An ode to El Loco: The day Sebastian Abreu became a Uruguay legend


Cast your mind back to 2010. All eyes are on South Africa and the first World Cup hosted on African soil, the vuvuzelas are driving you mad, some bloke called Tshabalala opened the tournament with a banger and England have gone home after four miserable games.

You’re watching that iconic quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana. Yeah, the one where Luis Suarez redefined the term ‘shithousery’. Suarez really announced himself on the world stage, not only as a fantastic footballer but also as the sport’s newest antagonist. A proper villain.

This game is significant for another reason; it would spell the beginning of the end for a man colloquially referred to as El Loco, Uruguay’s Sebastian Abreu.

Perhaps the greatest ever example of a journeyman professional, Abreu has played for over 25 different sides over the course of his career, but you’d be forgiven for not remembering the striker in the slightest.

With the majestic locks of any brilliant South American footballer, El Loco could probably pass as Edinson Cavani’s boozy uncle – you know, travels the continent for work, often called on as a last resort, occasionally pops up with the goods (just don’t put money on it).

He also looks a bit like the kind of guy you might see at Stonehenge during the early hours of the Summer Solstice, necking four cans of Carlsberg Export then sacrificing an animal in order to appease some mysterious forest deity. OK, you got me, I have no idea what happens at Stonehenge.

Anyway, the following year, in 2011, Abreu was part of the Uruguay squad to win the Copa America, the country’s first trophy since 1995. But our man El Loco failed to persuade manager Oscar Tabarez that he was any better than national hero Diego Forlan, or young bucks Suarez and Cavani, and subsequently warmed the bench during tournament, scoring a grand total of zero goals.

The next year, Abreu retired from international football. Or maybe he just stopped getting picked. Who knows, it’s a grey area.

Despite becoming a national treasure, playing for a million different teams across the world and bagging a healthy 27 international goals for La Celeste, there is still a curiosity about what it was that earned the striker his infamous nickname.

Surely, there must be some kind of story here? Surely, there must be a dark underbelly to Abreu’s playing career? Surely, there’s something going on?

Well, unfortunately, contrary to the sensationalism the nickname breeds, La Celeste’s mad man did not earn his moniker through, I don’t know, headbutting an opposition player in a World Cup final or kung-fu kicking a fan at Old Trafford.

No, Abreu’s nickname was predominantly earned on account of his skill, technique, bravery and big-game dependability. But while he’s not loco in a sense that a rabid dog is loco, Abreu is a complex, intelligent and fascinating footballing character worth investing your time in. So, buckle up.

The making of El Loco

In his 2014 book, Twelve Yards, author Ben Lyttleton analyses some of football’s most iconic moments from the dreaded penalty spot. During his study, he inevitably works his way to Loco Abreu, one of the sport’s most feared, and fearless, penalty takers.

Lyttleton describes Abreu as an “outspoken” player who generally “disregarded convention”. He records a moment in 2010, a few months before the South Africa World Cup, when Abreu, 34 years old at the time, helped Brazilian side Botafogo win the Carioca state championship against long-term adversaries Flamengo.

Looking to overturn a recent history of losing out to Flamengo, Abreu became the unlikely hero in what was one of Botafogo’s most significant victories.

“In the second half, Botafogo were awarded a penalty, and Abreu stepped up,” Lyttleton writes. “He ran at pace, Flamengo goalkeeper Bruno dived early, and Abreu lofted a left-footed Panenka down the middle so smartly that it shaved the underside of the crossbar…”

And that was that. History was made. Abreu’s fate was sealed. His nickname had been forged. El Loco had emerged. Andrea Pirlo, eat yer heart out.

“Remember and live, Loco Abreu destroyed you,” Botafogo fans were said to sing at their rivals in the years that followed that iconic victory.

Although he was 34 years old at the time, there’s still more to the El Loco legend.

The eyes of the world

Now, let’s go back to South Africa. It’s the quarter-final. Uruguay vs Ghana. Soccer City, Johannesburg. The game has dragged and dragged.

Loco Abreu has replaced his younger clone Cavani. The game is nearing the end of extra time. The players are exhausted.

Then, mayhem ensues. Suarez is sent off for blocking a shot on the line with his hands. He cries into his shirt on his way to the tunnel, but you know he’d do exactly the same thing again if he had to.

Asamoah Gyan steps up to take the penalty. He’s already netted three goals in the tournament so far. The big dog execs of Sunderland are already drawing up the contract. Gyan shoots. He hits the crossbar. How have Ghana not won this game?

While Suarez celebrates in the tunnel, the Uruguay fans cannot believe what has just happened. How they could still potentially progress to the semi-finals, they do not know. No one knows.

With the game over, the players brace themselves for the encroaching trauma of the penalty shootout. Both squads look nervous, except one man. Loco Abreu stands tall. It’s already unfolding before his eyes.

The teams line up on the halfway line. You can feel the world rooting for Ghana. The injustice is palpable. The image of Suarez’s revelling face is alive in everyone’s mind.

Two spot-kicks each. 2-2. You can cut the tension with a knife. But Abreu is undeterred by the drama. He has his eyes on the Ghanaian goalkeeper. He keeps diving early.

This means only one thing. The Panenka beckons. In fact, it is even said that in training the previous day, Abreu – who wasn’t even in the starting XI – said: “Don’t worry, tomorrow we will win with my signature penalty”.

Four spot-kicks apiece now. Uruguay lead 3-2. One more and they are in the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

Loco Abreu strides towards the penalty spot. Wearing the No.13 on his back, of course. He flattens the spot for a few seconds with his boot and then takes his position to right-hand side of the goal. Forlan’s looking at Abreu like he’s going to murder his family if he tries the Panenka.

The eyes of the world look down on Sebastian Abreu. Journeyman, maverick, wildcard, loose cannon, mad man, boozy uncle, Stonehenge druid.

In that fleeting moment, he’s none of them. He takes his run-up. The Ghanaian keeper dives early to his right. Abreu of course attempts the Panenka. He wouldn’t have it any other way. The result is mesmerising. It’s a thing of beauty. It almost feels wrong to watch it.

Almost in slow motion, the ball glides into the back of the net. Loco Abreu has done it again. He wheels off in muted celebration. It’s almost as if he already knew the outcome. Maybe he is a druid. Again, who knows.

If Abreu had emerged in the Botafogo game, it was here that he ascended. Even though Uruguay would progress no further in the competition, he had cemented himself in La Celeste’s history books.

Nowadays, Sebastian Abreu is 43 years old and managing Boston River in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. Of course, he’s player-manager, so he still gets to take to the field every once in a while, and don his cherished No.13 jersey. At time of writing, he’s already found the net twice for the club.

While not enjoying a conventional career, Abreu has still managed to force his way into the record books. He currently stands as the Guinness World Record holder for the most professional clubs played for.

In 2015, it was revealed that Abreu was set have a documentary made about his “larger-than-life personality” and footballing career. It is rumoured he had accepted the proposal only on the condition that it included legends such as Diego Simeone, Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho.

We’ll carry on waiting but, in truth, no film could ever match the magic and mayhem of that monumental moment in Soccer City, when the eyes of the world stared down on the man they call El Loco.

Remember and live, Loco Abreu destroyed you.

By Francis Buchanan

This piece was originally published in April 2020.

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