Uruguay – Underestimated Ageing Underdogs?

As a nation that has been at the forefront of the tactical evolution of the game and has generally excelled at the global stage, the Netherlands is frequently held up as an example of a small nation consistently and considerably punching above its weight. They have won precisely zero World Cups. Uruguay have won two. The Netherlands have a population of 17 million, Uruguay three. Yet this tiny nation, tucked unceremoniously between two South American giants, with no extraordinary domestic league to write home about, continues to be a formidable force on the world stage to this day and no one bats an eyelid.

To put things into perspective, Uruguay is ranked 135th in the world on population. Its FIFA ranking is 7. It is the smallest of all nations at the World Cup this year. In churning out numbers of world class sportsmen way out of proportion to their size, Uruguay are to football what Jamaica are to sprinting. The 2010 semifinalists almost missed the bus to Brazil as they were teetering on the edge of elimination after a horrid run of 6 games without a win during qualification. They scraped through in fifth place on the back of some impressive wins against Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Argentina, and dispatched Jordan 5-0 over two legs in the playoff to book their place in the finals.

One of the major concerns for La Celeste this year is a lack of freshness within the squad. Coach Oscar Tabarez has picked as many as 15 players from the 2010 squad, while openly lamenting the lack of options and emphasizing the resultant necessity of stability and familiarity within the squad. As a result, the starting XI bears a very familiar look, a group that has excelled four years ago and won the Copa America the year after. The continuity, in fact, begins at the helm, with Tabarez being the longest serving manager in this edition of the World Cup, one of only four managers still in charge of the same sides they commandeered in South Africa.

On the flip side, the Uruguay squad is the third-oldest in the competition, with an average age of 28-and-a-half years (Argentina tops this particular list at 29 years on average). The back four of Martin Caceres, captain Diego Lugano, Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira in front of keeper Fernando Muslera might be comfortable alongside each other by now, but one thing they do not possess is pace. As a result, Tabarez will deploy ample protection from central midfield in the form of Walter Gargano, Egidio Arevalo Rios or Alvaro Gonzalez sitting deep. The back four also sit very deep, denying the opposition forwards any space in behind, something that will prove absolutely crucial as Uruguay find themselves in a group where the opposition ranks will boast the pace of Mario Balotelli, Daniel Sturridge and Joel Campbell. The battle between Diego Godin, who has had a phenomenal season for Atletico Madrid and is one of the most sought after central defenders in football as a result, and these speedy frontmen may prove critical to their bid to get out of a very tough group.

As a result of these aforementioned factors, Tabarez will field a conventional 4-4-2 with a largely defensive mindset, something he has no shame in admitting. His logic that sitting deep and not taking the opposition on is necessary based on the personnel at his disposal and that any other ‘more positive gameplan’, while more appealing, would be foolish to attempt, is hard to argue with.

An ageing squad is not the only thing La Celeste share with La Albiceleste, their Argentine counterparts. Both sides feature serviceable defenses, competent midfields behind outrageously talented forwardlines. You might have been wondering how I’ve churned out over 600 words thus far on Uruguay without once mentioning You-Know-Who, but he cannot be held back any longer. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, born within a couple of weeks and a couple of miles of each other, form a most frightening partnership up front, second perhaps only to Argentina’s embarrassment of talent up front comprising Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi.

Suarez and Cavani are two of the most versatile forwards in the game at the moment. It is hard to find any weakness in their arsenal, with both players excellent with the ball, great in the air, devastating finishers and more than capable of those moments of individual magic that can turn a game. In the absence of quality service from midfield, both are capable of creating chances for themselves. Tabarez’s defensive setup will look to slip this pair in past the opposition defense, where they can be as ruthless as anyone. Both Suarez and Cavani are much more than brilliant forwards, though. You would be hard pressed to find a pair of strikers so committed to helping out in the defensive aspects of the game. Both, and Cavani in particular, are full of energy and commitment, tracking back and harrying the opposition relentlessly, workhorse and thoroughbred stallion rolled into one. Don’t be surprised if you find these two on either flank, making tackles in the 90th minute. The pair will be supported by Gaston Ramirez and Cristian Rodriguez from the wide areas. Christian Stuani and Abel Hernandez will be keen to make an impact, but may find the opportunity only from the bench.

The greatest threat to Uruguay’s campaign, even before it starts, comes not in the form of their formidable opponents but in the state of their star striker’s left knee. Luis Suarez, who hardly ever misses games for his club side through injury, damaged his knee cartilage at the most inopportune moment at the end of the season and has been in a race to recover ever since. The entire nation has been praying, with fingers crossed, every single citizen by now probably proficient in all the minor details of keyhole surgery.

While always a supremely talented player, Suarez has really broken into the elite only after a scarcely believable season as he guided Liverpool to within 2 points of a most improbable title, scoring every type of spectacular goal imaginable and finishing level with Cristiano Ronaldo for the European Golden Boot with 31 goals from 33 games. He has now joined that band of 3 or 4 players vying for the title of best in the world behind Ronaldo and Messi. Such is his talent that he deserves to be remembered in World Cup history for something other than that goalline handball that instantly made him a hero back home and public enemy #1 in Ghana, actually the whole of Africa and indeed most of the world. He has replaced Diego Forlan, the top goalscorer of 2010, as the heartbeat of the side and the nation. The nation has stood behind him on so many of his transgressions after the controversial handball as well. In his dogged, never-give-up, mongrel style of play, they recognize a man fighting for his family and his home every time he steps on the field, and instantly identify with him.

Tabarez has now confirmed that he will not be risked in the opening game against Costa Rica and, if they win, may not be fielded in the second game against England either. In a sense, the situation is similar to Colombia’s, who had to leave out Radamel Falcao at the last minute, but Colombia find a worthy replacement in Jackson Martinez. In the Uruguay squad, no one even comes close to the quality of Suarez, not even the ageing hero of South Africa, Diego Forlan. Indeed, most sides will bite your arm off if offered a one-legged Suarez over whoever plays up front for them.

Although they’ve been drawn into an unforgiving group (Group D is the only group to feature 3 teams ranked within the top 10), Uruguay can take heart from the fact that their first match is against Costa Rica. Even without Suarez, they should have enough to beat Costa Rica, which puts them in the driver’s seat in the group. Given Italy and England’s traditionally conservative mindset and the fact that they are traditionally slow starters, the Italy-England game is as good a bet for a 0-0 as any, and such a result will find them chasing Uruguay, putting the South Americans at an advantage in the games against them.

If they do make it past the Group Stage, their Round of 16 opponents, either Ivory Coast, Colombia or Japan, should not be a too daunting prospect. The quarterfinals will then be either a blockbuster against the hosts Brazil, or the Netherlands, Spain or Chile (one might have said Spain with an iron-clad certainty until a day ago, but their 1-5 seismic collapse against the Dutch splits the group wide open). While Brazil will in all probability prove one bridge too far, you never know what may happen against the Dutch or Chile.

While it may have been surpassed by the UEFA Champions League as the highest level of the beautiful game, the World Cup is still seen as the stage to make the definitive statement for a player to join the pantheon of greats. So who will make this tournament their own and immortalize his name over the next month? The little magician Messi? The superhuman Ronaldo? The home favourite, the jetheeled wonderkid Neymar?

Or could it be Luis Suarez?

Anurag Bhide is a part of the @Football_P family