Next game between historic rivals Nacional and Penarol has title weight
Battle resumes on Sunday in the oldest derby outside the British Isles. Since June 1900 the big two clubs in Montevideo, Uruguay, Nacional and Penarol, have been fighting out a bitter rivalry.
At the start, though, Penarol went by another name: Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club, which rather gives away the English origins of the institution. Soon, though, the identity of the club was transformed; as Penarol they attracted a following among poor Italian immigrants flooding into Uruguay, people looked down upon by many at the time. Penarol fans were given a derogative nickname: the "manyamierda" (a Spanish-Italian hybrid expression meaning "eaters of excrement"). In the frequent manner of these things, the nickname has since been adopted with pride by Penarol fans themselves, who these days proudly refer to themselves as the "manya."
Yet the current campaign has unfolded very much against them. Nacional are flying. Sunday's match is the 12th round in a total of 15 -- with 10 wins and one defeat, Nacional have 30 points, seven ahead of second place Racing and a whopping 11 points ahead of third-place Penarol.
Sunday's match could even decide the destiny of the title. If Racing lose their game on Saturday, a Nacional win will guarantee they win the championship. To clinch the trophy with three rounds to spare would be a fine achievement in such a short campaign; beating Penarol to cross the line would make it all the sweeter.
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Penarol, then, will take the field with one clear objective: to stop Nacional having a party. It is hard to imagine Nacional letting the title slip at this stage, but to watch them celebrate on Sunday would be too much for Penarol fans to bear.
Those fans will make their way to the mythical Centenario stadium, scene of the first World Cup final, cherishing a recent memory. The previous derby, in late April, went to Penarol by a 5-0 margin, one of the most conclusive victories in the history of the clash.
In the dynamic manner of domestic South American football, Nacional are a much changed side since then. Diego Polenta, a player whose huge promise seemed to run aground in Europe, has arrived to stiffen up the defence. Further forward, the lanky teenage Gaston Pereiro has such class and elegance that hopes are building he might grow into a Uruguayan Socrates. And Carlos De Pena on the wing is another name to look out for.
The form book, of course, goes out of the window on such occasions. Matches between Nacional and Penarol exist in their own bubble, untouched by events outside and fuelled by the force of a tradition that makes them so compelling -- even if the games frequently end up generating far more heat than light.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.