A decade ago, Penarol were named South America’s football team of the century. It’s one of the biggest and most successful clubs on the continent having won the Copa Libertadores five times and their national title on 50 occasions.
But now, Uruguay’s most successful football club is aiming for titles in cricket and rugby too.
Uruguay is football mad and Penarol’s black and yellow shirt is instantly recognizable but seeing it running up and down a cricket or rugby pitch takes some getting used to.
“Two years ago, there was a story in the press saying that cricket was being played in Uruguay and that’s when we started taking more of an interest,” said Leonardo Vinas, the president of Penarol’s cricket section.
Cricket was being played on a makeshift pitch alongside Montevideo’s promenade by Indian expats working for the multinational Tata Motors.
“We got involved with the Indian community here in Uruguay who brought a sport that practically hadn’t been played in the country for 60-70 years,” added Vinas.
Penarol actually started life in 1891 as a cricket club when it was known as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club, before it was renamed in 1913 as Club Atletico Penarol.
It was a sports club established by British railway workers in the Penarol neighborhood of the capital Montevideo.
“In the first year, Penarol only played cricket … the next year it started playing football and it was football that took root amongst Uruguayans,” said Daniel Vinas, who runs the Penarol rugby club, and is Leonardo’s brother.
“Through football (Penarol) developed into one of the main sports clubs in South America.”
Penarol is one of eight teams playing in the Uruguayan cricket league, although almost all the players are Indian expats working for Tata.
It’s also one of six teams to join the new South American club rugby championship -Super Liga Americana de Rugby – alongside Brazilians Corinthians, Olimpia Lions of Paraguay, Chile’s Selknam and Ceibos from Argentina, with Colombians Cafeteros Pro partially taking part as well.
“Penarol is a club that has recently invested a lot in minority sports, which is really good,” said Alejandro Nieto, the captain of the club’s rugby team, which will play its first ever competitive fixture on Wednesday against Selknam.
“In Uruguay the most popular sport is football and Penarol is flying the flag in this, so the idea of such a popular club supporting minority sports is so they grow.”
Uruguay has a number of historic rugby teams playing in the national amateur league, such as multi-sports clubs Montevideo Cricket Club, which is more than 150 years old, and Old Boys, over 100 years of age and originally made up of ex-alumni from Montevideo’s British schools.
But for the country’s first ever professional rugby team, the Uruguayan Rugby Union picked Penarol to run the franchise.
“The big difference (to other amateur rugby teams) is that Penarol has the tools to grow this sport,” said Nieto.
“The aim is that (rugby in) Uruguay grows and Penarol is a great vehicle for that.”
According to Pablo Aversente, the president of the rival Victoria Cricket Club, “the name of Penarol means something to people.
“If tomorrow Penarol play hockey, they will attract people, if tomorrow Penarol play polo, people will go to see them.”
But the club is not just taking an interest in these minority sports to help them grow.
“Penarol always look to compete at their level, and to win,” said Leonardo Vinas.
“We’re not a social club and never have been. We’re a competitive club.”
When it comes to the rugby club, Penarol is looking to make history.
“With rugby we’ll try to see if we can be South American champions, to become the only club in South America to become continental champions in three sports,” said Daniel Vinas.
“We’ve already been champions in football and basketball.”
So too, though, have Corinthians and Olimpia, meaning there is more at stake than just the title of rugby’s South American champions.
Winning the Super Liga Americana might be beyond Corinthians, though, as Penarol thrashed them 47-14 in a friendly last week.