Club football in Uruguay struggling against global pressures
The Uruguayan Primera Division got underway this weekend with one of its teams missing.
On the eve of the kickoff, El Tanque Sisley pulled out due to not being able to pay their debts. And so the championship proceeds with the awkward, odd number of 15 participating clubs.
The size of the debt in question seems, by the standard of global football, almost laughably puny. El Tanque Sisley allegedly owe some $357,000, but have only been able to raise around $250,000.
Uruguay is limited by its size. The population is little over 3 million, and the country is something of a city state, with the capital, Montevideo, sitting in the middle of agricultural land. Indeed, all of the first division teams are based in or bordering Montevideo with the exception of newly promoted Atenas, some two hours down the road in San Carlos.
The first division clubs, then, basically can be divided into three groups; there are two giants, Penarol and Nacional, teams who boast a magnificent tradition of past glories and great players wearing their colours. There are smaller clubs, such as Defensor and Danubio, who rarely win the league title but are often in contention, and who can take pride in the number of excellent players they have developed over the years. And there are the rest -- like El Tanque Sisley, who are essentially neighbourhood clubs, representatives of a few blocks of the city.
In a globalised environment, it is clearly tough for the Uruguayan clubs to compete. Penarol and Nacional combine for eight titles of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, but the last one came all the way back in 1988.
Since then, the country has made little impact on the competition. Danubio reached the semifinal in 1989, along with Nacional in 2009 and Defensor in 2014, and Penarol went all the way to the final in 2011. But in retrospect the importance of year of the last triumph -- 1988 -- stands out. It marks the moment when the global market was starting to open up, with Uruguayan talent heading for Spain and Italy.
The national team, after spending some decades in the doldrums, have become a force again recently. National team coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, with his vast experience and considerable intelligence, came to a clear conclusion. Uruguayan football in a globalised era was inevitably going to lose its best players at an ever earlier age. The national team could be competitive if it used the youth sides to identify promising players and then develop them, giving them an extensive course in the history and importance of the sky blue shirt.
Over the course of his 12-year reign, Tabarez has clearly been proved right. It is a way of thinking that leaves little hope for the domestic clubs, condemned to operate on shoestring budgets with squads made up of the odd promising youngster on the way to Europe, the occasional veteran winding down a career on the way back, and mediocrity in the middle.
Even so, there are some who think that things could be better. The players, disillusioned with their own union, have formed an organisation called Mas Unidos Que Nunca (More United Than Ever). In the wake of the El Tanque Sisley withdrawal, the organisation issued a statement.
"Our football," it said, "finds itself submerged in a perverse system that in general benefits and enriches a few, is not transparent, does not have adequate contracts, has club infrastructure in dreadful conditions, does not carry out an audit of managements, and continues to allow sporting institutions of dubious solvency to negotiate and receive money which does not always reach the players."
The model the players are criticising -- well-entrenched in much of South America -- is that of the membership club. The teams here are not businesses, and not run on business lines. They are membership institutions where the president is elected every few years by the members.
It is essentially an amateur model, thoroughly inefficient not only in business terms, but also because it allows for perpetual political infighting inside the institution. This, in turn, has been a factor in the growth of the organised gangs of hooligans which play such a negative role in South American football.
A more professional arrangement could clearly improve matters. But how much? Football is always a precarious business, and the size and purchasing power of Uruguay imposes serious restrictions.
There is one business model being applied; another newly promoted team, Torque, have recently become part of the City Football Group, spearheaded by Manchester City and also including the likes of Melbourne City and New York City FC. Based in Montevideo, Torque play their matches in Canalones, on the outskirts of the capital. They are unlikely to attract a mass following, but they may well unearth a talent destined for greatness -- but one who, at club level, will not be shining for long in Uruguay.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.