ROCHA, Uruguay (Reuters) - At Uruguayan second division side Rocha, club directors man the hamburger stand and the visiting team warm up on a piece of wasteland in front of the stadium.
Two years ago, Rocha were playing in the final of the Uruguayan championship and qualified for the South American Libertadores Cup, the region’s equivalent of the Champions League.
Even then, the club lived a precarious existence. The players shared their training pitch with a herd of cattle and when they reached the final by winning the Apertura tournament -- the first stage of the 2005/06 championship -- they celebrated by completing a lap of honor with a cow in tow.
As so often in South America’s impoverished club football, success failed to breed more success and after briefly flirting with glory, Rocha, based in the sleepy town of the same name some 220 kms east of Montevideo, fell on hard times once again.
Now they are back in the second division after being relegated two seasons ago and the credit crunch is unlikely to make the slightest difference to a club who were struggling long before this year’s financial crash.
Facilities at the 8,000-capacity Mario Sobrero municipal stadium are minimal.
The dressing-rooms are too small for the teams to warm up so Rocha use a space under trees behind the terraces while the visitors use the wasteground in front of the stadium.
Club president Pablo Scaffo says the club survives on a monthly budget of $12,000 and the highest-paid player earns $400 a month.
Television rights bring in a modest $1,700 a month.
In a corner of the ground, four club directors cook hamburgers on a wood fire for sale to the public. The gymnasium consists of a dusty room with one rusty weights machine in the corner.
“This is all the players have for muscle-strengthening exercises,” lamented Scaffo before a recent game at home to Atenas.
“$12,000 is probably one tenth of what David Beckham earns,” he added. “But things are so dissimilar. European football has nothing to do with football from other countries such as Uruguay. The reality is completely different.”
Rocha wear the same light-blue-and-black strip as the national side and Scaffo says their plight is symbolic of club football in Uruguay.
“Our country is better known for football than for anything else,” he said. “Ask someone how they first heard of Uruguay and they will probably say soccer.”
Uruguay used to be a major power in international soccer, hosting and winning the first World Cup in 1930 and claiming a second world title 20 years later in Brazil.
For years, the country’s two major clubs Penarol and Nacional dominated the South American Libertadores Cup, winning the title eight times between them including four during the 1980s.
On six occasions, they went on to beat the European champions to win the world club championship with Penarol impressively beating Real Madrid in both legs in 1966.
However, with a population of only 3.3 million and a tiny internal market, Uruguay have been hit harder than most South American nations by the exodus of players to Europe.
Nowadays, their clubs are routinely knocked out of the Libertadores in the group stage and the last time they won the tournament was with Nacional in 1988.
Uruguay exports dozens of players a year to European and Mexican clubs but Scaffo said the money did not filter down to the teams.
“The only thing Uruguay can do is to produce players,” said Scaffo.
“There’s a big business involving agents who buy and sell federative rights, all sorts of things like that, and the clubs don’t have money. If the situation continues, we will disappear.”
Rocha were formed in 1999 after the Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) invited applications from provincial teams to join the championship.
After being promoted in 2003, Rocha made history by winning the first half of the 2005/6 championship. Scaffo admitted it was something of a one-off.
“There was a series of coincidences, it was a bit of a miracle,” he said.
”Everything went right. Penarol were off-form, so were Nacional, Rocha had a good team, other results favored Rocha, it was the winners’ luck.
“You can win because of experience or because you play well or also by playing decent football with a bit of luck.”
Inevitably, the top players were snapped up by bigger clubs, Rocha were unable to rebuild the team and quickly found themselves back in obscurity in a story which has been repeated around the continent.
Scaffo does not see any way out for his team or other small clubs in the country, especially those outside the capital.
“I think the AUF has the wrong name. It stands for Uruguayan Football Association when really it should be called the Montevideo Football Association,” he said.
”It’s very difficult. There’s such a web of problems that you have to break down a lot of things.
“It’s very complicated to break this cycle but the directors don’t make much effort either.”
Editing by Clare Fallon