Ol factor furthers decline

FAN'S EYE VIEW No 104: Uruguay
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The Independent Online

A match against England was always a big occasion. After all, they had shared a glorious history, England as inventors and masters of the game for 90 years, Uruguay as hosts of the first World Cup in 1930 and twice winners.

In the heart of an adolescent Uruguayan, it was also guaranteed to stir the usual irrational sentiments. That sterile opening game between England and Uruguay in the 1966 World Cup at Wembley was typical. After drawing 0-0, we were convinced a third World Cup was ours for the taking. But suspicious of an Anglo-German plot to block the progress of us South American "animals" were aroused when a German referee was assigned to the England- Argentina quarter-final and an English referee to the West Germany-Uruguay quarter-final.

Our paranoia was inflamed when the German referee sent off the Argentina captain, Rattin, and when, simultaneously, in the other quarter-final, the English referee not only failed to give a penalty for Uruguay, but also sent two Uruguayans off. When both England and West Germany then went on to reach the final, well...

The only whiff of conspiracy about tonight's match is that today's top international teams seem to have little time to play either of these former giants. Sadly, England's and Uruguay's reputations have plummeted since the mid-1970s, with both failing to qualify for three World Cup finals, including USA '94.

It is a measure of decline that Uruguay were not uppermost in Terry Venables' list of ideal opponents, but then neither were England one of the Uruguayan manager's priorities.

Actually, there is a surprising symmetry about the long-term decline of both national teams, and tonight's game is a chance for the two to pick up some valuable tips from one another.

In Uruguay's case, their downfall has been an obsession with passing. A typical Uruguayan attack involves at least 20 passes - before they reach the half-way line. Watching Uruguay come forward makes Italy look like Wimbledon.

England's problem, on the other hand, has been a decline in the passing game and the inability to play with sophistication. These imbalances stem from diametrically opposed attitudes to technique. As a kid in Uruguay, there was almost more pride in keeping possession and in showing off one's back-heels, one-twos and nutmegs, to a chorus of approving ols, than in scoring.

Today, watching my son play football here in England, I find myself joining in a very different chorus: "Run! Get stuck in! Get rid of it!"

These attitudes, says Danny Bergara, Stockport County's Uruguayan manager, are deeply entrenched. "It's a thankless task to coach good technique to my squad. I've got to make them play to their strengths: speed; organisation; heart; and long balls to big target men."

England's and Uruguay's approaches have been too one- dimensional for too long to be effective anymore. It is no coincidence that those countries that have done well, such as Germany, Italy, Brazil and Argentina, play a style of football that blends the traditional virtues of speed, strength and determination found in Britain with the flair and sophistication typical of the South Americans.

Their blinkered approach is nowhere more evident than on discipline. The Uruguayans have systematically hacked and scythed their way through recent World Cups in the curious belief that it would bring success, only to be threatened with suspension by Fifa.

The English, meanwhile, have consistently shown restraint and sportsmanship, but with only a fair play trophy to their credit. The unpalatable truth is that it has been the judicious mixture of level-headedness, guile and cheating that has enabled countries such as Germany and Argentina to get to the top.

England is hosting the next European Championship finals and, coincidentally, Uruguay is staging the forthcoming Copa America, opportunities for both countries to reclaim their rightful place in the world. The key to doing so will be staring them in the faces tonight.

n The author is producer of Kicking & Screaming, a six-part series on the history of football in Britain, starting in June on BBC2.