“They say Uruguayan men are born with a ball between their… feet.”
So said the dignified, friendly, 60-something expat from Montevideo as we awaited the start of the June 30 World Cup qualifying game between his nation’s vaunted soccer team and that of the reigning European champion, Portugal.
We were in the Athletic Club on Grand Avenue in Oakland on June 30. The two-story bar with 50 large screens was packed with fans of the Portuguese team in red T-shirts, on one side, and of the Uruguayan team, in sky blue shirts, on the other. Fernando Sasco, who serves as Uruguay’s honorary vice consul in the Bay Area, was there with his wife, as was my table buddy, David Pilosof.
Pilosof is an expat Uruguayan Jew, a minority member of an already tiny group of Bay Area residents from a country that is small to begin with. In Uruguay today, there are an estimated 10,000-15,000 Jews, out of an overall population of 3.5 million people, according to Ariel Goldstein, the Uruguayan-born proprietor of the Berkeley-based Jewish travel company Tiyul.
The Bay Area is home to between 500 and 1,000 Uruguayans, Sasco estimated. Maybe a hundred of them are Jewish, Goldstein ventured, based on people he knows. Several were spending this Saturday morning at the sports bar.
“Soccer is my first religion,” Pilosof joked.
That’s only half true. Born and raised in Montevideo, Pilosof attended the Yavne Jewish Day School there, where he met his wife, Mira. In 1972 the young couple emigrated to Israel. It was a good move: A year later, a right-wing military dictatorship staged a coup back in Uruguay, holding power until 1985.
They were not alone in making aliyah during those years of political upheaval. The Jewish community in Uruguay has “strong Zionist tendencies,” said Goldstein, and Israel is the first place they think of when they have reason to emigrate; there are about 10,000 Uruguayan Jews living there today.
The Pilosofs studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, then moved to the U.S. in 1978 when David was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Illinois. A good job with Clorox brought them to the Bay Area in 2001. Mira co-founded the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, where soccer is an intramural sport. She retired just a few years ago as the school’s director of Hebrew and Judaic studies. The couple raised two children and live in Danville.
The Pilosofs are typical of the expat Uruguayans, Goldstein said: “Most have achieved a pretty high socioeconomic and educational level.”
They have no organization, but according to Mira, “We meet for Independence Day, and the World Cup.”
The World Cup, which happens every four years, is of central importance to Uruguayan nationals, both at home and abroad. “Uruguay is a secular, liberal country, so soccer is what ties everyone together,” David Pilosof explained.
That was obvious. The fans in the bar, an excited mass of light blue (the team’s name, La Celeste, refers to the color of their shirts), spanned ages and genders. When the 31-year old Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani scored his first goal, early in the first half, it was as if a massive flock of blue birds had taken off in a thunder of flapping wings.
‘“Soy Celeste,” the group sang in unison.“Volveremos (we’ll return)…como la otra vez.”
The song, which every Uruguayan present knew, referred to their triumphant win over their neighbor and eternal rival Argentina in the very first World Cup in 1930. Before that, they were victorious in the South American tournament in 1916, at the first Copa America games in 1917 and again in 1920 and 1924. Uruguay also won gold the first time soccer was played at the Summer Olympics in 1924, once again besting Argentina.
“The victory lap was invented by the Uruguayan team after they won [the 1924 Copa] game,” Goldstein said, referencing the now-traditional jog around the stadium by the winning teams.
Uruguay didn’t win the World Cup again until 1950, when it upset host Brazil 2-1 in the final game. But Uruguay has made it to the semifinals in 1954, 1970, and 2014 — dates Goldstein reeled off from memory as easily as any baseball-obsessed American boy can recite stats from past World Series. Could 2018 bring the next victory?
The celestial blue mood darkened in the second half when Portuguese defender Pepe sent a ball through the Uruguayan team’s formerly unbreachable defense, leveling the score. For the next half hour or so, shoulders hunched, more beer was drunk; the fans could not have paid more attention to the screens if their president was declaring war.
All of a sudden Sasco, who was wearing earphones, lost his composure. “GOAL!” he shouted. Or in Spanish: “G-O-O-O-O-L!” All eyes turned to him, confused. Did he have inside information through diplomatic channels? Minutes later, Cavani scored again, and the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese titan of world soccer, was resolved. “G-O-O-O-O-L” the crowd on TV roared. Sasco had been listening to Uruguayan radio, which transmitted slightly ahead of U.S. television.
The Uruguay fans in the bar lost it, just as he had. They jumped on their seats, wrapped themselves in the Uruguayan flag, shouted, sang, and embraced one another, with the happiness that only a soccer win can incite.
“The team is disciplined and cohesive, with excellent defense,” Pilosof observed when the eruption had calmed. “As the song says, we won, and will win again.”
The thing is, an emotional Goldstein pointed out, the other major soccer-playing South American nations have populations exceeding 40 million people, as do the European countries.
“We are just a tiny nation of three and half million people. Where do all our great players come from? It makes no sense at all. Uruguay fighting against countries like Germany, France, Argentina, Italy, now Portugal?” Goldstein said. “You are facing a miracle.”