The Meaning of Garra

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Uruguay. Soccer. July 2010.

“Soccer players created their own language in that tiny space where they chose to retain and possess the ball, as if their feet were hands braiding leather. On the feet of the first Creole, the touch was born: The ball was strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music.”

– Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — There are, best I can tell, countless English definitions of the words “Garra Charrua,” and none of them are precisely the same. The words seem to mean something different to every single person who embraces them. The words “Garra Charrua” are said to describe the spirit of soccer played in Uruguay. Only, like I said, people cannot quite agree on what the words mean.

The story of soccer in Uruguay is entirely fascinating. First, you should remember from geography class (though I didn’t) that Uruguay is a small country on the South Atlantic Ocean. Very small. There are about 3.5 million people, roughly the same population as Connecticut. Perhaps most important for this story, Uruguay is flanked — and dwarfed — by Argentina to the West and Brazil to the North. You know exactly how well and how passionately they play soccer in Argentina and Brazil.

In many ways, though, it seems that the spirit of South American soccer — the beauty of the beautiful game — emerged in little Uruguay, on the farms, on the dusty streets in the capital city of Montevideo, in the imagination of descendants of slaves searching for color and spice and joy in life. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in his brilliant book, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, compared the discovery of this kind of joyous soccer in Uruguay (and, concurrently, in Argentina and Brazil) to the discovery of dance. “Like the tango,” he wrote, “soccer blossomed in the slums.”

It’s a story that we understand. Basketball in America became a game of individual expression on the playground courts of the inner city and on the lonely driveways of the small towns. Before Uruguay, soccer apparently was a game of long passes and violence; the sport was direct, forceful, without guile, rugby without hands. In 1924 and 1928, Uruguay took its style to the Olympics — short passes, individual brilliance, something like dancing. Uruguay won, often by spectacular scores — 7-0 over Yugoslavia, 3-0 over the United States and Sweden, 4-1 over Germany. The beauty was what struck people. This was art. When Uruguay defeated Argentina in the 1928 gold medal match (in a replay) there were supposedly a quarter million ticket requests.

The Uruguay soccer team has not been back to the Olympics in the 80-plus years since 1928. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Shortly after Uruguay won Olympic gold in 1928, it was awarded the first World Cup. This was, after all, the Mecca of soccer, that place where the sport had transformed into something new and vibrant and full of brio. Also, as you might expect, there were some bribes involved — Uruguay promised to build a stunning new stadium and pay for all the travel and hotels of the teams that came. Well, this is how it goes. Uruguay won that first World Cup, though the tournament is perhaps best known for all the European countries that did not show up. Uruguayan football people were so offended that the team boycotted the next two World Cups.

But Uruguay returned in 1950, when the tournament was held in Brazil. And in the remarkable final — in one of the greatest shockers in World Cup history — Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1. It probably remains the greatest upset in a World Cup final. This final, not incidentally, created soccer history in a whole other way. In Sao Paulo, a 10-year-old boy and his father listened to the game on the radio and, when it ended, the boy saw his father cry because Brazil had lost to Uruguay in the World Cup. “Don’t worry,” Pele told his father. “One day I will win the World Cup for Brazil.”

But to get to the point, Uruguay had competed in two World Cups… and won them both. When the final ended, Jules Rimet — one of the founders of the World Cup and the man whose name is on the trophy — offered his definition of Garra Charrua, that spirit which had driven Uruguayan soccer. He said:

“In football, playing well is not sufficient. You also need to feel it profoundly as does Uruguay.”

To feel soccer profoundly. That was his definition, and a good one. Garra Charrua technically means “Charruan Claws” — the Charrua were an indigenous people in Uruguay. Not much is known about them, but they are thought to have been ferocious and brave against impossible odds (which is what they faced when European settlers arrived). Thus, the spirit — their claws — is what was said to drive Uruguayan soccer against its own impossible odds.

But still, what does it mean? The most common definition of “garra” seems to be something like “grit” or “guts” or “determination” — Derek Jeter would have lots of garra. Wes Welker is loaded with garra. But others say that those little words don’t go far enough to explain what garra really means.

They say garra means: “Never back down.” Garra means: “To fight tooth and nail.” Garra means: “To play harder than your opponent.” Garra means: “The willingness to die in battle.” Garra means: “Fighting until your last breath.”

And it goes on and on — more definitions, more clichés, more heartfelt emotions about Uruguayan soccer, a glorious history, and those two words. And what’s so fascinating about it all is that this very discussion of “Garra Charrua” is precisely at the heart of what so many of us believe (and want to believe) you need to win in sports. Yankees fans will talk about players who are “True Yankees.” Celtics fans will talk about players who live up to the uniform. At Notre Dame they will talk about the “Fighting Irish spirit.” On and on. Do teams really win because of chemistry? Because they work harder? Because they care more? Because they WANT TO WIN more?

Did Uruguay really win because of “garra?” Or did Uruguay win because it played brilliant and beautiful soccer? Galeano tells about a Uruguayan player of long ago named Juan Delgado, who used to shoot high and shout to the goalkeepers, “Pick me that bunch of grapes.” There was another player, Héctor Scarone, whom they called “the Magician” long before Magic Johnson looked one way and passed another. There was the great Jose Nasazzi, whom they either called “the Terrible” or “the Grand Marshall,” and who played defense with such force that he captained those great early World Cup teams and is considered by many the first true star of South American soccer.

Was it really garra that made tiny Uruguay the kings of the world’s sport? Or was it just pretty to think so?

Different people will answer the question in different ways, but it is true that after 1950 the fates of Uruguayan soccer changed. Brazil, with its own South American brand of soccer creativity and about 60 times the population, dominated the sport. There were so many more players to choose from in Brazil, so much more talent to spur on other talent. A different kind of brilliance emerged in Germany, where soccer was played with rigid precision, and in the Netherlands, where Total Football reshaped the game, and in England, where passion drove the players to such great heights, and in Argentina, where a short miracle maker named Diego Maradona emerged.

And Uruguay lost its place in the soccer world. There was a saying — still is a saying — that “other countries have their history and Uruguay has its football.” But any sports fan can tell you that brilliant history, once faded, begins to leave you cold. Uruguay lost to Hungary in the semifinals in 1954 and didn’t even make the Cup in 1958. Uruguay did reach the semifinals in 1970, one last time (losing 3-1 to a Brazil team that many consider the best ever). Uruguay has not appeared in three of the last four World Cups.

And in the descent, Garra Charrua has come to mean something very different from what it seemed to mean in 1950 — something closer to rage, or frustration, or lashing out at the odds. The Uruguayan’s doomed 2006 World Cup qualifying run was littered with warnings and yellow cards and red cards and general unruliness. And this, apparently, has been close to the norm for Uruguay soccer for quite a long time. A player was thrown out 56 seconds into a match at the 1986 World Cup. A couple of Uruguayan World Cup matches became rather famous for the nastiness involved. As the soccer talent has diminished, Uruguay’s famous garra has flared up in harsh ways. If you can’t beat them, BEAT them.

And how do some people in Uruguay respond to this new order? Right. They want MORE garra, more fury, more intensity. Their feeling is that the problem is not a tiny country trying to win against vastly more talented teams. No, the team must play harder, must show more respect for the past, must ratchet up the intensity to unseen heights. This sort of pressure has led Diego Forlán, Uruguay’s star player, to offer one of the best quotes I’ve seen, to the magazine FIFA World.

“I’m not a believer in garra,” he said. “Garra is misinterpreted. You always have to give it your all on the pitch, but a lot of countries play very well, even though they don’t have Uruguay’s garra and determination. And they win more important titles than us…. Football changed, but we didn’t. And if we don’t start to change, things are going to keep getting worse, and all that garra in the world won’t help us.”

That quote says so much. In a world where athletes and coaches and fans find it so tempting to believe that the key to winning is simply to work harder, play smarter, be better people — Forlan is saying, no, you don’t win with just garra and will. You also win with talent. You also win with skill. You also win by keeping up with the times. Life isn’t a Rocky movie.

Uruguay plays Ghana in a quarterfinal on Friday — it is one game away from its first World Cup semifinal in 40 years. If Uruguay wins, it will probably end up playing Brazil here in Cape Town, a match with so many implications and angles and historical narratives. Brazil would be hugely favored, of course. Uruguay, the country, would be mad with excitement.

But that might not happen, either. For now, Uruguay has to play its own inspired game against Ghana, a country and a team with its own version of garra. Galeano writes that when Uruguay plays, “the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their kisses and flies stop flying.” All those people will be shouting for the team to show garra, but what they really want is something else. What they really want is for Uruguay to play superior soccer, breathtaking soccer, like the strumming of a guitar. What they really want is for Uruguay to win.

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