Santamaria had quite the interesting career. Born to Spanish parents in Montevideo, he turned out for Nacional and was a key part of the Uruguay team as well. However, a move to Real Madrid brought even more success; as well as the chance to eventually play for Spain, which he took.
Nevertheless, he was quite the player – which explains why he was in such demand. He was nicknamed ‘The Wall’ due to his solidity in defence. Indeed, his presence in the back-line was a key reason for Real’s success in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Interestingly, he could have had a World Cup winners medal too if not for a technicality. He was first called up to the side in 1950 to fill in at inside forward. Given he was a defender, the call-up was refused by the club. However, he did play a key part in their fourth-place finish in 1954.
Centre-back: Diego Godin – (Active from 2003-present, Uruguay caps: 151*, Major career achievements: won multiple trophies in Spain, Notable clubs: Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan)
A name modern fans are all too familiar with. Diego Godin is widely considered one of the best defenders of his generation. For a modern-day centre-back, his lack of speed and athleticism while on the ball is glaring. However, that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a rock-solid presence at the back.
Godin’s strengths lie in his calm and composed approach to the game. His positional play and ability to anticipate the flow of the game also helps him organise defences. To top things off, he is also extremely good in the air.
His importance to the national team is underlined by the fact that he is Uruguay’s most capped player in history. He is also remembered for being a key part of the Atletico Madrid side that broke Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s hegemony at the top of the La Liga standings.
Left-back: Victor Rodriguez Andrade – (Active from 1945-57, Uruguay caps: 42, Major career achievements: won a World Cup and Copa America with Uruguay, Notable clubs: Central Espanol, Penarol)
Part of the side that stunned everyone by winning the 1950 World Cup, Victor Rodriguez Andrade is considered one of the best full-backs to have ever come from Uruguay. His defensive nous and athleticism made him a key part of the Uruguay side that triumphed in 1950.
He was one of the youngest players in that squad. Yet he played with plenty of maturity and, for the most part, did his job well. This was true for him as a player even outside the national team. Little wonder then that he won trophies with both Central Espanol and Penarol during his domestic career.
Interestingly, he comes from a bloodline of World Cup winners. Rodriguez was the nephew of Jose Leandro Andrade, who won the World Cup in 1930. Indeed, the main reason the full-back went by the name “Rodriguez Andrade” was to pay tribute to his uncle.
Central midfielder: Obdulio Varela – (Active from 1936-55, Uruguay caps: 45, Major career achievements: captained Uruguay to World Cup and Copa America wins, Notable clubs: Montevideo Wanderers, Penarol)
There are football players who inspire by example, and there are those who motivate with words. Obdulio Varela was a player who did both. The defensive midfielder was not only an exquisite defensive shield; he was also someone who knew exactly what he must do to motivate his troops.
The best example of this came in the 1950 World Cup. He implored his players to take the game to Brazil and not be defensive in their approach. When Uruguay went down by a goal, he began to argue with the referee. Not because the decision was wrong, but because he wanted to cool down the crowd. It worked; Brazil began to be pinned back and would lose the game.
He also won trophies aplenty with Penarol before retiring in 1955; this came a year after leading Uruguay to a fourth-place finish in the World Cup. Till date he is regarded as one of the best captains in the history of the game.
Central midfielder: Juan Alberto Schiaffino – (Active from 1943-62, International caps: 21, Major career achievements: won the World Cup in 1950 and is still considered one of the best players to come from this country, Notable clubs: Penarol, AC Milan, Roma)
Juan Alberto Schiaffino was once ranked Uruguay’s greatest-ever footballer in a poll held by the International Football Federation of History and Statistics (IFFHS). This is despite the fact he played in the mid-1900s, when the popularity of the sport the world over was still growing.
But it’s easy to understand why many feel this way about Schiaffino. His creative genius and eye for goal made him a threat at all times. But he was also a tactically complete player who possessed a willingness to do the dirty work; he regularly pressed and dutifully tracked back whenever needed.
He is best remembered for scoring Uruguay’s equaliser in the final game of the 1950 World Cup. But his legacy is more than just the World Cup win; he won multiple domestic honours too, first with Penarol and later with AC Milan and AS Roma. A true legend of Uruguayan football.
Central attacking midfielder: Enzo Francescoli – (Active from 1980-97, International caps: 73, Major career achievements: won domestic honours with River Plate and Marseille as well as 3 Copa America’s with national team, Notable clubs: River Plate, Marseille, Cagliari)
Nicknamed ‘El Principe’ or the Prince, Enzo Francescoli is regarded as one of the finest attacking midfielders ever. He is also counted as one of the best players to ever emerge from both the country of Uruguay and South America as a whole.
His ability on the ball and dribbling skills made him a fan favourite wherever he played. That he could score spectacular goals both from open play and free-kicks also helped. His club career spanned many nations, although his time at Marseille is remembered for the fact he influenced a young Zinedine Zidane’s style of play.
At international level, Francescoli was part of a Uruguay side that won three Copa America’s in 1983, 1987 and 1995. He also won a total of eight trophies in his domestic career, besides numerous individual accolades and awards.
Right-forward: Edinson Cavani – (Active from 2005-present, Uruguay caps: 126*, Major career achievements: won trophies in three leagues as well as a Copa America, Notable clubs: Danubio, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United)
If there is one word to describe Edinson Cavani’s game, it would be intensity. The striker is without a doubt one of the best of his generation; his ability to score goals being a key part to him achieving so much success. But the key point of his game is its intensity.
Cavani is of the modern breed of strikers – he’s not just a goal poacher, he will do everything else too. His link-up play is excellent, as is his work-rate and ability to chase down lost causes. He can also play anywhere up front and in multiple systems, making him a useful option in any team.
He first grabbed the eye of fans at Napoli, although his time at PSG when he won a lot of trophies was his most successful period. Now in his late 30s, he’s still going strong at Manchester United; and he’s still playing the intense manner of football fans have come to know and love from the man nicknamed ‘El Matadore’.
Left-forward: Diego Forlan – (Active from 1997-2018, Uruguay caps: 112, Major career achievements: two-time winner of both Pichici and European Golden Shoe as well as multi-trophy winner, Notable clubs: Independiente, Manchester United, Villarreal, Atletico Madrid)
A bad spell at a club as big as Manchester United can often be the death knell for most players. However, Diego Forlan was not most players. It says a lot that, despite a bad time at Manchester, he went on to become one of Uruguay’s all-time greats.
Given the kind of player he was, it isn’t too much of a surprise. Whether it be goals, creativity, technical skill or hard work, Forlan possessed it all. He was an excellent passer too, meaning he could often pick out long-range balls; he would also regularly assist his teammates.
His most notable moments, however, came in the 2010 World Cup. His goals led Uruguay to the knockouts, but it was his ability to control the stubborn Jabulani ball that made many sit up and take notice. He played a key part in Uruguay’s revival in the late 2000s.
Striker: Luis Suarez – (Active from 2005-present, Uruguay caps: 126*, Major career achievements: won major honours with five clubs and a Copa America with Uruguay, Notable clubs: Ajax, Liverpool, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid)
As controversial as he is brilliant, Luis Suarez is without a doubt one of the greatest strikers of his generation. After all, who else besides him can claim to have won the Pichichi trophy at the height of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s domination of La Liga?
Suarez is capable of scoring goals from long or short range, with either foot or his head, and is always a threat. Like Cavani and Forlan, he too possesses a workman-like approach to the game; he will always chase lost causes and will not hesitate to move around the pitch to receive the ball.
His various controversies – the three biting incidents and the racial abuse incident with Patrice Evra being clear examples – make him a hard player to like sometimes. But judged purely on his ability on the field, he is a unique player.
Manager: Oscar Tabarez
Most managers would be on this list due to the glory they managed their teams to, or their revolutionary tactical nous. Oscar Tabarez, however, makes the cut for very different reasons. He was not one of two men to coach Uruguay to World Cup glory.
However, the work he has put in since 2006 – when he began his second stint as the national team’s manager – has been nothing short of phenomenal. Upon reappointment in 2006, nearly two decades since his previous stint from 1998-90, he presented the ‘Process of National Teams’ Institutionalization and Players’ Growth’. It was a method to get all levels of the national team to work in tandem. The other aim was to develop more players to function in a certain style of play.
Since then, the Uruguay national football team has seen a renaissance of sorts. They qualified for the World Cup on three straight occasions, which was notable given their qualifying record was sketchy in recent years. They also won the Copa America in 2011; their first international trophy since 1995. More than anything else, however, they became a force to be reckoned with again.