Uruguay, the best of all countries great and small

I had never heard of that player who helped stuff Man City in the Uefa Champions League, scoring two goals for Napoli, which as good as ruined Man City's chances of progressing. Edinson Cavani? Hmm, the surname sounded Italian but his first name hinted of Anglo connections. Now that I look him up, I see he is 24 and has been with Napoli since 2010. In September, he scored a hat-trick against Milan. Comes from Uruguay. Should have guessed. What is it with Uruguay?

They are ranked fourth in the Fifa world rankings - which doesn't say a huge amount, as England have somehow crept in at five, after those boring wins against Spain and Sweden. This year, Uruguay won the Copa América - beating Paraguay in the final, held in Argentina, which was a triumph, especially when you realise how titchy Uruguay is. Its population is only 3.5 million - compared with Argentina's 40 million and Brazil's 192 million. Uruguay have 42,000 registered players to choose from, compared with 332,000 in Argentina and 2.1 million in Brazil. How do they do it ?

One of the factors is history. We, over here, like to think that we gave football to a grateful world, which is true in most senses, as we created the rules in 1863 and invented the idea of competitive leagues in 1888. But the other big event in the history of world football is the World Cup - which we couldn't be arsed to enter till 1950. The first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930. They won it and again in 1950 - beating Brazil, in Brazil - so they have won twice as many World Cups as England.

Before that, Uruguay won the gold for football at the Olympics in 1924 and 1928. And they were already dominant in the Copa América, which began in 1916. They won it that year and 14 other times since.

So, football has been part of their national DNA: what they do, what they have always been good at. It is their game.

However, being very small, the country has had lean spells, unlike a giant such as Brazil, which has consistently produced world-class players.
In the 1990s, Uruguay twice failed to make the World Cup finals, in 1994 (as did England) and in 1998, and fell to 54 in the world rankings.

In the past five years, Uruguay have zoomed up again, reaching the semis of the World Cup in 2010, mainly thanks to their inspirational manager, Óscar Wáshington Tabárez - note the Anglo-Saxon influence in his name. He transformed youth training - insisting that all young players had to continue their education. If you didn't study, you weren't in the team. Their training has become so highly regarded that young players now don't leave the country in their teens for Europe, as they used to in the old days, very often before they were mature enough to survive.

Forlán around

Today, there are Uruguayans playing in all of Europe's top leagues - such as Diego Forlán. OK, he didn't make it at Man United but he's been a star in Spain and now in Italy with Inter and, in 2010, was voted the best player at the World Cup. In England, we have Luis Suárez and Sebastián Coates at Liverpool. And Gus Poyet doing a fine job managing Brighton.

Hmm, you are thinking, well done, Uruguay - but what about that other little country, with 50 per cent more people than Uruguay, Scotland, population 5.2 million? Why are they so rubbish? Good at producing managers who do well in England but useless at producing players for the top teams, here or abroad, and appalling when it comes to international competitions. They haven't qualified for the World Cup since 1998 and are currently languishing at 49 in the world rankings.

Yet Scotland has a long history as a passionate football country, with star players once known all over Europe, such as Denis Law, and teams like Celtic, who won the European Championship before any club in England. I dunno. I'm only observing and weeping into my porridge. No use telling ourselves, hopefully and pathetically, that these things come in cycles. I suggest that the Scottish FA gets on the plane to Montevideo. And take some notebooks . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral