|The structure of competitive soccer in Uruguay - from grass roots to the World Cup
Among the many unique aspects of Uruguayan soccer that I observed and learned about during my travels there was the structure of the youth competitive teams and leagues. When trying to figure out how a country of only 3 million people continues to develop top soccer talent, including world class players like Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez, and Edison Cavani, to name a few, an insight into the youth system that had produced these players is very helpful.
Following is an in-depth review of the structure of youth soccer in Uruguay, from the grass-roots to the professional levels.
1. Ages 5-13: Baby Futbol
In Uruguay, youth soccer is called “Baby Futbol”. There are 2 main Baby Futbol associations. They are rivals and compete for young players’ registrations. One is called “AUFI” - Associatcon Uruguay de Futbol Infantil, and the other is called “ONFI” - Organization Nacional de Futbol Infantil.
AUFI is the youth association that is directly connected to the Uruguayan national soccer association (“AUF” - Associacion Uruguay de Futbol), and only has clubs that are located in Montevideo, the capital and largest city in Uruguay.
ONFI is a much larger organization, and comprises club teams from all the other cities in Uruguay. The main difference between the two associations (other than their geography) is that AUFI only plays games in 11 vs. 11 format, while ONFI utilizes 7 vs. 7 games from age 5 to 9, and 9 vs. 9 games from ages 10 to 13.
Even though all the teams in AUFI and ONFI play a full season of games, there are no standings, promotion, or relegation in any of these leagues. All coaches working with teams in Baby Futbol must take a 1-year course through the Uruguayan FA, which includes a written and practical exam.
2. Ages 14-18
In Uruguay, each age category from Under-14 to Under-18 has a specific name: U-14 is called “settima” or seventh; U-15 is called “sesta” or sixth; U-16 is called “sub-dieciseis” - under-sixteen; U-17 is called “quinta” or fifth; and U-18 is called “quarta” or fourth.
There are both “A” and “B” divisions, in which a total of 34 teams compete. In all of these age categories, the teams play 11 vs. 11 on a full size pitch. There is a league competition format with promotion and relegation, however, the system is different than what we in Canada have grown accustomed to.
In Uruguay, all 5 teams from a respective club compete for points together, and the total amount of points gained by each of the five teams each week is totaled to comprise a “group” table. At the end of the competitive season, the total amount of points accumulated from each club’s five teams is tallied, and promotion and relegation is done across all 5 age categories.
All coaches working with teams in this age category must take a 2-year course through the Uruguayan FA, which includes a written and practical exam.
3. Professional Adult: Primera Liga
Above the “quarta” or U-18 age category, is the Uruguayan professional league, or Primera Liga. There are 3 divisions: “Tersera” or 3rd; “Secunda” or 2nd; and “Primera” or 1st. This league is structured similarly to other professional leagues around the world. The last and second last place teams from the 1st and second divisions get relegated, and the first and second place teams from the 3rd and 2nd divisions get promoted, at the end of each season.
One aspect of the Uruguayan Primera Liga that is unique is the number of teams from the capital city in relation to the number of teams from the rest of the country. Over 80% of the teams (27 out of 34 total teams) among the 3 professional divisions train and play in Montevideo, a city with a population of approximately 1.3 million people.
Put into perspective, in Toronto (a city of 2.6 million people) has only 1 full-time professional team (Toronto FC), while Montevideo, a city 40% smaller, has 27 full-time professional teams.
All coaches working with teams in the Primera Liga must take a 3-year course through the Uruguayan FA, which includes a written and practical exam.
4. Semi-Professional Adult: Liga Universitaria
In addition to the Primera Liga, Uruguay also has a thriving amateur adult soccer league. Called the Liga Universitaria, and comprising several amateur teams, including universities and other small semi-professional teams, this league has many talented players and is highly competitive.
Many of the Uruguayans I met on my trip said that the best teams in this league could easily compete in the professional 3rd and 2nd divisions in Uruguay.
There are 9 divisions (“A” to “I”) in this league, with 12 teams in each division, comprising a total of over 5,400 players. Many young players play in the Liga Universitaria as a stepping stone to get noticed and signed by a Primera Liga club.
What makes the Uruguayan Structure Successful?
Attempting to determine why a country like Uruguay is so successful in soccer is a complex challenge, and requires consideration of a multitude of factors, including the competitive structure of the youth and adult amateur and professional systems. Following is a summary of some of the factors that distinguish the Uruguayan soccer system from our system in Canada:
• There are no standings in the competitive leagues within the youth competitions, however, all of the leagues remain highly competitive
• The majority of the top Uruguayan players participated in both the AUFI (11v11) and ONFI (7v7) competitions in Baby Futbol; this means they were exposed to a wide variety of games, and also typically 2 or more games per week—more then the typical Canadian players
• Youth clubs operate as a unit in Uruguay; because points in league standings are accumulated across 5 different age categories, clubs are incentivized to have all teams be successful—there is no point in a club having a strong team in only one age category, as is often the case in Canada
• There are over 40 full time professional teams in the country; this amounts to a huge amount of opportunities for talented young players
• The semi-professional Liga Universitaria has over 100 teams, which provides even more options for talented young adult players to train and develop
• There is a huge emphasis on coach education and standards of coaching at all ages/levels of play; even coaches of 6 year-olds in Uruguay must take a 1-year “pass/fail” license course.
Richard Bucciarelli is the President of Soccer Fitness Inc., a soccer-specific strength and conditioning company located in Toronto. He recently spent 2 weeks in Uruguay assisting the coaching staff of Canadian SC, a professional team in the Uruguayan Primera ‘B’ division, during their pre-season. For more information about Richard and Soccer Fitness, please