Uruguay live up to traditions of a proud nation

A third successive World Cup failure was unthinkable for Victor Pua's team
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the game that was going to launch Australian football out of its immigrant bunker. Australian journalists here for Sunday's second leg of the World Cup play-off against Uruguay talked about how they would cover the victory party. All they had to do was hang on to a 1-0 lead. What the Australians had not taken into account, however, was the nature of their opponents, one of the world's great footballing nations.

It was the game that was going to launch Australian football out of its immigrant bunker. Australian journalists here for Sunday's second leg of the World Cup play-off against Uruguay talked about how they would cover the victory party. All they had to do was hang on to a 1-0 lead. What the Australians had not taken into account, however, was the nature of their opponents, one of the world's great footballing nations.

In the run-up to the match, the Australia coach, Frank Farina, had spoken of the need to withstand the early pressure. If it was still scoreless after 20 minutes, he thought, the home crowd would turn against their team. It was a huge error. An early away goal could have made all the difference, but the Australians' passive approach in the first half proved costly, handing the initiative to the home side. Brazilian fans may turn on their own team, but for the Centenario stadium to boo Uruguay in a match of this importance was unthinkable.

Uruguay's stunning 3-0 victory owed as much to their fans as to their team. The midfielder Alvaro Recoba, one of Uruguay's best players, acknowledged as much after the match, when he sat on the crossbar to celebrate with the fans. The forward Dario Silva dedicated the triumph to the supporters who had gone to the airport to jeer and jostle the Australians on their arrival.

Victory sent Montevideo into a frenzy of wild emotion, though the streets had regained their customary tranquillity within a few hours. The Uruguayans, it seemed, had used up so much nervous energy in the 90 minutes that the celebrations quickly burnt themselves out.

Yesterday the city awoke with a temporary respite from the air of melancholy which normally hangs over it. The TV stations were showing endless reruns of the Australia game and retrospectives of the marathon qualification campaign. One station broadcast a package of highlights from the past 20 months to the soundtrack from Mission Impossible. But now the mission has been accomplished, and the result is an incalculable boost to the nation's self-esteem.

Other countries have their history, it is said, and Uruguay has its football. Created in the 19th century as a buffer state between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has few claims on world attention. It was the first country to install a welfare state and a 40-hour working week. Such advances, though, have been largely forgotten as economic problems take their toll. But on Spring afternoons such as Sunday's, its proud footballing tradition shines brightly.

The global game owes a huge debt to this country with a population of little more than three million. The men in the sky blue shirts changed the way the sport is both played and watched.

No one had heard of Uruguay when they turned up for the Paris Olympics of 1924, but they swept to victory with a new style of play, based less on the hard running of the English, more on twists, turns, balletic feints and short passes. It was football ideal for those with a low centre of gravity, the small guy with little chance to shine in less subtle sports.

Contemporary observers were enraptured. Uruguay's success set off a fever for the game. Indeed, it is reasonable to see 1924 as the birth of modern international football.

Four years later Uruguay retained their title in Amsterdam. On the back of their success they were given the task of staging the first World Cup, and built the Centenario stadium for the purpose. They duly became the first winners of the Jules Rimet trophy.

With their game torn by the transition to professionalism, Uruguay stayed away from 1934 and 1938, but they were back for the next World Cup, in Brazil in 1950. They won that, too, inflicting a defeat on the hosts which is considered the biggest setback in Brazilian football's collective memory. It remains the only time Brazil have lost a World Cup game, tournament or qualifying, on their own soil.

Four years later the run finally came to an end. At last Uruguay lost a World Cup match – an epic semi-final against the great Hungarians which went to extra time. Many saw it as the greatest match ever played, but it marked the end of an era for Uruguay.

They failed even to qualify for 1958. Their methods were no longer revolutionary. The physical development of the game had left them looking slow. But the honour of the country still had to be defended, so Uruguay took refuge in blanket defence. When that failed they unleashed an orgy of violence that nearly had them thrown out of the 1986 World Cup.

More recently defeat has become commonplace. The country's biggest clubs, Nacional and Peñarol, were once as strong as any in the continent, or indeed the world. Now they struggle to make any impression in South American competitions.

With one recent exception, all the First Division teams are based in the capital city. All of Uruguay's leading players play in Europe, where they are valued for their whole-hearted approach and tactical discipline. Of the side that took the field against Australia, only Alejandro Lembo and Dario Rodrigues remain in Uruguay. Attendances and interest in domestic football clearly suffer as fans prefer to follow the progress of the likes of the national team captain, Paolo Montero, with Juventus.

Much of the credit for World Cup qualification goes to Victor Pua, the national coach, who has steered his country's latest generation from boys to men. He implanted a long-term project aimed at putting Uruguay back on the map. First he scoured the country looking for promising players to take to the World Youth Cups of 1997 and 99. Then he gave many of them senior international experience in the 1999 Copa America.

Pua began the current campaign as assistant coach, and took over the reins after Daniel Passarella's resignation. Many of the squad have been with him for years: the magnificent goalkeeper Fabian Carini, the impressive centre-backs Lembo and Gonzalo Sorondo, the midfield general Pablo Garcia, and the winger Mario Regueiro.

The national team passed meekly through Italia 90, and failed to make it to USA 94 or France 98. This time was different. Failure to qualify for Japan and South Korea would have been the first time Uruguay had missed out on three consecutive World Cups. It could not be allowed to happen, and Pua saw that it did not.

WORLD CUP FINALISTS

Holders: France. Co-hosts: South Korea, Japan. Europe: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, *Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey. South America: Argentina, Brazil, *Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay. Africa: Cameroon, Nigeria, *Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia. Concacaf: Costa Rica, Mexico, United States. Asia: *China, Saudi Arabia.

* Debut appearance.

Comments