The Atlantic breeze has decided not to make an appearance. Instead, a morning mist envelops the bay, the city looking quiet from afar. It’s a damp Saturday morning, and with Montevideo still stretching its limbs, a tango breaks the stillness in the Estadio Olímpico. The songresonates around the weather-beaten stadium, sounding timeworn yet timeless through the megaphones. A third of the ground is taken up by fans, sipping away at their mate in an attempt to warm up on the cold concrete seating. It’s no ordinary morning in Villa del Cerro, for Rampla Juniors are about to play a match.
Viejo Rampla, as the club is affectionately called, is still coming to terms with the sobering reality of relegation and adaptation to the harsh demands of the Uruguayan second division. It is not proving simple for club and fans. After all, it is Rampla Juniors. The Rampla Juniors which won the league in 1927 and will enjoy it’s centenary on 7th January 2014. The club perceived as the tercer grande, after the Big Two of Peñarol and Nacional, during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet more importantly than the past, Rampla Juniors represents many Montevideans who still believe that the soul of football in their country can be found in a modest barrio team.
In a nation where not many clubs are well supported, (any Uruguayan will tell you that 90% of football fans support either Peñarol or Nacional), Rampla Juniors, within its limitations, enjoys a faithful, loyal following, a strong support in comparison to other Montevidean clubs. The opener against Villa Teresa attracted 2,000 fans, a greater number than all other Segunda División games put together could muster, and a similar crowd awaits the beginning of their second home game of the season against Torque.
The two teams come out of the tunnel, the general applause reverberating with the tango hymn, fittingly named Viejo Rampla. As the players pose for the team photo and the small barra brava contingent shakes the red and green flags, the words praise the ardent tradition and noble fight to never surrender, the toughness and the bravery, comparing the club to the fury of the sea.
“Sometimes the views offer a better alternative than events on the pitch,” a Rampla fan laughs, clearly accustomed to disappointment.
The reasoning, though, has its logic. The ground possesses a unique charm, with people climbing the wall to watch the game from the outside, lapwings landing on the pitch, people fishing on Humphreys Island a few yards from the ground and a fishing boat keeping an eye on the game, urging the team on from the eastern end. In the middle of the bay, the eerie Isla de las Ratas (Rats Island), conjures up the past, once a military defence point, later a naval base, also used for quarantine to combat the spread of yellow fever, the existing port warehouses now lying abandoned. Montevideo and its port rest in the background, the privileged view thus taking you to the origins of Rampla Juniors, for the club was born in customs, in the Aduana.
The name Rampla derives from a street adjoining the port called “La Marsellaise” which was popularly known as Rampla at the time, its original name until 1919. The team adopted the red and green striped top after the arrival of a Portuguese ship to the port of Montevideo, mirroring Boca Juniors’s antics on the other side of the River Plate. As the club grew in popularity, it began making its move around the bay, firstly playing in the La Aguada district before settling in Villa del Cerro for good in 1919.
Finding a spot in the city was no mean feat, for football clubs abound in Montevideo. The oldest league on the continent currently has fourteen teams from the capital city out of a possible sixteen, easily the highest number of any city in the world, and the total number of professional clubs is close to thirty. Curiously, the majority of clubs are only a twenty minute drive apart, teams such as Progreso, Fénix, Liverpool, Bella Vista and River Plate having developed around the port, the bay and neighbouring Prado and Sayago districts. Football is a passionate affair in the city; after all, the first World Cup was held in three Montevidean stadiums in 1930.
The Villa del Cerro district was home to cold storage plants at the time, and upon arrival, Rampla Juniors first started playing in Swift’s football ground. Swift operated two of the three cold storage plants where meat processing took place. The plants made the area go from strength to strength as the highly productive meat market industry benefitted from exports to countries embroiled in World War I and the subsequent post-war period. Years of bonanza followed, and Rampla benefitted from the situation, as the buoyant industry not only provided wealth to the area, (where practically the totality of inhabitants depended on the meat business), but also players to the team, who mostly lived in the cerro and worked in the cold storage plants. This is turn led to the club and their followers being called “friyis”, a Spanish adaptation of the word fridges, in allusion to the booming industry.
In 1923 Rampla Juniors moved to the ground where they still play their games. John Miller, a Rampla supporter, later honorary chairman of the institution, owned the Villa del Cerro dry dock and ceded the land to the club to build the new stadium, his only condition to name the ground Estadio Nelson in honour of Admiral Lord Nelson. An immigrant like most inhabitants of Villa del Cerro, the community provided a rich mix of British, Spanish, Italians, Jewish and Eastern Europeans, the descendants of which now support Rampla Juniors… and Club Atlético Cerro.
Club Atlético Cerro was founded in 1922 and became the foundation stone of Rampla’s decline. Legend has it that Peñarol directors became increasingly concerned with Rampla’s rise and sensed a threat to their hegemony. To counter this, they approached members of Rampla Juniors who were unhappy with the way their club was being run, and provided them with sufficient funds to establish a new football club in the area: CA Cerro. It proved to be a master stroke, as allegiances became divided and Rampla found itself competing with a bitter rival for power, recognition and success in the district. The Clásico de la Vílla, the second oldest derby in Uruguay after the Superclásico, bears witness to the rise of this rivalry. On match day, families eat together, then head in different directions without talking to each other until after the game, for members of the same family are known to support both Rampla and Cerro. To rub salt to the wound, the two teams’ headquarters can be found in the same street, Calle Grecia. Rampla won the league 1927, and was moderately successful for the next few decades, but the damage was done, its progress stagnated. The club’s decline seemed to coincide with the drop in exports and the closure of the meat processing plants, and Rampla Juniors and the Villa del Cerro were never to be the same again.
It is half time and Rampla are losing two nil against Torque, a newly promoted side.
“Rampla is the best cardiologist around, if your heart can withstand a Rampla match, then you know you are in good shape,” says Edison Pérez, Rampla’s five a side team coach, choosing not to lament the poor signs that the team is emitting.
The ramplenses flock to the stand serving the notorious tortas, pancakes traditional in the River Plate estuary. The smell of sea, food and mate mix well. Couples fool around, the more visceral fans adjust the flags for the second half and old men listen to transistor radios. Commentators sit in the press boxes, making notes on their papers and clipboards, relaxing before resuming their vigorous broadcast for local radio stations. A coffee seller walks up and down the grandstand, carrying an antiquated dispenser which recalls yearned traditions long disappeared in European football grounds. The stadium’s grandstand is also made of concrete, but the seats are peculiarly shaped as armchairs. The wooden stands are long gone, replaced in 1966 after a monumental effort to chip away at the existing rocks and build the concrete seating. The new nickname did not take long to spread, and the fans became known as the Picapiedra, stonebreakers. The fans have endeared to the term, even putting up flags with drawings of Fred Flinstone, known as Pedro Picapiedra in Spanish.
Half time gives club secretary Miguel Aguirre Bayley a chance to portray the Rampla Juniors following.
“Despite its ideal location and splendrous past, Villa del Cerro is a humble, honest, working class neighbourhood”. Mr Aguirre, an avid Rampla historian who has written a book on the team’s rivalry with Cerro, earns, like all administrative staff, no club remuneration, in what constitutes a true labour of love. His knowledge on the red and green is limitless. “Fifty percent of picapiedras are from here, the rest still hail from other parts of Montevideo. The fact Rampla Juniors was founded on the other side of the bay and moved around meant that loyalties were sown throughout”. The descendants of those first followers, who would cross the bay on steam boats and moor on the dock next to the stadium, still make the trip to the Olímpico. The contemporary stadium name was introduced in 1980 to meet the wishes of another devout picapiedra, honorary club member and sponsor, Greek ship captain Panagiotis Tsakos, who wanted the stadium rechristened after the spiritual mountain in his homeland.
The wind picks up, and the more veteran devotees predict its influential presence in second half proceedings. Sometimes, a gentle afternoon sun illuminates the bay on match days, but more often than not players and spectators have to endure unrelenting gales and other rigorous weather conditions which not only influence the game, but exact damage on the stadium. Just before the season started, part of the wall separating the pitch from the river was knocked down by extreme storms. Bullied by the demanding Atlantic climate for over 80 years, the bruised and battered stadium exudes nostalgia.
Few envisaged the downfall when Rampla Juniors became the first Uruguayan team to win on British soil, defeating Portsmouth three one in a 1956 European tour. No one expected the decline of one of the only two clubs to have provided players to the Uruguayan national team when it was crowned Olympic champion in 1928 and World Cup winner in 1930 and 1950. Pedro Arispe, el Indio, won a Gold medal in Amsterdam, goalkeeper Enrique Ballestero only conceded three goals en route to winning the 1930 tournament at home, and William Martínez spent seven seasons at Rampla and was in the 1950 Maracanazo squad. So where has it all gone wrong for Rampla Juniors? The 1970s proved fatal, spent in its totality in the Second Division, destroying any previous top flight stability. Since then, it has been a struggle, and last summer proved to be the third relegation since 1981. It is not easy living in the shadow of Peñarol and Nacional either. Flags of these two teams abound in the city’s flea markets, shops and bars. Graffitis determine their territorial control, and residents are proud to boast their adhesions by hanging team flags from their apartment windows.
“When they ask me which team I support, I say Rampla, and then I am always asked which is my second team, Peñarol or Nacional”, explains a young supporter, tired of being asked the question but never tired of giving the same reply. “I always tell them that my second team is also Rampla, it is something that they simply don’t understand”.
And what does the future hold for Rampla Juniors?
“We have realised that in order for the institution to survive, we need to adopt a strategy of developing young players which inevitably will be sold to bigger clubs, but will ultimately guarantee the economic survival of the club”, explains Edison Pérez. “We are slowly introducing a youth policy that fans can relate to, and we have inaugurated new training facilities, the Complejo Picapiedra”.
The game ends three all in an unlikely Rampla comeback. A premonition? It is everyone’s obsession to return to the Primera División to coincide with the centenary, but the club knows it faces an uphill battle to retrieve its rightful place in the league.
The stadium empties, and a lone dog walks around the stands as the last remaining supporters take the flags down and a middle aged man walks out through the gates, up towards the Villa del Cerro, wearing an unmistakable red polo shirt and a green jumper. Stories past and present of the club have contributed immensely to illustrate Montevidean football, and like all small football teams, the unique sentiment of its fans is what makes Rampla Juniors Fútbol Club special, its reason for being.
Resembling a ship run aground, the Estadio Olímpico recites the verses of Adolfo Oldoine, a renowned 40s and 50s radio journalist and football commentator, who felt compelled to dedicate the poem Rampla…! to the club in 1943:
A ground that knows of sailor songs,
which escape flying towards the dry dock,
leaving with the waves…
At night, asleep, La Farola lighthouse looks after it,
and the sun always finds it shivering from cold,
with liquid diamond dewdrops.
A football ground next to the shore,
and Rampla, forever, glory of the Villa!
For if the stadium could talk, it would never run out of anecdotes to share.