Through an unpredictable South American qualification round defined by challenges in humidity, field condition, and altitude, Uruguay were boring in the best way. While Brazil, Argentina and Chile each named a new manager to kickstart a dormant run, Uruguay quietly finished second in the CONMEBOL group, getting a result in their final four matches. Edinson Cavani led South America with 10 goals, with Luis Suarez predictably in second place netting five. As Cavani stated about his relationship with Suarez, “we are friends and the Celeste is a real family.”
The familial bond that runs through the national side is their defining feature. Uruguay’s stability begins at the top, with manager Oscar Tabarez in his 12th season as national team manager. Switching between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formation, his sides are built upon a combination of toughness and defending through the middle and individual creativity in counter attacks. But more than tactical setup, the former school teacher’s biggest influence is in building the defining style of a nation. Described as the manager who “educated Uruguay”, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera says that Tabarez created everything “from scratch” and that Uruguay are respected internationally because of the 71-year-old’s footballing vision.
Also Tabarez’s side got out of the group of death featuring Italy, England and Costa Rica in 2014, their round of 16 loss against Colombia was a disappointment considering their fourth place finish in 2010. Uruguay have an easier path to qualify for the knockout rounds this time around against hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in Group A, made even more straightforward with an opening match versus Egypt without Mo Salah. Although should they win their group, there is a potential matchup against Portugal or Spain in the round of 16.
Suarez tearfully spoke of the pain he felt with peers Nicolas Lodeiro and Gaston Ramirez not making the final 23 player roster. In symbolizing how closeness of the side, Suarez’s emotions and Tabarez’s decision to leave his veteran midfielders off the squad showed the depth of a new generation in the Uruguay midfield. 22 year old Sampdoria center midfielder Lucas Torreira was one of the breakout stars of this past European season, with a rumored move to Arsenal. Alongside him in the middle is 20 year old Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur to form a rugged midfield to provide counter attacks for Suarez and Cavani.
Suarez, of course, provided one of the most memorable moments of the 2010 World Cup with his handball off the line against Ghana in the quarterfinals. Diego Forlan won the Golden Ball that tournament and tied for the lead with five goals. The passing of the torch from Diego Forlan to Edinson Cavani to Suarez demonstrates the continuity of quality from generation to generation without having to change the side’s counter attacking style. Tabarez is described as a CEO who focuses on Uruguay churning out world class talent for the next 40 years as much as putting together a competitive side for the next international tournament. Plus, the style of the two strikes compliment each other. Cavani is the counter attacking poacher and Suarez most comfortable in tight spaces. Plus, Cavani admits that despite his size, Suarez is the more physical player.
21-year-old striker Maxi Gomez, who scored 17 goals for Celta Vigo last season, is next in line to follow the path of Forlan, Cavani and Suarez for 2022 and beyond. While Uruguay may not reach the highs of a semifinals in Russia, we can already imagine the side frustrating Portugal or Spain and taking their opponent’s nerve to the limit. Forlan writes how after their 2010 World Cup semifinals loss to the Netherlands, Tabarez raised the spirit in the locker room by saying how proud their country was of how their players battled. And as Tabarez taught the national team, there will always be another generation ready to take on the weight of the shirt.