Luis Suárez (Liverpool). There have been few players over the course of soccer history who have been as divisive as Suarez, who is mesmerizingly talented but will do anything to win – cheat, flop, taunt, or even bite. But he crushed the Premier League goalscoring charts last season and is just as influential for Uruguay. As he plays, so too does his country.
Action Images / ReutersENRIQUE CASTRO-MENDIVIL
La Celeste lifted the first World Cup on home soil in 1930 and promptly sat out the next two European-based editions in 1934 and 1938 to protest all the European no-shows to the edition they hosted. Uruguay made its triumphant return in 1950 by claiming their second title in Brazil before following up with a fourth-place finish in Switzerland four years later. The subsequent years revealed the strain of keeping up at the highest levels with the country's small population base. Two more fourth-place finishes in 1970 and 2010 reasserted a capability to succeed at the top.
This is, in a sense, all the doing of one man. Oscar Tabarez returned at the helm of Uruguay after they failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and set his country on a path for improbable success: the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and victory at the 2011 Copa America. He did it, in large part, by leveraging the scrappy play his side were famous for but finding a place in it for the finesse of Suarez and wonder striker Edinson Cavani, as well as the technically magnificent veteran attacker Diego Forlan. But he did more, he straightened out the youth development channels and refined the national playing philosophy. At 67, this is his life’s work, having also been in charge of the Uruguayan national team from 1988 through the 1990 World Cup. And there’s no telling how much longer the former teacher and unabashed Che Guevara admirer will keep at it.
Action ImagesJason Cairnduff
How they got here
Tabárez retained his post after the success in South Africa and watched his side muddle through South American qualifying for the second time in a row. The meandering middle portion of the campaign ultimately cost the Uruguayans a direct berth and relegated them to yet another intercontinental playoff to seal a place. A pair of professional displays against Jordan yielded a 5-0 victory on aggregate and yet another chance to thrive in the World Cup.
Getty ImagesFriedemann Vogel
Brutal. If you’re anybody but one of the world juggernauts, the success of your World Cup campaign is largely at the mercy of your draw. And when the balls in the pots stuck Uruguay with England and Italy, their World Cup instantly became troubled. Costa Rica are also in Group D, by the way.
Getty ImagesBuda Mendes
Round of 16 prospects
Promising. Group C, made up of Colombia, the Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece, contains no teams that Uruguay can’t handle. Colombia are certainly the strongest of the bunch, but probably not good enough on the world stage to unsettle the much more experienced Uruguayans.
Action ImagesCarl Recine
It isn't fair to expect another place in the final four with foundational pieces Forlán and Diego Lugano on the wane. The strength of this side now rests disproportionately up front with Suárez and Cavani leading the side with their constant menace and steady supply of goals. Their incisiveness is ably supported through midfield, but the defense might struggle against higher-quality opponents. Considering the draw, a spot in the knockout stage would constitute a good run for this team. And if they get there, more could be in the offing.