Penarol carving out a new history
Measuring 309m by 46m, the flag unfurled on 12 April by fans of Uruguayan club Penarol is apparently the biggest in the world.
Draped across much of Montevideo's Centenario stadium, it hung in celebration of the fact that the club had made it through to the knockout stages of the Copa Libertadores for the first time since 2002.
Two months later, there is much more to celebrate. Penarol have gone all the way to the final, for the first since they won the last of their five titles in 1987.
This Wednesday they are at home in the first leg against Santos of Brazil, who are chasing their first title since 1963. It is a replay of the 1962 clash between these first two winners of the Libertadores. This is a match dripping in history, and it could hardly have a more appropriate setting than the Centenario, the legendary old ground built for the 1930 World Cup.
In recent years a different flag has often been on show in the stands of the stadium, one which suggests that a rich footballing history can be as much a burden as an asset.
When the Uruguay national team play at home a frequent sight has been a big sky blue banner with '1950' on it - a reference to the last time the Uruguayans won the World Cup, when they came from behind to beat Brazil in Rio.
National team coach Oscar Washington Tabarez refers to the aftermath of this triumph as 'the complex of 1950' - something profoundly negative for Uruguayan football. The 1950 side were considered the true champions. For decades afterwards Uruguayan sides were judged against the standards set by that team, were weighed and found wanting. "The crowd would give the players ten minutes," says Tabarez, "and then a horrible silence would descend" as the fans reached their melancholy conclusion on the merits of the men they were watching.
Uruguay's exploits a year ago, when they reached the semi finals in South Africa, would seem to have buried the complex. A new generation has its own idols to applaud - Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid, Luis Suarez of Liverpool, Edinson Cavani of Napoli.
Of course, they all play abroad. With a population little bigger than 3m, these days Uruguay is clearly unable to hold on to its best players.
Aguirre (left) has used young and hungry players to great effect at Penarol. Photo: Getty Images
Before taking charge of the national team for a second spell in 2006, Tabarez spent time reflecting on the effects on Uruguayan football of the globalisation of the game. With the stars spending their peak years abroad, he saw that it was inevitable that Uruguayan club football would be full of teenagers and veterans. But the culture of the game in the country was still strong. Players could still be produced, and Uruguay could use its youth sides to groom them in such a way that they would be prepared for the demands of top level modern football.
He went in search of team players, capable of passing and pressing the ball as part of a collective. He was also looking for youngsters who could cope with the pace of the contemporary game - not just those with quick movement, but also those technically gifted enough to give them speed of execution, or sufficiently intelligent and cool-headed to take rapid decisions.
These qualities would stand them in good stead in European club football, but they have grown up with a strong emotional link with their national team and a firm grounding in their country's footballing identity.
The outcome has been a succession of good displays from Uruguay at under-20 and under-17 levels, and a conveyor belt of players feeding through to the senior side. Cavani and Suarez are graduates of Uruguay's under-20 team of 2007. Striker Abel Hernandez and midfielders Nicolas Lodeiro and Gaston Ramirez came up via the class of 2009. And defender Diego Polenta, captain of this year's under-20s, looks like another with a long career ahead of him in the senior ranks.
Uruguay's return to football's top table, then, is the result of a well thought-out process. But what does this have to do with Penarol? After all, as we have seen, the leap in quality given by the national team does not have much to do with the domestic game - and yet Penarol have become the first Uruguayan club to reach the final of the Libertadores in more than two decades.
In part this might be put down to the feel good factor, a general euphoria in Uruguayan football arising from last year's World Cup. But there is also an overlap.
Current club coach Diego Aguirre is not just the striker whose goal in the final minute of extra time gave Penarol their last Libertadores title back in 1987. He has also been involved in the process with Tabarez, taking charge of the under-20s in 2009.
Surely aided by this experience, Aguirre has made sure that his Penarol side avoided a trap the club have fallen into so often over recent years. The tendency to bring back old favourites well into their thirties has frequently left the side too slow to cope with the pace of international competitions.
Not this year. Thirty-five-year-old former star Tony Pacheco, a minor hit in Spanish football, is left on the bench, his place as support striker taken by the nippy, interesting Argentine Alejandro Martinuccio.
If Penarol are not the most talented team in the competition, then they follow a clear idea based on breaking at pace. The back four stay close together, they can play up to effective target man Juan Manuel Olivera, with Martinuccio buzzing behind him. The midfield work as a block, Nicolas Freitas closing down and tackling alongside the talented all rounder Luis Aguiar, Matias Corujo full of lung power on the right, while the long-striding Matias Mier looks like a real discovery on the left.
And there is something else. Penarol have lost five of their 12 matches in the competition. They have conceded more goals than they have scored. But in round after round they have delivered when it really counts. There can be little doubt that Santos are clear favourites to win this year's Libertadores - but they should be aware that Penarol are playing like a team inspired, rather than intimidated, by their club's great history.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) Simple question: Why isn't Marcelo called up to play for Brazil? I, like many Real Madrid fans, have been impressed with his improvement over the years. And he blossomed under Jose Mourinho. Why isn't he on the Copa America roster? What more does he have to do?
A) Beats me - it's now almost five years since he scored a cracker on debut against Wales, and he's had very few opportunities since. When Dunga was coach the argument was that Marcelo was playing on the left of midfield rather than at left back - and then he went with Michel Bastos, who'd been playing on the right wing at Lyon!
Marcelo was supposed to play against Scotland at the end of March but picked up an injury in training and hasn't been selected since - I've no idea what he has done to irritate consecutive Brazil coaches. Maybe he doesn't sit up straight for the national anthem.
A) I was wondering what you thought of Ronaldo's selection for Brazil in the recent friendly with Romania? A nice sentimental touch? Or, a strange decision weeks before a major tournament?
B) I'm more inclined to the second point of view. I'm not a fan of these farewell games - which is seen by many here as an excess of Anglo-Saxon coldness. He only played for 15 minutes, but, especially in the eyes of the crowd, it did overshadow the efforts of his team-mates preparing for the Copa America.
Paraguay got in the act as well - their midfielder Roberto Acuna was stuck on 98 caps, so they brought him back to play a few minutes in their two recent friendlies so he could reach the 100 mark.