Thursday, February 7, 2008

Campito - The Lessons of Maracanazo

Uruguay has a long and illustrious history. They were world champion 4 times – two Olympic Championships before the world cup and two after. For a country of only 3 million, they produce more world class players than any other country.

Many fans wonder why Uruguay has not won a world championship in 58 years. Here, I intend to give you my two cents on that subject.

First, there’s the issue of the Campito (playground, sandlot). This has always been a haven for youngsters to develop their skills, but, as cities expand and vacant lots become scarcer, there has been less opportunity, except in rural areas, for this kind of development. I believe there can be no real progress until the Campito returns to its former importance as a training ground.

Another factor standing in the way of winning is the coaching. Coaching has become a restricted community. Ex-players who know the game frontward and backwards aren’t able to become coaches because they haven’t completed the required 3-year training program. Whatever the reasons for this complicated process, one thing is for sure – it keeps many talented coaches out of work and places many without the proper know-how on the field. You cannot underestimate the importance of this point - the coaching situation is a cancer on football in Uruguay.

Let’s get back to the Campito. Not only is it a place where physical skills are developed, but also mental and leadership skills. On the playgrounds leaders naturally emerge. Later, when they join organized teams, those with leadership qualities assert themselves and become team leaders. The best example of a team leader was legendary great Obdulio “El Negro Jefe” Varela, the black chief.

Let’s go back to the championship game of 1950. The Brazilian machine came out and scored a quick goal intending to bury the underdogs from Uruguay. It was the street-smart Jefe who slowed down play by placing the ball under his arm and initiating a prolonged discussion with the referees. This not only calmed down the 200,000 wild Brazilian fans, it took the momentum from the great Brazilian players.

Then, after a Brazilian defender fouled Alcides Ghiggia hard, Schubert Gambetta (Mono “The Monkey” Gambetta) took the first opportunity to return the favor to the Brazilian defender and, while they were on the ground, he relayed the message that if he should foul Ghiggia again he would kill him, literally or figuratively. From then on the Brazilians were less willing to mix it up and, ultimately, this cost them the game. This stunning defeat of Brazil is referred to as the Maracanazo.

This is just one example of how attitudes and styles developed on the playground transfer to the big field. The chain of events immortalized at the Maracanazo, unfortunately, would not repeat themselves today. Rather than learn in the playground and on the streets, todays players come up through a succession of soccer camps where their first impulse is to run to the referee crying foul. They have no idea of how to work out problems on their own. Where are the Gambettas of today?

I was recently approached by a group in Uruguay who wanted me to explore several possibilities. For one, they would like to form an alliance with a professional team from anywhere in the world. This relationship would be like a farm team. I am eager to help them in this regard. They also asked me to give them the benefit of my coaching experience. Here, however, there seem to be several issues regarding coaching that I have to investigate when I travel to Uruguay this spring. I’ll let you know what I find out. Still, regardless of the situation in Uruguay, I would be willing to travel elsewhere and to organize, coach and co-sponsor a farm team anywhere else in the world.

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