Uruguay, France have point to prove at World Cup
The World Cup is as much a proving ground as a soccer tournament for Uruguay and France.
Although they have won three World Cups between them - Uruguay in 1930 and '50, France in '98 - both are a shadow of their former selves as they head into Friday night's Group A match.
The French are predictably embroiled in tournament turmoil and look unprepared to reach the final, which they did four years ago under Zinedine Zidane's leadership. Uruguay hasn't advanced past the round of 16 since reaching the semifinals 40 years ago.
``Our aim is to win the match, but it's not because we want to be vindicated historically or recover what's been missing all these years,'' Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said Thursday. ``The way to do this is to play very well, defend well, and when we have the ball to use it smartly.''
Both teams reached the tournament in similar circumstances, scraping through their playoffs 2-1 on aggregate after difficult qualifying series that offered little reassurance to either coach.
Prestige and previous titles aside, there is little to suggest either France or Uruguay can dominate a group which also includes host South Africa and Mexico.
France's training facilities and lodgings in the quiet town of Knysna are perfect, but coach Raymond Domenech's team is taking flak from all angles back home, with angry politicians, former players and grumpy fans lining up to predict the worst.
That was also the case two years ago when France went out of the European Championship without winning a game. And in 2006, Domenech's team was lambasted before it kicked a ball at the World Cup in Germany.
''(This) will be the moment of truth,'' France captain Patrice Evra said Thursday. ``The French team has something to play for. We really believe in ourselves.''
Still, the vitriol has a far nastier edge than before, especially toward Domenech, an increasingly aloof and distant figure amid rumors that unrest is rife in the squad.
William Gallas, who has decided not to speak to the media for the duration of the tournament, reportedly resents Evra being given the captaincy instead of him now that former leader Thierry Henry is on the bench.
French sports daily L'Equipe even speculated this week that midfielder Yoann Gourcuff is so unpopular within the squad that senior players have demanded Domenech pick Arsenal's Abou Diaby to play instead of him on Friday.
Yet Evra remains positive.
``If we don't go all the way in this World Cup, you can say this team had a good spirit but it was rubbish,'' he said. ``That's what I feel. I feel the lads are united and together and want to do something, but for ourselves.''
Recent French results have done little to improve the mood, particularly last Friday's 1-0 defeat to China. In its other two warmup games, France conceded sloppy early goals against Costa Rica and Tunisia.
``France is a team with very good players, especially in attack,'' Tabarez said. ``They had difficulties against teams that had very good defenders. They had to go on the offensive, and struggled. On the other hand, they never threw in the towel and that proves they will be a tough opponent.''
None of those teams had anything remotely like the strikers Uruguay boasts in Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, who scored 77 goals between them for their clubs this season.
Forlan scored 28 goals for Atletico Madrid this season, including both goals to help the Spanish team win the Europa League final against Fulham. Suarez scored 49 goals in 48 games for Ajax, including six hat tricks.