The Spanish word for “ball bearings” is much cooler than the English: rulemanes dances on the tongue, like a poem, not like a construction. I so enjoy hearing and saying “roo-lay-mah-nays,” but find the word so specialized, and so unused within my specialty, that it rarely makes its way into my ears or out of my mouth. So you can imagine my joy when seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the Uruguay-Ecuador World Cup qualifier match, I heard the word intoned over the loudspeakers in a catchy, brief jingle; against a backdrop of rampant visual commercialism throughout the stadium, it was the only such auditory propaganda played during the entire match.
With knowledgeable people, everything rolls better!
As if to complete my confusion, people in the crowd were actually singing along! What in the world? I thought. A ball-bearings commercial at a soccer game? The curious thought kept my spirits high despite the pedestrian performance on the pitch, which ended in a 1-1 tie, a second-straight disappointment for the home side after a 4-0 drubbing in Baranquilla, Colombia, the week before.
The Colombia match notwithstanding, Uruguayan soccer is experiencing a resurgence lately, but you probably wouldn’t know it where I’m from. You might know that striker Diego Forlán was awarded the Balon d’Or (MVP) in the 2010 World Cup, after Uruguay finished fourth. Or you might recall Luis Suarez’s infamous goal-line handball in overtime against Ghana in the Cup’s quarterfinal round, a fault that was rightly punished by the referees, followed by Asamoah Gyan’s penalty kick choke off the crossbar, followed by a penalty shootout that featured Fernando Muslera’s two saves, Maxi Pereira’s over-the-bar miss (to ratchet up the suspense), and Sebastian “El Loco” Abreu’s cheeky chip shot straight down the middle to cap off the win. This last effort, full of swagger and risk, a slow-motion tactic even at full speed, gave the world the best sportscaster’s exclamation I’ve ever heard. Pablo Ramirez, on Univision, seemingly unable to contain his emotion, burst out with “El Loco lo colocó! El Loco lo colocó!” a perfectly grammatical sentence that even the non-Spanish–speaker can appreciate for its shiftily redundant elegance. There is no real translation of such a linguistic perfection, but its meaning can be understood as “[Abreu] placed it.”
Otherwise, you’ve likely missed the unexpected successes of this current team and coach. After that fourth-place finish in the World Cup, they went on a two-year unbeaten streak, either tying or defeating everybody they played in official matches, and winning a record-breaking fifteenth Copa America, making them undisputed champions of the continent and bringing them briefly into second place in the FIFA world rankings.
But you said re-surgence, you might be thinking. When was their previous surge? Well, let me tell you.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
— Inigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride
International soccer competitions being a relatively recent convention, and Uruguayans in the early twentieth century benefiting from soccer clubs established by English workers there, La Celeste, as the team is called for its sky-blue shirts, won the first two Olympics they participated in, in 1924 and 1928. Because of those successes and the country’s centenary, FIFA chose Uruguay to host the first ever World Cup, in 1930, which they also won. Through these three international tournaments, the team was undefeated (tying only one match out of 14), scoring 47 goals to their opponents’ combined 10.
Uruguay skipped the next two World Cups in Europe, and Hitler’s rampages cancelled the tournament for all of the ’40s, so that Uruguay’s next run at the Cup happened in Brazil, in 1950. They won, again without a single loss. Think about that: over more than a quarter century, every time Uruguay entered the soccer world championships, they exited undefeated with the gold. Those were different times, of course, with fewer teams and slower travels and looser strategies, but that kind of frictionless roll is still, in my mind, utterly amazing, unmatchable.
And Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup win seems to me the best kind of David and Goliath sports story, featuring the giant host country, with a population twenty-five times greater than its pesky neighbor to the south, which only a hundred-twenty-two years before had gained its independence not from Spain, as you might think, but from Brazil. Adding to the drama, this was the only Cup to feature a round-robin final stage, with no predetermined final. As it was, the match between Uruguay and hosts Brazil was indeed a “final,” as Brazil had dominated Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 while Uruguay had tied Spain 2-2 and squeaked out a 3-2 win over Sweden in the eighty-fifth minute. Thus, while the winner of Uruguay-Brazil would certainly take the trophy, if the teams tied, there would be no shootout; Brazil would win the Cup on points. The match was played in the brand new Maracaná stadium in Rio de Janeiro in front of over 200,000 fans, the biggest crowd to ever watch a soccer game, even now. Spirits were high in the city that July day, with morning newspapers already proclaiming victory and hundreds of thousands gathering in the streets to begin a Carnaval-like celebration before the game even started. In the stadium, though, the teams were evenly matched for the first forty-five, before Brazil scored just two minutes into the second half. The crowd, already jubilant but now assured that things were as they should be, began their celebration in earnest. They kept their hopes alive even when Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored the tying goal for Uruguay in the 66th minute, but thirteen minutes later, Alcides Ghiggia glided down the right side and let loose with a cannon blast into the back of the net, putting Uruguay up 2-1, silencing the stadium and ruining the festa. Shocked and demoralized, the Brazilian team could add nothing to the tally, so when the final whistle blew, Uruguay had won their second World Cup in as many attempts. FIFA president Jules Rimet, too, was at a loss for words, having prepared only one speech, in Portuguese. He unceremoniously handed the trophy to Obdulio Varela, Uruguay’s captain, as the dejected shuffled out of the stadium.
Meanwhile, in 2012, a cold fog settles and people sing encouragements and twenty-two men run around passing a ball, looking for openings or cutting off pathways. I sit holding Karina’s hand, bouncing my legs to keep warm. From the loudspeakers once more, “Rulemanes!…” and I smile, thinking, I’ve never heard a commercial for ball bearings. It’s a wonder Larrique has the budget for such scattershot advertising. I mean, how many people here are in the market for ball bearings?
In a way, the historical mystique of Uruguayan soccer is specialized knowledge, the kind of stuff soccer fans around the world know (whether they appreciate or lament it), the kind of stuff Hollywood’d make a movie of if enough of U.S. audience cared. Because even though most movies make their way to Montevideo eventually, the market there is still entirely too small.
Which brings me to the driveshaft of this whole engine: to really understand why Uruguay’s soccer achievements are so special, you must factor in size: in a land a little smaller than Missouri, Uruguay’s population of just over three million ranks it 133rd in the world. Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, only five have done it multiple times, and all of them draw on a pool of far more people than Uruguay to play on their national teams. With 40 million people, over twelve times the Uruguayan population, Argentina is the next smallest country to win. In fact, only 24 countries have ever made top-four finishes. That group includes the United States (one hundred citizens for every Uruguayan), whose best finish (and only final four) was third place in that very first FIFA championship, in Uruguay, 1930.
This whole miraculous run would be like Oklahoma (3.8 million people, 70,000 square miles, both slightly bigger than Uruguay) by itself winning four world championships plus fifteen South American championships, plus a Pan American Games title and the Copa de Oro, a 1980 tournament that pitted every previous World Cup winner against each other and crowned Uruguay the best of the best. Summing all its international championships, Uruguay has won more than anybody. Anybody. And while it seems the glory is all in the past, it’s not. Besides the past two years’ successes, Uruguayan professional teams have won continental and intercontinental championships numerous times since such competitions began in the 1960s (3 each for Peñarol and Nacional, tied for the most by any team, and the only two teams from the same country in that elite group), and Uruguay still produces, per capita, more top-caliber professional soccer players than anywhere else. The improbability of it all boggles the mind.
As does the advertising strategy behind playing a jaunty little jingle to a stadium full of serious soccer fans intent on watching the game.
The Spanish word for “jingle” is jingle, but pronounced “zhing-lay,” which the Larrique brothers and I figured out quickly when we sat down to talk one afternoon recently, after I’d stopped by unannounced and asked at the front counter whether I could chat with maybe the manager or the owner about their commercials. The guy up front reappeared after a moment’s absence and said, “Come on back,” then led me to shake hands with Fernando and Marcelo, whose father had started the company decades ago, after being laid off from SFK, a Swedish ball-bearings manufacturer. His sons took over in 1995, when the company split from an earlier partner, and one year later, with the help of a local ad agency, developed the ditty that has made their company a household name.
I learned a lot that I didn’t know during the hour or so that Marcelo and I talked (Fernando had pressing matters to attend to at his desk) and toured the facilities. For instance, Larrique is not a manufacturer but a seller, and not only of rulemanes but of all sorts of replacement parts, especially for large machinery, often agricultural. They’re staffed with experts who can tell you what part you need and how to install it with which tools and lubricants. Their downtown location, a new building constructed on the site of their old one, which was destroyed by fire in 2007, is a store, warehouse, order-processing and information center, business office, and barbecue salon (on the top floor), where eighty employees in shirts and ties attend to the public and to the steady work of reducing friction and helping things roll smoothly. Larrique works only in Uruguay, so their market is small, but their share of that market is remarkably big, in large part because of that jingle. When they first heard it, sitting in the boardroom with Julio Alonso of Ritmo Publicidad, they thought it sounded decent, but they wondered whether anybody would like it or remember it. After all, they were promoting something cold, inert, “like advertising a bucket.” It turns out their fears were unfounded. Within a short time, after some television and radio commercials and some soccer-match announcements, people had the jingle memorized and were singing along. It took on its own life, infiltrating the minds of every Uruguayan, even, I found out, people who don’t know what rulemanes are! Nowadays, teenagers use it as their ringtone and DJs loop it for dance parties. You can download it for free from the company website. The brothers have never considered changing or even updating the jingle. One time when they produced a pair of television commercials without the jingle, people got upset and rioted, setting that fire that burned down Larrique headquarters (I’m kidding about the rioting and arson, but people did feel disoriented).
Again and again I have tried this word-association game with people, usually not telling them we were playing: Without provocation or explanation, I say “rulemanes,” and every single time, without a moment’s pause, they say “Larrique.” And as for the decision to pipe the jingle over the loudspeakers at soccer games? The Larriques think it’s the best thing they ever did. Turns out there’s tremendous overlap between soccer fans and ball-bearings buyers, both being typically male and mechanically inclined, so while it’s unlikely that a fan leaves a game and goes straight to Larrique to make a purchase, everybody who ever needs rulemanes knows where to go.
Which is more than we can say for the essayist, who by habit lifts up the hood and begins tinkering without an instruction manual. But the experience of writing of fútbol and rulemanes has given me at least this: that as much as essays are an act of self-effacement, they are also, necessarily, a declaration of ego, an action on the belief that the world might care enough to read my doings and thinkings. Montaigne’s assertion that “each person bears the entire form of the human condition” has guided my reading and writing and thinking for decades, but not only my essaying, my living, too, and not only mine, but most everybody’s. We think through the misaligned machinery of a limited first-person perspective, supposing that our own motivations are unanimous, or should be, and judging others based on the rationales we can muster for their visible actions.
“Even among those who most pride themselves on their knowledge of mankind, each of them knows scarcely anything apart from himself.”
— Rousseau, from The Confessions
Despite our vague knowledge that difference and specialization exist, we act as if our own preferences were correct, our own teams faultless, our purchasing predilections universal. When I calculate others from myself, and calculate wrong, it is not often they who have failed, as Hazlitt suggests, but my own imagination, supposing that because I have no need to reduce the friction between moving parts, then others do not either. This is an idea we may grasp in theory long before we align ourselves to live according to its implications, a mist that surrounds or a seed that grows almost unnoticed, like a glory-by-association that keeps your spirits high amidst all sorts of trials, like a song that gets stuck in your head and has you humming before you even know what you’re doing.