There was a moment about a year ago when it looked as though Uruguay would not qualify for the World Cup. It had taken two points from its previous six games in CONMEBOL qualification, had conceded four goals in Colombia and Bolivia and went to Venezuela desperately needing a win. It is not unprecedented for a semifinalist from the previous tournament to fail to qualify for the next World Cup — it happened to Turkey in 2006 and England in 1994 — but it would have been an embarrassment, particularly given a front two of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Uruguay, though, won 1-0 in Venezuela, beginning a run of four wins in five games that lifted it to fifth in the table and a playoff spot. Jordan was easily dispatched 5-0 in Amman, rendering the second leg a formality. And so a qualifying campaign that could have been a disaster became confirmation of Uruguay’s key asset — its ‘garra’. The term literally means ‘claw,’ but it is used in rioplatense Spanish to mean grit, fighting spirit or streetwiseness. The quality is said to be a characteristic of Uruguay and to explain how a nation of just three million people could twice win the World Cup. In the 1980s, it was used to justify Uruguay’s notoriously brutal approach to the game and when Oscar Washington Tabarez became national coach for the first time, before the 1990 World Cup, he acknowledged part of his job was to reappropriate the more positive sense of the word.
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His success has been evident in his second stint. He took over in 2006, after Uruguay had failed to qualify for the World Cup, and has completely revamped the youth set-up as well as leading his side to the last four of the 2010 World Cup - and what was Luis Suarez’s handball in the quarter-final against Ghana but a manifestation of the cynical side of garra? - and winning the Copa America in 2011.
Tabarez’s influence in those two tournaments was clear. He is a hard man and an intelligent man, somebody who seems to have followed as far as possible the maxim of Che Guevara that he has printed on the wall of his house: "You must toughen yourself without losing your humanity." He has fostered a remarkable team spirit — so great is the sense of unity that during a day off in the Copa America, senior players gathered together to watch the national Under-17 team playing in the South American championship, while Diego Forlan, during a spell of marital strife, spoke of being desperate to get back "among friends" in the Uruguay camp.
It is clear, too, how much Uruguay’s players respect him, which in turn enables the tactical flexibility that has been a hallmark of Tabarez’s management. He will happily change shape from game to game, and within games, something that will only work if players trust their manager sufficiently to restructure themselves without questioning the decision.
This, though, is likely to be a more predictable Uruguay side, to a large degree because of Forlan’s diminishing influence. He is 35 and winding down his career at Cerezo Osaka in Japan, and the chances of him making it through a full game are minimal. Although Nicolas Lodeiro can be played behind the front two in a 4-3-1-2 - as Uruguay did against Jordan – it is more likely, particularly against England and Italy, that Tabarez will opt for two banks of four, looking to keep it tight and for Suarez and Cavani to provide the magic at the front. Cavani’s form for Paris St-Germain last season though was unspectacular, while Suarez has had to have keyhole surgery on his knee since the end of the season.
Their form aside, the major concern is Diego Lugano, who struggled at times this season with West Bromwich Albion. He is, it is true, a player who has always played far better for his national side than his club side, in part because the way Uruguay play, packing men behind the ball with a deep defensive line, covers for his lack of pace and priorities his strength and courage. Still, at 33, it may be that this is a tournament too far.
Other than the front two, the two key figures are probably the center-back Diego Godin, who had such a fine season at Atletico and who, aside from his defensive solidity, poses a significant threat from set-pieces, and the holding midfielder Egidio Arevalo Rios. Like Lugano, he always seems more comfortable wearing the shirt of his nation than his club — he is now back at Tigres de la UANL after a six-month loan at Morelia — but his energy in the Pacman role in front of the defense is vital.
The issue, really, is how Uruguay cope with expectation. Four years ago, it could play reactive football in the relatively safe knowledge that nobody expected too much of it, hitting teams who overcommitted on the break. Now, with a slightly weaker squad, it has to deal with the fact that opponents will treat it with caution. Suarez and Cavani could still tip even games Uruguay’s way, but the likelihood is for a series of tight low-scoring games.