Montevideo nasty: Why Nacional vs Penarol is more than a game

The oldest non-UK derby was once contested between two giants of South American football, but as Montevideo's mighty have fallen, violence has increased - on and off the pitch. Sebastian H Garcia reported for the April 2009 FourFourTwo magazine... 

Arriving in Montevideo, it feels like you’ve just travelled back in time. Even in 2009, the capital of Uruguay doesn’t overwhelm you with the unbearably frenetic pace of other major cities. It probably never will.

This is a place where human warmth is still winning the battle against ice-cold modernisation. To walk through the city, to look up and see its friendly people coming out onto colonial-style balconies, only reinforces the feeling that you have arrived in another era, not just another place.

Only once you’ve found your feet in the only Uruguayan city with more than one million inhabitants (in a country with roughly three and a half million), does reality kick in and some signs emerge that you are in a 21st century city, after all.

That is until, in the geographical centre of town, you run into the mythical Centenario Stadium.

Completed in 1930 to host the inaugural World Cup finals, the stadium got its name to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Republica Oriental del Uruguay, the country’s first constitution, and was named in 1983 by FIFA as one of football’s top five classic venues (together with the Maracana, Wembley, the San Siro and the Bernabeu). 

While the enormous bowl’s concrete seats are edging closer each day to celebrating their own centenary, they never seem to tire of hosting the passion, pleasure, pain and pyrotechnics of the world’s oldest derby match outside the British Isles: Nacional versus Penarol.

Centenario Stadium, Montevideo

The two big teams were described as 'the irreconcilable adversaries of all times, of all years, always in struggle with each other'. This was in 1908

One of the many romantic sports chronicles published in Montevideo’s newspapers back in the beginning of the 20th Century described the two big teams from Uruguay in a colourful and almost obsolete form of Spanish that literally translated as, “the irreconcilable adversaries of all times, of all years, always in struggle with each other”.

What is really intriguing about this is that when those words were published, in 1908, Nacional and Penarol had only been playing each other for eight years, and Penarol weren’t even called Penarol.

That journalist’s take on things ended up being more than a report on that particular match, rather an accurate prediction, a premonition almost, of what was to come in the next century and beyond. 

The other side of the tracks

On September 28 1891, 118 employees of the British Railways Company (72 Englishmen, 45 Uruguayans and one German) founded a sports club by the name of Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club (CURCC). Fans soon started referring to it simply as Penarol – the district of Montevideo where the team played – because it was easier than to say the entire name in English. 

The name of the district itself comes the very first settler, Giovan Battista Crosa (or Juan Bautista Crosa), an Italian immigrant who arrived in the mid-1700s from the city of Pinerolo, near Turin. Fooled by Crosa’s thick accent, his neighbours referred to the area as, “where the Pinarol man lives”. Soon, it simply became known as Penarol. 

Nacional fans claim that their club, founded in 1899, is the older of the two and the whole issue, to this day, is the subject of heated debate between the two sets of fans

To this day, though, there is controversy surrounding the club’s identity. FIFA and the AUF (Uruguayan FA), recognise CURCC as the club that gave birth to Penarol and therefore consider CURCC and Penarol as one and the same club. 

Nacional fans, however, have another theory. They claim that CURCC and Club Atletico Penarol co-existed for a while and even played their matches separately and faced each other at some point during 1914, which would make it impossible for them to be considered the same club.

Therefore, Nacional fans claim that their club, founded in 1899, is the older of the two and the whole issue, to this day, is the subject of heated debate between the two sets of fans. What is not in doubt is why Penarol wear black and yellow – they were the colours of the original railways signs.

The yellow and black of Nacional

Nacional, as the name suggests, was founded out of the natives’ need to distinguish themselves from the British immigrants and for practising a sport that had started to captivate Uruguayans. They needed a place to play, somewhere they could call home and the Universidad de la Republica was where students came up with the idea of founding a club that would represent the people of Uruguay. 

Nacional was born as a product of a merger between Uruguay Athletic Club (blue shirts) and Montevideo Football Club (red). They were later joined by those from a club called Defensa (white).

While the origin of their colours could be found in a combination of the merging clubs’ shirts, the choice was in fact a decision by the directors, taking the blue, white and red from the flag of Jose Gervasio Artigas, Uruguay’s most important national hero, who was a crucial figure in the fight for independence from the Spanish monarchy. 

Continental dominance to national glory

Towards the end of the 19th Century, organised football became an important part of life in Montevideo and the rivalry between Penarol and Nacional emerged to reflect and emphasise the differences between the newly established social classes that co-existed in the city: immigrants and natives. 

In a thriving and relatively young city, the arrival of immigrants from Europe started to shape the population and the bonding of the newcomers with the natives was problematic

In a thriving and relatively young city, the arrival of immigrants from Europe started to shape the population and the bonding of the newcomers with the natives was problematic. The locals felt pushed around by the immigrants and more often than not, Europeans would get better jobs as they were better skilled, prompting suspicious and envious glances from the natives.

The newly arrived, most of them from peripheral regions in their home countries (Galicia, Naples, the Basque Country, Piedmont and the Canary Islands, to name a few), felt this hostility and responded by secluding themselves into very tight-knit communities, which eventually led to football clubs’ foundations and the consequent restrictions on membership to the locals. 

Early adopters: Uruguay won the 1924 Olympic football tournament in Paris

Locals vs immigrants

Penarol, followed mainly by the foreign communities and the British Railway workers, saw as their biggest rivals Nacional, the team that represented the locals. Most importantly, people saw in football a safe way to express their feelings and in some cases, through their team’s victories, avenge an injustice in their everyday life.

Penarol-Nacional is often compared to Celtic-Rangers in terms of pure noise and passion but lacks the crucial religious aspect of the Old Firm, making it almost impossible to identify each club’s fan-base

At the football ground, people were able to mix with a big crowd and vent their anger or repressed feelings in what was – back then, at least – a relatively safe environment. 

As the popularity of the two teams began to grow, the social class differences in the city began to fade and both clubs soon had huge support from fans of every background. And while Penarol-National is often compared to Celtic-Rangers in terms of pure noise and passion, it lacks the crucial religious aspect of the Old Firm, making it almost impossible to identify each club’s fan-base these days.

World Cup victory on home soil in 1930 ushered in Uruguay’s professional era, taking the Nacional-Penarol rivalry up a notch. Two clashes in particular – depending on who you speak to – are part of clasico folklore…

Uruguay celebrate winning the first World Cup in 1930

In 1933, Nacional were on the verge of winning the league title when Penarol’s Bahia shot past the Tricolor goalkeeper, Eduardo Garcia. From the rebound, Braulio Castro slotted home into an empty net, sparking furious protests from the Nacional players.

Apparently, the ball hit a wooden bag that belonged to Nacional’s physio that was sitting just off the next to the goalpost, but the referee assumed it had hit the post and allowed the goal to stand. The match – ‘The Derby of the Bag’ – had to be replayed twice before Nacional clinched the title more than a year later. 

In 1949, another famous bout failed to go the distance. Penarol took a commanding 2-0 lead in the first half and Nacional’s players didn’t appear after the interval, with rumours that they’d fled via their dressing room window. 

The reason? Nacional fans argue that their players scarpered in protest at the referee’s performance, while Penarol fans will tell you that Nacional legged it because they feared a drubbing. That game is known as ‘The Derby of the Leak’.

NEXT: The world's most 'national' derby