Copa America

Tabarez's "us" underpins Uruguay success

SpecialtoFoxSoccer JOEL RICHARDS
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"The word 'us' is the most important word that exists," Óscar Tabárez told Uruguayan TV in a post-World Cup interview. "It implies plurality, one in which you are involved. It is vital - it emphasizes the group, and working as part of a team."

 

The word 'us' is the most important word that exists.

 
Óscar Tabárez, head coach, Uruguay

The interview - conducted after Uruguay reached a historic semifinal in South Africa and ended the World Cup in fourth place - offered fascinating insight into how Óscar Tabárez views the game. He is one of the more pensive, reserved, and erudite coaches working in international football.

In his early 30s, after retiring as a professional footballer, he was holding down two teaching jobs. While looking for an extra source of income to make ends meet, he submitted a plan for working with youth team players at legendary Uruguayan club Peñarol. While that job did not materialize, Tabárez soon picked up his first coaching assignment at Bella Vista, working with the youth teams before then taking over the Uruguay under-20 squad as coach.

He soon moved to Peñarol, but by now he was in charge of the first team. Winning the Copa Libertadores in 1987 put him on the map,. He went on to take Uruguay to the 1990 World Cup and coach in Italy, Spain, and Argentina before taking over the national team for a second spell in 2006.

All the while, he was referred to by the same nickname he earned in his previous profession as a school master: El Maestro. His family even use it at home. Yet the moniker sits modestly on the shoulders of Tabárez, who imbues humility and effort in his work. It is precisely this philosophy that is the backbone of the current Uruguayan national team set-up.

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"Since 2006 we have been developing a project which is an integrated plan which includes studying, playing, competing and learning about football," Tabárez said this week after taking Uruguay to the final. "The foundation of that is what we are enjoying now. Suárez, Cavani, Cáceres, Lodeiro, Coates, Hernández and other players all emerged from this project. They weren’t thrown into the full national team too early, they were moved up to the team at the right time."

While Tabárez has focused on thinking in the medium term, he has also developed and instilled a strong unity in his squad, explaining certain absences from the final roster for the tournament. The fact that the players themselves opted to watch the under-17s play Mexico in the youth World Cup final rather than take a wander around the stadium where they would play one of their group games in Copa points to their solidarity and interest in the project.

Tabárez personally oversees the Uruguayan youth team set up, appointing coaches himself and assuring the continuity in players’ development, in the philosophy, and in the planning. The group comes first, and this is exactly what is translated onto the pitch and in their performances at the highest level.

Yet Uruguay is far more than just a hard-working team. In Forlán, Suárez and Cavani, they boast three of Europe’s top strikers. Perhaps the injury to Cavani helped Tabárez somewhat in the Copa America, as the early performances pointed to the three clustering the central areas and less likely to drop out wide. Leaving out one of the three while fit would have created other problems.

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But in midfield both Egidio Arévalo Ríos and Álvaro Pereira, good friends off the pitch, have excelled throughout this Copa America. Full backs Maxi Pereira and Martín Cáceres, and central defenders Diego Lugano, Sebastián Coates and Mauricio Victorino have ridden the odd mistake and provided the solid foundation for the team to build on. Pre-tournament reservations about Fernando Muslera in goal were washed away after a heroic performance against Argentina in the quarterfinal.

The main question mark hanging over Uruguay is how they perform when they have to take the initiative. They are often cast as the underdog - the country with a great football tradition but small population - and to a large extent they thrive on being in the position of having nothing to lose, but everything to win.

Against Peru in the semifinal, they dealt with this pressure with ease. After a tight first half, Uruguay killed off the game with two goals within five minutes of each other after halftime. It was clinical and functional.

The final against Paraguay will certainly provide Tabárez with the same headache. As already discussed on these pages, Uruguay has a date with history on Sunday, having the opportunity to lift their 15th Copa America trophy. But the onus is on them to take charge of the game, something that doesn’t quite fit with the humble line drawn by Tabárez in the media and in his team-talks.

But something is clearly going right in Uruguay. Lists don’t tell the whole story, but winning the Copa America would put Uruguay fifth in the FIFA rankings. Tabárez may be loath to take the credit himself, and he has been eager to state the importance of being in the position to win the Copa, rather than necessarily winning it, but silverware would be the strongest possible vindication of the project he has built.

Joel Richards regularly writes about Argentine and South American soccer for various outlets, including The Football Ramble and FOX Soccer. You can follow him on Twitter at @joel_richards.

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