With more World Cup wins than England, Spain or France, Uruguay has a proud football history. Its soccer-mad capital contains a dozen top-flight clubs, from tiny Danubio to the big boys of Peñarol and Nacional, offering the casual visitor a complete mix of football experiences every weekend. Miraculously, these little clubs manage to survive, mainly from selling on their best talent to Europe. Nick Rider visits the most venerable arena in World Cup history and the comfort-free ground that produced Edinson Cavani.

Buenos Aires and Montevideo are chalk and cheese. One is an intense, full-on, cacophonous metropolis. The other is a laid-back city of easily walkable neighbourhoods with long streets, one-storey houses and empty grass patches ideal for improvised pitches.

Football tourism is completely different too. In Argentina, it’s big business, with tickets priced at over US $100, distributed by agencies who send customers to games with a sense of paranoia about the violence they might encounter at matches where the only away fans are… tourists.

Danubio 17 main stand

In Uruguay, the country’s one and only specialists are Fanáticos Fútbol Tours, run by Nacho Beneditto and Franco Pérez.

Both football obsessives, Beneditto and Pérez got the idea after their own travels as students. ‘Abroad,’ says Pérez, ‘Uruguay is not recognised for anything else except football’. When they got home in 2012, they realised there was nothing available for the football-curious visitor to Uruguay. Like many of his compatriots, Beneditto is an expert on the local game. He gathered friends, local journalists and an impressive network of contacts to provide a personal, friendly and fan’s eye introduction to football’s special place in Uruguayan life, its many stories and its many quirks.

As Beneditto puts it, ‘We set out to bring Uruguayan football culture a little closer to the world’.

Fanáticos Fútbol Tours offers a basic package of match tickets, transport and guides for around US $50 per person, with group discounts.

The season has two halves, apertura and clausura, with a break in December and January. The current clausura runs until the end of May. Peñarol and Nacional games tend to be the most popular, but FFT are happy to take you to the smaller, grass-roots clubs that may be hard to find otherwise. They also make special efforts for internationals at the Centenario, where Uruguay have an awe-inspiring home record. The next home qualifier against Peru on March 29 should be the first to feature Luis Suárez since the infamous bite of 2014 and subsequent ban.

Danubio 15 Barbara & Araceli

Most visitors, though, would be in town for a league weekend – such as the upcoming one of April 2 when Peñarol, Nacional and little Danubio all have home games.

Danubio involves a drive into Montevideo’s northern barrios to a few low whitewashed buildings, a big tree and cars parked this way and that over the surrounding grass verges. This is the Jardines del Hipódromo, the Racecourse Gardens, home of Danubio FC. You enter the ground at more or less pitch level as Jardines is set in a dip below its four stands. Sticking up out of the one opposite is a palm tree, which has its own story, as FFT guide, sports journalist José Gallo explains. ‘It was here before the stadium, which was built around it. The palm tree has become a symbol of the club, so much so that away fans sometimes try to take it. They once set it on fire, though this hasn’t happened for a while.’

Apart from that, the Jardines is strictly no frills, just concrete benches and a few vendors selling churros, long doughnuts. No floodlights, no clock, no scoreboard. ‘Welcome to Uruguay,’ says Gallo.

But this is the club and the ground that produced Edinson Cavani, José Giménez of Atlético Madrid, Cristhian Stuani of Middlesbrough and many more. Here you can get a first glimpse of young players who may be moving around Europe for millions. Danubio currently have two exceptional 17 year olds, Marcelo Saracchi and Joaquín Ardaiz, already on Europe’s radar. Uruguayan football clubs love giving themselves titles. Danubio are ‘The University of Uruguayan Football’ (and, according to another label, La Pasión de un Barrio). They have been league champions four times in the last 30 years, most recently in 2014.

Danubio 9 Nal. attack Danubio goal facing Nal. fans

The home fans keep up a constant high-energy noise level with drums, clinking cans, something like a tuba and singing, including their anthem to the tune of ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Players are so close, yells of abuse bring an instant response. The crazier fans, as at most games in Uruguay, are kept to a fenced members-only area behind the goal. Violence at matches is quite rare and the atmosphere in the main stand is noisily friendly – and the visitors on this day were Nacional.

Fans were intrigued to see foreigners at a game – elderly José Luis and Delfino explain how supporting little Danubio meant more than following a Peñarol or a Nacional. Alongside, Bárbara and her mum Araceli break off from singing ‘¡Dale Danubio!’ (‘Give it to them Danubio!’) to say how they come to every home game even though half their family were Nacional fans, sitting at the same game on the other side of the pitch. And Danubio win, too, with goals either side of half-time.

‘Uruguayan football is a miracle,’ Beneditto says later, recounting the familiar history, more Copas América than any other country, two Olympic titles, two World Cups… ‘Brazil alone has more than three million registered footballers. That’s our entire population!’

The Uruguayan miracle is one with many curiosities. One is its disjointed scale. The Big Two of Uruguayan football are Peñarol and Nacional, their encounter the nation’s clásico. Each has around 60,000 paid-up members and claim to be approaching 100,000, comparable to Real Madrid or Barcelona. In a country as small as Uruguay, they simply dwarf everyone else. Peñarol are nearing completion of their own new stadium on the edge of Montevideo. Until then, they continue playing at the national Estadio del Centenario, built for the first World Cup in 1930. Nacional play at the even more historic Gran Parque Central, opened in 1900, the oldest soccer stadium in the Americas and one used on the first day of that first tournament in 1930.

main_Centenario 5 stadium view

Everywhere you look around Montevideo are the blue, white and red of Nacional, and black and yellow of Peñarol. Each has a vast amount of accumulated folklore – one Peñarol website gives the words to more than 100 songs – and their history and eternal enmity are engrained in the national culture. Their competing claims to be Uruguay’s oldest club would make a novel by themselves.

But the old firm can’t just play each other, so they have to deal with the cuadros chicos or menores, the ‘little’ or ‘lesser’ teams, as well. Another Uruguayan curiosity is that of the 16 teams in the current Primera División, 13 are from Montevideo. So much of the major league happens in one city, there are constant local derbies and inter-barrio clashes. To support one of the menores, according to Gallo, ‘you either live in the neighbourhood, you used to live there or you have some family connection’. Sometimes it’s just a bloody-minded desire not to surrender to the Big Two.

The state of the smaller clubs is permanently precarious. Danubio are one of the better-equipped. Clubs are loaded with debt. Some can’t pay players or their bills from one month to the next. Regularly developing good young players – another Uruguayan trademark – and selling them is vital for survival. According to Gallo, fans don’t get frustrated at seeing their young stars leave so soon. ‘They know that’s how it is,’ he explains.

Danubio 5 club shirt mottos

There are institutional inequalities too. The Big Two and the TV channel with the monopoly on local football bully the smaller clubs in all sorts of ways. Exact match times are only available a few days in advance, once they’ve been decided to suit the Big Two and the TV schedulers – something peculiarly baffling if you ever try and check Uruguayan fixtures online. The Big Two routinely refuse to play away games at the smaller clubs, claiming they’re just not big enough for their fans, obliging or paying the would-be hosts to switch that day to the Centenario or Gran Parque Central.

Despite the odds being stacked against them, the menores never roll over for Nacional or Peñarol. Even when the opposition is nearly on the skids, the grandes have to sweat, hard, to maintain their lofty position. This is commonly put down to garra – literally ‘claw’, metaphorically intensity, commitment, balls – the same prized quality that’s been a hallmark of the national team. It also contributes to the intermittent tendency of Uruguay’s players to lose it a little. This is still a competitive league.

A visit to Peñarol, in the giant concrete coliseum of the Estadio Centenario, is essential. Nearly 100,000 squeezed into it for the first World Cup final in 1930 but today seating capacity is around 60,000. Still soaring up on one side is the symbolic Torre del Homenaje, a wonderful art-deco tower. Below, great waves of sound rise from the black-and-yellow ranks of manyas, Peñarol fans trying out half the 100 numbers in their songbook. In the packed main stand, the atmosphere is buzzy if nervous – Peñarol were one point ahead of Nacional. There was a strong aroma of marijuana, not illegal in Uruguay, and the sight of people sipping from pots of mate, the herb tea that Uruguayans are even more addicted to than Argentineans.

On this day, Montevideo Wanderers – so-named because their founders in 1902 included some Wolves fans – scored first and Peñarol could only dig out a draw.

Playing for Peñarol was the ever-impeccable Diego Forlán, now 36 but still a master of the perfectly placed corner. One of football’s many traditions here is that when players return from their foreign travels they’re more or less expected to play at least one season with their former clubs.

Nacional 1-graffiti by stadium

On one side of the Centenario is Uruguay’s national Museo del Fútbol – Fanáticos Fútbol Tours also lays on visits to this and other club museums. One of the treasures at the Centenario is a copy of the World Cup snatched by Uruguay in the de facto final of 1950, the Maracanazo, when favourites Brazil were beaten in Rio.

FFT’s Pérez recalls that one of his most emotional tours was with an elderly Brazilian who broke down in tears in front of it, explaining that he had been in the Maracaná that day. Seeing the trophy brought it all back. There are great photos of pre-match tugs of war with the crews of British ships in the 1900s and posters for a 1905 visit by Nottingham Forest. The most impressive display is dedicated to the greatest of all Uruguayan national teams, who conquered the world at the Paris and Amsterdam Olympics in the 1920s then with the first World Cup itself in 1930. Their achievements rooted football in Uruguay’s national psyche.

Alongside runs a statement by Pedro Arispe, a gold medallist in 1924 and 1928, and assistant coach in 1930. ‘For me,’ Arispe declared, ‘my homeland was a place where I’d been born by accident. It was the place where I worked and where I was exploited. What did I need a homeland for? But it was there in Paris where I realised how much I loved it. It was when I saw the flag go up on the highest mast. Then I felt what it was to have a country’.

To raise a glass to Arispe, Forlán and Uruguay’s greats, La Marañada (Requena 1394/corner of Avenida General Rivera), a bar/grill a few blocks from the Centenario, is covered in shirts, photos and other mementoes, and is a favourite meeting place.