Sirino and the secret of Uruguayan football

Gaston Sirino is enjoying his time in Pretoria. But has he brought ‘garra Charrua’ with him from Uruguay?

Gaston Sirino enjoys the Pretoria air – quite literally. The Mamelodi Sundowns star’s last employer was Club Bolivar of La Paz, Bolivia, whose stadium is perched a giddy 3 600m above sea level. In the semi-lunar air of the Bolivian capital, visiting players from lower-altitude countries often need emergency treatment with oxygen masks on the touchline.

“When I first arrived at La Paz airport, which is at an altitude of 4 000m, I went straight to training the same day,” says Sirino. “The training ground is at 3 200m. During training I actually felt good, more or less. But when I got home I started throwing up. I had a huge headache. Terrible.

“People ask me why players don’t run hard in Bolivia. The reason is you simply can’t. Your chest closes up, you can’t breathe properly. I never admitted to my coach at Bolivar that I never fully adapted to the altitude. I was never playing at my maximum level. So it’s great to be in South Africa. I can breathe. I can run.”

That much is clear. The Uruguayan is proving to be a breath of fresh air for Mamelodi Sundowns this season. His series of red-blooded performances so far this season has somewhat made good for the halting start he made in the country last season.

The South American’s shift in gear couldn’t have come at a better time. Following Percy Tau’s move to Belgium via Brighton & Hove Albion, and Khama Billiat’s defection to Kaizer Chiefs, the Brazilians needed two fresh attacking kingpins to maintain their dominance. Sirino is giving off a kingpin vibe with his scalding pace, creative vision and his knack for scoring.  

In his club’s recent friendly against Barcelona, he did a passable impression of the legendary Andres Iniesta. “I realised if I can do it against Barca, I can do it against anyone,” he told New Frame at Sundowns’ Chloorkop headquarters.

But does Sirino possess garra Charrua – that quintessentially Uruguayan football mentality, which is supposedly the secret of the country’s disproportionate clout in the game? That depends on what you mean by the term.

Garra Charrua is literally translated as “the claws of the Charrua” (the Charrua were the country’s indigenous first nation who resisted and were massacred by the Spanish invaders in the 1830s). It is often defined as passion, grit and commitment. But that’s the sanitised version. There is a thread of dirtiness woven into the fabric of garra. (Think of Luis Suarez’s handball against Ghana at FNB Stadium, or his occasional toothy indiscretions.)

When we feel we can’t win playing beautiful football, we show this garra, this strength.

Sirino tacitly admits that garra  is a rough game. “When we feel we can’t win playing beautiful football, we show this garra, this strength,” he says. “It’s a very important thing for us, otherwise we couldn’t compete with bigger countries. And we do it for the country. It’s a patriotic thing.”

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Uruguayans invented beautiful football. Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan writer, noted that black Uruguayan players were the first to introduce ground passing and expressive flair on the ball. (At the time, the Brazilian national side was still all white and played an archaic European style.)

Among these aesthetic rebels was José Leandro Andrade, who dribbled Uruguay to Olympic gold in 1924. As Galeano notes: “A midfielder, this rubber-bodied giant would sweep the ball downfield without ever touching an adversary, and when he launched the attack he would brandish his body and send them all scattering. In one match he crossed half the field with the ball sitting on his head.”

Uruguay went on to lift two World Cups. But inevitably, as the football map widened and deepened, teams representing larger populations – like Brazil, Germany and Argentina – deposed them. By the turn of the millennium, Uruguay were a faded force, and garra had become a sad, dated thing: an expression of desperation. As Diego Forlan put it: “I’m not a believer in garra. 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.”

Since Forlan spoke those words, Uruguay have indeed changed. Garra got an upgrade under the steely but cerebral stewardship of Oscar Tabarez. Los Charruas won the Copa America title in 2011, reached a World Cup semifinal in 2010 and made an impressive run to the quarterfinals of  Russia 2018. Forlan himself was the senior figure in a golden generation starring Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin and Fernando Muslera.  

For Sirino, Uruguay’s power is in the pueblos – the country’s poor districts and villages. From Andrade’s day onwards, the national side has tapped reservoirs of ghetto talent. That legacy hasn’t changed, even though a thriving economy and social-democratic policies have slashed poverty in the past two decades. Uruguay now has a large middle class and low inequality levels by Latin American standards.  

[I]f, like Sirino, you grew up male and athletic and poor, football remains a golden ticket.

But if, like Sirino, you grew up male and athletic and poor, football remains a golden ticket. Even if you’re not the next Suarez, a thousand modest clubs across the world will pay a six-figure annual salary to a tough Uruguayan pro.  

“The main factor behind the strength of the players is poverty,” says Sirino. “I think football is the best and the fastest way for a poor youngster in Uruguay to improve his life. It’s very important that there are people who give chances to players from poor backgrounds. Just as in Brazil, where clubs give real chances for players from the favelas.”

Like Suarez and Cavani, Sirino grew up in Salto, a rural town of 100 000 on the Argentinian border. Sirino moved to Montevideo to join the youth side of Penarol, one of the league’s big two, but was deemed too small to make the senior squad. After a stint at Rampla Juniors, he was snapped up by Union San Felipe in Chile, where he excelled before embarking on his Bolivian and South African adventures. Along the way, he married his first love, Melani, and had two daughters, Maite and Candela. All three are happily settled in Pretoria with him.   

But Sirino’s big bet on football (he still dreams of a career in Europe) has been shadowed by his father’s regrets. “My father was a great player. But ever since I was a boy, I was always told the story that when my parents were young, my father had the opportunity to leave Montevideo and move to a good team. But he didn’t because he wanted to stay with my mother. So he would say to her, I never had success because I chose you instead.”  

Undeterred by her husband’s endless guilt-tripping, Sirino’s mother made it clear to young Gaston that he had to stay in school to play football. “I never enjoyed studying,” says Sirino. “And when I was 15, and starting out in the youth team at Penarol, I also started high school. After the first day at high school I came home and told my mother: ‘This is not for me. I want to be a footballer.’ And I feel very emotional when I remember that day, because my mother understood. That moment I felt like a changed person. I took it as a great responsibility.”  

Sirino tears up a little at the memory. He is clearly a soft-hearted man, not given to cold bravado.

I ask him what it feels like to have his family at his side as he settles into a strange land. “We’ve been through tough times, but when we are together, it is everything. I feel such strength, and if my wife and daughters are with me anything is possible. When I see them in the stands during a match, I feel something indescribable,” he says.

That might not sound like garra, but it sounds very good.

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