Group A: South Africa, France, Mexico and Uruguay
Uruguay joined South American counterparts Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay in South Africa thanks to victory over Costa Rica in November´s play-offs. At the final whistle, the fervent celebrations inside the Centenario stadium demonstrated exactly what qualification means to this small country of just four million people. A nation steeped in World Cup history, Uruguay have finally returned to the world stage, and the demons of 2005, when they lost to Australia in the play-offs for the World Cup in Germany, have finally been exorcised.
Uruguay have a rich World Cup pedigree. They have lifted the famous trophy twice, hosted the inaugural tournament in 1930 and made a total of ten appearances at the finals. In recent years, however, Uruguayans lament; no longer do they hold the conviction that they are among the footballing elite.
Historically, they believe their success is down to a principle called ´la garra charrua´ - guts, ferocity and fighting spirit. This tenet showed its true value in the 1950 World Cup final, when Uruguay beat Brazil at the newly built Maracanã stadium in one of biggest upsets in football history; an event known in South America as the ´Maracanãzo´ (The Maracanã Blow).
That success was followed by a fourth place finish in 1954, but since then Uruguayan football has been on a downward spiral. They began to implement ´la garra charrua´ in a more extreme form, gaining a worldwide reputation as a ‘dirty team’. The passion that had been so important in their previous success was replaced by a nasty win-at-all-costs attitude. This free-fall climaxed at the 1986 World Cup against Scotland, when Sergio Batista was dismissed after just 56 seconds for a crunching foul on Gordon Strachan. FIFA were glad to see Uruguay eliminated, viewing them as loose cannons that had endangered the game’s morality in front of a worldwide audience.
The principles of ´la garra charrua´ alone are not enough. At the top tier of international football, a high level of technical ability is required to succeed. Thankfully for the modern Uruguay team, their strikeforce of Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez can be bettered by only a handful of countries. Both forwards are quick and direct, and blessed with the invaluable ability to change a game. There are other key players as well: Diego Lugano, the experienced captain, is a tough old-school defender, strong in the air and a born leader. Álvaro Pereira, introduced midway through qualifying, has won his place with a string of impressive displays. And Fernando Muslera, the Lazio goalkeeper, is a great shot-stopper blessed with quick reactions, who has instilled the Uruguayan defence with a new air of confidence.
Despite these strengths, however, Uruguay have a number of weaknesses, as highlighted by their often insipid displays in qualifying. From the 18 games played, they won just six of them, drawing six and losing the remainder. Only the inability of Colombia to score -managing a pitiful 14 goals in comparison to Uruguay´s 28- ensured their play-off status. Uruguay’s defence often struggles against teams with pace, and indiscipline fuelled by frustration often follows. But perhaps Uruguay´s main frailty is the decision making of their coach Óscar Tabárez. The former Boca Juniors and AC Milan chief regularly changes the team’s formation, leading to indecision amongst the players, many of whom are unsure of their exact role in the team - which affects confidence and morale.
An interesting subplot to last month’s World Cup draw in Cape Town was the strong influence of the African continent on Group A, Uruguay’s assigned pool. Africa has made a significant contribution to French football in recent years, with African-born players like Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira, Claude Makélélé and Patrice Evra all opting to play for ´Les Bleus´. But it was Uruguay, more so than any other nation, who pioneered the inclusion of afro-descendents in football.
‘El Celestes´ (The Celestial) were selecting black players as far back as the 1916 Copa America tournament; a decision met with utter contempt across the South American continent. Chile in particular felt that the incorporation of afro descendants was a form of cheating. Undeterred, Uruguay coach Alfredo Foglino continued to select Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado, the team’s two black players. In fact, some of the best players in Uruguay´s history have been of African descent, such as Jose Andrade, one of the first genuine superstars of the game, and the legendary Obdulio Varela, Uruguay´s greatest ever captain.
Uruguay have a real chance of escaping the group stages, thanks mainly to a young starlet named Nicolás Lodeiro; the jewel in the crown of their impressive Under-20 side. The Nacional player is a phenomenon: a trequartista with sublime vision, he has both the ability and intelligence to dictate the tempo of a game. Despite his tender age, he will prove to be the difference if Uruguay are to advance to the knock-out stages. The country is currently producing talented youths at an astounding rate; players like Santiago García, Matías Aguirregaray, Tabaré Viudez, Sebastian Coates, Jonathan Urretaviscaya and Mauricio Pereyra are proof that football in Uruguay is evolving with the modern game, whilst still adhering to the fundamentals of a ´la garra charrua´ style.
Finally, isn´t it fitting that the first World Cup on African soil features Uruguay - who introduced afro-descendants to “The Beautiful Game”.
Brian Maxwell is an expert on Brazilian football and is co-founder and regular contributor to southamericanfootball.co.uk