Tuesday, 23 March 2010

32 For 2010: Uruguay

"Other countries have their history, it is said, while Uruguay has its football."
Tim Vickery
It is almost impossible not to become misty eyed with romanticism when it comes to Uruguay. After winning gold in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Uruguay were rewarded by becoming hosts of the first ever World Cup in 1930. The de facto world champions claimed the official crown beneath the tower of the magnificent Estadio Centenario by beating Argentina 4-2.

Fast forward to October 2009 in the same stadium and the Uruguayans are struggling to fall over the line in a qualifying campaign that saw them finish fifth in the qualification group and have to face Costa Rica over two legs. Having won 1-0 in San Jose, the scene was set for a nervous second leg in Montevideo. And so it proved to be. Eventually, Sebastián Abreu scored for the home side causing pandemonium in the crowd. Minutes later however, Costa Rica equalised and the tension was restored to the Centenario.

But an upset was never really likely thanks to Uruguay's away goal and the first team to win the World Cup became the last team to qualify for the 2010 tournament in South Africa. That they took such a convoluted path is a reflection of the relative decline of Uruguayan football since those heady days before and after the war where they set the standard for the game and in shattering Brazilian hopes in 1950 (where they caused one of the great upsets in world football by beating the host to the Cup in the final match) they helped redefine the Brazilian game.

Uruguay failed to qualify for the World Cup in Germany 2006. They didn't make it past Round 1 in 2002 and were absent in France '98 and USA '94. As the continent's traditional lesser lights such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile improve, the Uruguayans will only find the road to future World Cups an even harder one to travel, particularly when you take into account the country's modest population.

Nevertheless, Uruguay are travelling to South Africa and were drawn in Group A with hosts South Africa, plus Mexico and France. The presence of the hosts as seeds hands a significant advantage to the rest of the group. Mexico will be familiar opponents as they regularly participate in the Copa America with Mexican clubs playing in the Copa Libatadores. France will almost certainly be favorites but remain something of an enigma under their eccentric coach Raymond Domenech.

The head coach of the Uruguayan national team is Oscar Tabarez (or El Maestro, as he is known). He previously coached the team in Italia '90. As for the players, Diego Forlan requires little introduction. The Atletico Madrid player won the Pichichi Trophy at his former club Villareal and is one of the hottest talents in La Liga. He is also Uruguay's 8th most capped player and the joint sixth all-time top scorer with twenty three goals, eight less that the great Hector Scarone.

However, this does not make Forlan the top scorer in the current squad. That honour goes to the aforementioned Sebastián Abreu of Botafogo in Brazil. He is only three goals behind Scarone's record and may conceivably break that record by the end of Uruguay's involvement in South Africa 2010. Having said that, Tobarez has preferred Ajax forward Luis Suarez in recent games. The 23 year old has scored 27 goals this season and will form a potent threat alongside Forlan this summer.

That, coupled with a favourable draw makes Uruguay a genuine barrier to Mexico and France in Group A and could themselves slip into the Second Round. For the future there are potentially exciting times. The proposal that Uruguay bid to co-host the 2030 Centenary World Cup with Argentina is already gathering momentum. The prospect of the World Cup Final taking place once again at the Estadio Centenario is too exciting for a world football fan. The prospect would re-energise the nation and hopefully provide much needed focus and vigour for one of the greatest, yet smallest footballing nations.

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