It has been asked many times but the question persists: how has Uruguay been so successful on the international football scene? With a population of only around three and a half million, Uruguay is dwarfed by its neighbours Brazil and Argentina and yet its trophy cabinet boasts 15 Copa Américas, two World Cups and two Olympics gold medals.
Those World Cup triumphs and Olympic golds that preceded them established Uruguay as one of the earliest powerhouses in international football and even as the rest of the world caught up, the small South American nation has continued to punch above its weight.
The steady stream of youth talent is one thing but in Uruguay they cite another reason. “We call it the ‘Garra Charrúa’ – more than anything we want to succeed and it makes us even stronger. More than anything, that’s it.”
Independiente midfielder Carlos Benavidez is certainly not the only Uruguayan to use this phrase. It is one perhaps more easily seen than explained.
Stemming from the words garra – or claw –and charrúa, in reference to the indigenous people who lived in the region, the phrase refers to a bravery, a tenacity, a never-say-die approach that is carried on to the pitch. When you see Luis Suárez’s hunger in front of goal or Diego Godín’s ‘knife between the teeth’ attitude as part of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side, that’s it.
This insatiable will to win has served Uruguay well and it is this grit that has been important to Benavidez after the youngster suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in training soon after joining Argentinian giants Independiente.
“To be playing again without any discomfort is a huge joy,” the relief clear after Benavidez made his long awaited return to first team duty.
“Arriving at a club as big as Independiente was incredible. Making your debut and scoring in one of the first games is something that everyone dreams of. But it has been more of an uphill struggle since I got injured and now I am focusing on what is to come. The idea is to try to enjoy the games and take it minute by minute.”
In spite of a clear shyness which Benavidez admitted meant he didn’t seek advice from fellow former Defensor Sporting graduates Martín Campaña and Diego Rodríguez ahead of joining them in Avellaneda, the youngster’s devotion to Uruguay and the game has clearly never diminished.
Progressing through the youth ranks at Defensor Sporting, one of Montevideo’s many clubs, Benavidez made his senior debut having just turned eighteen and given the opportunity to talk about El Tuerto still does so with same enthusiasm as if it were yesterday.
“Defensor was the club that had given me everything – a home and the tools that helped form me as a person. I had dreamed of the moment since I was a boy and always yearned for my debut. When it arrived, it was a tremendous joy.”
The picturesque, tree-lined Estadio Luis Franzini provided the perfect setting for Benavidez’s development both on and off the pitch. And while Defensor, like every other Uruguayan club compete for light in the shadow of giants Peñarol and Nacional, it is these values that the 21-year-old maintains distinguish it from their rivals.
“The number of titles in this case don’t really mean too much. Defensor instills respect first, and friendship, the value of studying, something so important to every player, and it seeks to form you as a person.
“These fundamental things. To know how to listen to others and to share, it is something that makes the club different.”
From a footballing perspective, La Viola haven’t done badly either. Ricardo Pavoni, Diego Godín, Sebastián Abreu and Giorgian de Arrascaeta all passed through Defensor at some level and while the playing honours bestowed on them are what draws attention, Benavidez still highlights the club’s wider role in their development.
“The values are reflected in all those players, it is something beautiful and makes Defensor an exemplary club in every way.”
A 106-year history and only a handful of top flight titles, Benavidez is fortunate that his little over two years in the senior squad coincided with one such triumph. Giants Peñarol may have nicked the championship at the end of the year on penalties, the Carboneros 49th of what is now 50, but Defensor’s 2017 Apertura victory still lives long in the memory for all those associated with the club.
None more so than Benavidez despite missing the decisive moment.
“It was something beautiful. It went right to the last game and we had to win against Fenix to be crowned champions,” the youngster explained with the unbridled enthusiasm of a supporter.
“I was away with the Uruguay under-20s but I remember it so well. I was with [fellow Defensor player] Juan Manuel Boselli in our room at three in the morning watching the game on the internet and when we were champions, we started shouting at the top of our voices. It was such joy, a really beautiful memory.”
A Copa Libertadores campaign followed in 2018 and although Defensor could only finish third in their group behind defending champions Grêmio and Cerro Porteño, Benavidez further enhanced his reputation with three goals in the opening three games.
Such a return was at odds with the defensive midfield ball winner exhibited so far for club and country.
“I have to thank the boys at Defensor for those three beautiful goals,” Benavidez modestly said. “Playing my first Copa Libertadores is something that I will never forget, as was joining Independiente, the King of Cups, the team with the most Libertadores titles.”
“I feel much more comfortable in a double five or as a central defensive midfielder without doubt.”
A more defensive mindset may well have developed over time but it didn’t prevent Benavidez sharing idols with so many across South America.
“Like every kid I grew up watching Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, all those great players. But now in my position I watch [Lucas] Torreira and [Radja] Nainggolan as references. I try to focus on them and improve every day.”
Indeed it is Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira the current incumbent of the defensive midfield role for the Celeste that Benavidez aspires to. Two years older than Benavidez, Torreira’s career took him to Italy as a trialist at a young age, before even a senior debut at club level; Carlitos’ path, up until that knee injury, was perhaps heading on a more conventional route.
The under-20 South American Championships often provides a first glimpse at the stars of the future. The likes of Enzo Francescoli, Romario, Lionel Messi and Neymar have all shone on this stage.
The best players from around the continent that have dazzled at under-15 and under-17 level reach this point. The final test if you will before making the leap into senior football.
In 2017 the side that looked most prepared for this were unquestionably Uruguay. One defeat in the nine games played in Ecuador secured the title with ease and heralded a new generation of talent.
“To be crowned South American champions for the first time in 36 years was incredible,” Benavidez reflected.
“At the time it didn’t really sink in but now I can look back on what an achievement and a tremendous feat it was. We were just taking it game by game and were not aware of what we were achieving. It was something incredible and unforgettable for all of us.”
Óscar Tabárez began his historic reign as national team coach back in 2006 with the express long-term project of developing those youth talents to feed the senior squad and at the 2018 World Cup almost the entire 23 were graduates.
The status and respect that the 72-year-old commands in Uruguay is difficult to express.
“I have no words to describe El Maestro Tabárez, his entire career is incredible,” a statement that still fails to capture the impact on a nation’s football.
“I have not seen or heard of a coach who has been with a national team so long.”
Neither have the Guinness World Records, who honoured Tabárez for his 200 matches in charge of the Celeste during the last international break. His somewhat frail physical appearance since being diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome in contrast to his enormous presence within the national team set-up.
“It’s amazing when El Maestro speaks at the training complex everyone pays attention, everyone listens, it is something indescribable. You have to see it, the respect, the humility, it is what flows into the national team. He is someone respected worldwide and that is something that has a great influence on the country and helps us a lot.”
For Benavidez and the rest of the under-20 squad, progressing to one day represent the senior side is not only their dream but the fruits of Tabárez’s labour.
Rodrigo Bentancur, now of Juventus, was among the squad in Russia and was one of the standouts in 2017 yet Bentancur wasn’t alone in earning himself a transfer in the year or so after that triumph.
Benavidez, like teammates Nicolás De La Cruz and Rodrigo Amaral, all secured moves to one of Argentina’s grandes and while it wasn’t the European destination that all South American players dream of, it was considered a step in the right direction.
The same group travelled to Korea for the under-20 World Cup, it was participation in this that prevented Benavidez from playing the title decider for Defensor in 2017, and while it ended in penalty heartbreak at the semi-final stage against Venezuela, the ever-positive midfielder sees no failure in that.
“Disappointment isn’t the right word because the truth was that reaching that stage was incredible and something that no one imagined. If someone had offered us that before the tournament I think we would all have taken it.
“It was a game that came down to penalties and luck. We can’t regret anything as we gave it our all and enjoyed it until the last moment. That is the key thing and why we remained calm.”
There are certainly more important things to take away from youth football than trophies and Uruguay can be satisfied that that was the case in 2017.
The success of that squad has varied as is to be expected but not all can be fast-tracked to play at the highest level like Bentancur. For others it is a more circuitous route and one need only look at De La Cruz to see that. The 22-year-old’s River Plate career looked virtually over before it had even begun one year ago, only for a superb 2019 helped the Millonarios to another Copa Libertadores final and thrust the winger back into the spotlight.
Injury has played a significant part in Benavidez’s lack of progression but there remains plenty of time.
Independiente have hardly provided the firmest of foundations either and looking back there is a sense that Benavidez’s arrival came at the end of a cycle. Ariel Holan’s superb Copa Sudamericana winning side was dismantled and although the Uruguayan’s first contribution was to help El Rojo to the Suruga Bank trophy in Japan, Independiente have declined since.
Holan was replaced by Sebastián Beccacece and he too has already come and gone as the club look ahead to 2020.
“It’s not been the easiest time but I always try to face it head on and find the best way to move forward together. More than anything I’d love to win more titles.”
Benavidez admits that adjusting through the change and his injury has been difficult but the 21-year-old is focused on the future.
“Adapting to the country was a little difficult, it’s another rhythm, another madness that you try to get used to little by little.”
Now accustomed to the club and fit again, Benavidez will be looking to impress interim manager Fernando Berón and has his eyes fixed on new goals – “Another title and to enjoy my time at a beautiful club like Independiente.”
Independiente and Uruguay will no doubt harbour the same ambitions.