There’s something otherworldly about the sky-blue get-ups of Uruguay and Argentina’s national football teams. The plainness of Uruguay’s kit in recent years is so strikingly simple that if you launched Luis Suárez up into the sky on a glorious summer afternoon, you’d only begin to spot him once large bite marks started appearing in the clouds around him.
Argentina’s gorgeous blue and white stripes tell their own tale too, of World Cup glory and players of alien talent. Both footballing nations are steeped in history so vast that there’s an aura emanating from them both, a glow of faraway heroes doing battle on hardened pitches in foreign lands, beneath skies as blue as their shirts.
The Copa América returns this summer, and the importance that Uruguay and Argentina have played in the multi-volume chronicles of the tournament is unequivocal. It’s been clear since the Copa began that they were both destined to play the protagonists. Throughout the tournament’s two epochs, from the South American Championship period between 1916 – 1967 to the current Copa América, Uruguay and Argentina have hosted the tournament sixteen times between them.
Of the world’s oldest active tournament, Uruguay have won 15 times, and Argentina 14. It is only Brazil, having racked up eight tournament wins, who come even moderately close to challenging such dominance, but the consistency with which both Uruguay and Argentina have historically featured in the business end of the tournaments is telling not only of how important the two teams have been in the development of the Copa América but conversely how this tournament remains is a part of the DNA ingrained in these two footballing nations.
It is only in the last couple of decades or so that there has been any real challenge to the supremacy of the two teams in the South American international tournament. This side of the 21st century, Brazil and Chile have recorded numerous tournament victories either side of the single title held between either Argentina or Uruguay, when the latter won it in 2011. This is the only time Uruguay have made it to the final since the turn of the century, whilst Argentina have been runners up four times since 2004. Four wrongs don’t make a right, though.
The long-standing history between the two sides is matched by very few, as far as football rivalries go. Indeed, it’s the most played international derby in football history, with 192 official matches to date. Argentina have won 89, Uruguay 59, and 45 draws. One of the most notable of these fixtures was the conclusion of the first ever World Cup, hosted by Uruguay, which saw the two teams meet in the final. Argentina patriots saw off the fleets of boats headed across the River Plate with chants of “Argentina si! Uruguay no! Victory or death!”
Fans that made it through the fog across to Montevideo were rigorously searched for firearms and assorted weaponry upon their arrival to the stadium, whilst the referee was escorted, along with his linesmen, to and from the game by mounted policemen. After an embittered debate over the match ball, the first half was played with Argentina’s choice, the second with Uruguay’s.
The game itself was hard fought, in a way that modern football is simply not allowed to be. The high stakes and the blistering atmosphere inspired collision after collision of late tackles, off-the-ball incidents, and half-time punches. After Argentina, in the lead, saw Francisco Varallo hobble off injured, the game turned and eventually ended in a 4-2 victory – and a jubilant pitch invasion – for the Uruguayans. Varallo, who died in 2010, aged 100, as the last of the finalists, admitted to The Guardian that their star player, Monti, “had received a letter threatening to kill him and his daughters if we won.”
You’ve got to squint further back in time to find the first meeting between the teams in the Copa América. A scoreless draw back in 1916 meant Uruguay took the title that year, with their top scorer in the tournament, Isabelino Gradín, being the first black player to play in an international tournament.
History tells us that Uruguay and Argentina have had more than their fair share of the spoils in the Copa América tournament. That, however, comes with more than their fair share of heartbreaks and close calls, too. With a tournament spanning over 100 years, it’s difficult to comprehensively digest the ins and outs of each last-minute win, each thumping loss, each trophy lifted and each tear shed. Instead, it could be more pertinent to look at the experiences of individual players, who can represent the triumphs and disasters that the tournament brings through their experiences of the tournament. Two players. Two Diegos.
Perhaps the two players in question have not had their careers or reputations defined by their roles, or lack thereof, in the Copa América. Perhaps they have. The World Cup remains the place to make your inerasable mark in the annals of the international footballing canon, and the Champions League in the same vein for club football. Diego Maradona has a legendary status with both and has done well wherever he went, but the same can’t be said for Diego Forlán, or at least, not in its entirety.
But how far are either of them defined by these tick-boxes? Do their fellow countrymen, and people around the world, only examine their career in this vein? It would be remiss to overlook the roles they played for their country in the Copa América when considering their reputation, then.
The contrasting experiences of these two popular, talented and universally recognisable figures for their respective countries in the South American football tournament underpins how charming, how unforgiving, and how fictional football can be.
If ever a player needed no introduction, it’d be Diego Maradona. Heralded by many as the greatest player to have ever lived, he’s done it all. Hometown hero at Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli legend, and international immortality with a World Cup victory, including one of the most famous – and another of the most infamous – goals the tournament has ever seen, both against England.
A sublime career marred by various issues off the pitch, Maradona remains an iconic figure in the football world. He’s also Argentinian. That’s Argentina, who have won the Copa América fourteen times. Yet Diego Maradona has not one single winners medal from this tournament to his name. Why?
Lauded as “El Pibe de Oro“, or “The Golden Boy”, Maradona was Argentina’s darling for decades. Yet the Copa América proved the sticking point in his international football career. Back in 1979, his single goal in the tournament was little consolation for Argentina, who bowed out of the competition at the group stage having recorded only one win out of four games.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Maradona would score again for his country in the tournament. However, three goals in the group stages of the ’87 tournament, the year after their hallowed World Cup win, was the pinnacle of his Copa América tenure, with Argentina finishing in fourth spot. A particularly dry period had happened upon the Argentinian team at the Copa América, in which they didn’t place within a top-four spot for two decades. It seems it was simply a case of bad timing for Maradona.
However, it was the following years that proved the most detrimental to Maradona’s relationship with the Copa América. Argentina did win the tournament in 1991. Then they went on to win it again two years later, in 1993. But Diego Maradona was present at neither tournament.
In March 1991, ‘The Golden Boy’ tested positive for cocaine use whilst playing for Napoli, despite rigorous efforts to cover his tracks. Former president of Napoli, Corrado Ferlaino, admitted that Maradona was issued with a fake penis, which he used to avoid testing positive for drugs. “If he was still at risk, he was given it containing someone else’s urine, which he slipped into his tracksuit,” said Ferlaino. “Then in the testing room, he would fill the specimen jar.”
Fake penis or not, he was found out and consequently banned from football for 15 months. Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simone dominated the 1991 edition, and Argentina pocketed a 13th title.
When his ban concluded in 1992, Maradona went to Sevilla. However, after a highly disappointing spell at the club, he was unable to leave his mark. Overweight, unhappy and riddled with demons, Maradona returned to the Argentinian national team in the lead up to the 1993 Copa América. Inevitably, he was not the same player that led them to World Cup victory six years previously, and manager Alfio Basile was ruthless.
Maradona was dropped from the squad completely, and the coveted number 10 shirt was handed to Simeone, with Basile declaring that the shirt should be “reserved for that one, special player.” Facing the equivalent of a public pelting with rotten tomatoes, Maradona retreated to his old habits that were dying so hard. Argentina retained their title, with Simone scoring once and burying two penalties in shootouts against Brazil and Colombia.
One year later, Diego Maradona, as captain, was finishing off a spectacular piece of team play amongst his Argentinian teammates around the opposition box, curling a sumptuous left-footed effort hard into the top corner of the goal. It would put them 3-0 up against Greece in a World Cup group game in 1994. He charged away in celebration towards the touchline, howling in ecstasy.
The broadcast screen switched to a pitch-side camera that was faced on to Maradona, and as he reeled towards the camera the abnormality of his facial expression became instantly apparent. The whites of his enormous, bulging eyes pierced onto the screens of the millions watching on television; he was, no doubt, a man possessed by more than a passion for the game. Days later, he failed a drug test and was abruptly removed from the Argentinian squad.
A career glittered with glory on the field and littered with drug use off of it, Maradona remains an antihero of the game. The disturbing clips and news reports of his appearance in the stands at last year’s World Cup suggest he remains a complex character with issues rooted far deeper than football, and whilst he shone the brightest on the world stage, a Copa América hero he was never destined to be.
A Copa América hero, Diego Forlán was destined to be, however. ‘Destiny’, when used in football discoursel smacks of cliché of course, but when your father and grandfather have also won the tournament, there is surely be room for sentimentality.
Diego Forlán does not possess a World Cup winner’s medal. Neither is he known for controversial goals and a raging cocaine addiction. His footballing style was not based around gliding past multiple players with lightning acceleration and devastating footwork, either. Instead, Forlán is considered to have been a highly cultured goalscorer and a powerful finisher with a face like a Persian warrior. He looked classy in long-sleeved shirts, and always had an absolutely incredible head of hair. Forlán is a distinguished and widely respected man inside and out of the football world.
Born in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, Forlán cut his footballing teeth at Club Atlético Independiente in Argentina. His impressive goalscoring record gained attention from European clubs, and on the eve of a move to Middlesborough in January 2002, Manchester United swept in to trump the Teeside club and snatched him away. In broken English, he told The Telegraph, “Manchester United is a big club, so I’ve decided to go there. The thing is, they offered more money than Middlesbrough.” He wouldn’t be the first, would he?
Those with Premier League knowledge ranging beyond the current decade will no doubt be savvy to the highly disappointing period Diego Forlán went on to suffer at Old Trafford. The British media gave him both barrels after a poor start to his debut campaign in the Premier League, even going as far as labelling United’s worst ever striker. With his reputation in tatters, he headed for the Spanish hills after four unmemorable seasons at United, with a consolatory Premier League winners medal and his tail between his legs.
This turned out to be the making of the man though. Forlán went on to carve out a highly impressive goal-scoring career at Villareal and Atlético Madrid, racking up 54 goals in 106 appearances at the former, and 74 goals in 134 at the latter. Diego Forlán rose from the ashes, a meme before the days of memes, and transformed himself into a LaLiga legend, clocking two golden boot prizes en route to greatness.
Forlán was a heavy feature across multiple tournaments for Uruguay before he was to fulfill his inherited destiny. From the extreme highs of scoring five spectacular goals at the 2010 World Cup (in which he was deemed player of the tournament), to the extreme lows of missing a penalty in the 2007 Copa América shoot-out, Forlán’s international career naturally oscillated, but he was ultimately a very successful striker.
On the back of the World Cup, he approached the 2011 Copa América with one of the highest international goal-scoring records for his country, but a withering club form (he departed to Inter that summer). Yet, he was carrying a certain wisdom that certain aging strikers cultivate in their maturity, knowing when to run and when to stay, timing their runs and placing themselves in positions that younger strikers would miss.
What he also brought to the tournament was Luis Suárez as his strike partner. Sizzling with form after a first season at Liverpool, Suárez was nightmarish for defenders, and capable of turning provider as well as finisher. He did just this in Uruguay’s Copa América final clash against Paraguay.
Juan Carlos Corazo, Diego Forlán’s maternal grandfather, played in Uruguay’s first dominant football period and won the Copa América in 1928, as well as coaching the national team in the 1962 World Cup. Diego’s father, Pablo, played right-back in Uruguay’s 1967 victory.
Two goals from the current crop of Forlán in the 2011 final sealed a third generation of winner’s medals, as well as a spot at the top of the all-time Uruguayan scorers’ list. Not a bad day for Diego, all in all. “My grandfather won it, my father won it, and now I have also done it,” Forlán said in a post-match interview. “Three generations have won this trophy. The name of Forlán will stay in history.”
Before all of this – the glory, the medals, the international acclaim – Diego Forlán wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to be a footballer. He was quite the tennis player, too, in his youth. The decision to pursue football was made at a poignant and devastating moment in his life, as he sat beside the hospital bed of his elder sister, Alejandra. Injured in a car accident, Alejandra was paralyzed and in need of serious treatment just to stay alive. It was at her bedside that Diego vowed to become a professional footballer and to earn the money needed for her medical care.
Alejandra is now a psychologist, lecturer, and activist, and the siblings have established the Alejandra Forlán Foundation, which aids the repercussions of dangerous driving. Rob Hughes of The New York Times commented that it’s this side to Diego Forlán that sets him apart as a deep-thinking soccer player, more sensitive and more thoughtful than many of his peers. A gentleman of the game, worthy of his prized destiny.
No doubt the two Diegos will have a keen eye on their respective national sides in this summer’s Copa América. Whilst the hosts, Brazil, are the favourites, Argentina and Uruguay are second and third to lift the trophy at the bookmakers. The tournament’s two greats will, as they always have, be showcasing some of the world’s finest talents in their teams. Whether or not these players will make the tournament their own though, is another matter altogether. Sometimes, even the greatest aren’t destined to lift the Copa América. For others, it’s in the blood.