There is a little bit of Miguel Nebel in all the players who have captained Uruguay over the years, not least in the heroes of the country’s greatest footballing triumphs, such as Jose Nasazzi, the man who lifted the FIFA World Cup™ in 1930, and Obdulio Varela, the icon of their Maracanazo triumph 20 years later.
Nebel partly owes his enduring status to the fact that he skippered Uruguay in their very first international, against Argentina in Montevideo on 20 July 1902, a game that ended in a painful 6-0 defeat.
And he also owes it to the fact he pulled on the armband once again for what is known in Uruguayan football as la madre de todas las hazañas (“The Mother of all Achievements”), the national team’s first victory, which came against all the odds in the return match against the Argentinians in Buenos Aires the following year. That victory is regarded by some as so important that they believe the date it occurred on – 13 September 1903 – to be the very day when la garra charrúa, Uruguay’s famous fighting spirit, came into existence.
That victory in the Argentinian capital, which was achieved at a time when the national team had yet to adopt its distinctive sky blue top, was a watershed moment in the history of Uruguayan football and in the life of Nebel.
BeginningsWhile there is doubt as to his place and date of birth, there is no question that the man they called Miguelón was Uruguayan through and through. During his time as a university student, he began to make his way as a midfielder with Albion FC, the country’s first football club, for whom, in principle, only criollos (people of European ancestry who were born locally) were allowed to play.
Nebel rubbed shoulders there with the club’s founder Henry Candid Lichtenberger, who, despite his name, was also Uruguayan. Lichtenberger was a disciple of the Englishman William Leslie Poole, the father of Uruguayan football, and it was in order to bring Poole into the Albion fold that he changed the club’s statutes.
The reasoning behind that move was to enable the club to compete with their main rivals, CURCC (Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club) – or “the English railway workers’ team” as it was known locally – an institution that played a key role in the history of the Uruguayan game. Dismayed by subsequent decisions and a lack of games, Nebel was one of several players to part company with Albion in late 1898.
He was not the only student anxious to distance himself from English influences and create a football club with a character of its own. And so, on 14 May the following year, Club Nacional de Futbol came into being, and with it another of the key components in that landmark victory of 1903.
A progressive and a visionary, Nebel quickly made his presence felt. In 1900 he proposed that Defensa – another local club – should merge with Nacional. He was also appointed vice president and played a key part in the club gaining access to the Gran Parque Central, the place it still calls home.
That same year, Nacional was denied permission to join the newly-founded Uruguay Association Football League, which had been promoted by Lichtenberger, with the clubs of foreign origin arguing that it was not sufficiently competitive. Permission finally came Nacional’s way the following year.
“Nebel was one of the club’s first two league delegates, and fought harder than anyone for the meetings to be held in Spanish, Uruguay’s official language, which the English finally had to agree to,” explained Juan Jose Melos, of Club Nacional’s History and Statistics Commission.
By 1902 he was captaining and coaching the team that went unbeaten in winning its first title. Taking a hands-on approach to all matters at the club, he also redesigned the shirt the team played in. The original jersey, which was red with blue cuffs, would run in the wash, prompting Nebel to propose a new white one with a pocket adorned by a badge featuring the old colours. Club Nacional owe their nickname of Los Bolsilludos to this change in design, bolsillo being the Spanish for “pocket”. Both the shirt and the badge are still in use today.
The match itself
It was a tour of Argentina that led to the countries’ respective leagues coming up with the idea of playing that inaugural international in 1902. Uruguay were represented by players from Nacional and Albion, with CURCC deciding not to have anything to do with the fixture. Nebel captained a side that had been expected to do well but were well beaten as the Argentinians scored six unanswered goals. “It wasn’t a rout. It was an exercise in punishment,” wrote a reporter of the time.
The return match was scheduled for September 1903. The Uruguayan league named its team three weeks before, selecting eight players from Nacional and three from CURCC, the leading side in the domestic competition, who took such a low number as a slight and refused to release their players.
“A few days before our unforgettable win, I said to my colleagues at the first football league, in a moment of complete inspiration, that if they voted to let Nacional go up against the Argentinian side on their own, with me as the captain, then I would promise that we would win the game,” wrote Nebel in New York in 1949, in recalling that famous match.
Though the rest of the league agreed to his proposal, not everyone shared his sense of confidence. When the Uruguay team – made up entirely of Nacional players – travelled to Buenos Aires on 12 September, they did so with a sense of dread. “We knew we couldn’t win. We just went as brothers doing our duty,” said the team’s coach Eusebio Cespedes.
Yet as it turned out, the visitors, wearing blue jerseys bearing a white diagonal stripe and the flag of Uruguay, stunned the 8,000-strong crowd, running out 3-2 winners courtesy of a Carlos Cespedes brace and a goal from his brother Bolivar, both of them sons of the coach. “The members of the oriental team (Uruguay) behaved as heroes,” read a congratulatory telegram from the Argentinian league.
That memorable victory was Nebel’s last appearance for his country. He retained his links with Nacional, even after the civil war, during which he gave his support to the government, which led to him missing the 1904 Uruguayan Championship final against CURCC. In 1908, he returned to Albion in an ultimately fruitless bid to relaunch the club.
Cultured and restless with it, he moved to New York and then Barcelona, where he celebrated his 100th birthday and where he died. In all that time, he never lost contact with his beloved Nacional. The last survivor of the match they call la madre de todas las hazañas, his name will forever be linked to that epoch-defining victory.