Unprofessional Foul


May 25, 2010

World Cup 2010 Previews: Uruguay

As goes Diego, so goes Uruguay

Nicknames: Las Charruas (the indigenous peoples who lived in what became Uruguay), La Celeste (The sky blue, a reference to the team’s colors).

Coach: Oscar Tabarez (“El Maestro”), who coached the team in the 1990 World Cup, and has also managed AC Milan, Boca Juniors, and Cagliari.

Uruguay finds it way back into the tournament it has won twice for the first time since 2002. A footballing superpower in the early part of the last century, Uruguayan football has fallen on hard times of late. The domestic league is a shadow of its former self, and the country’s best players find their way across the River Plate to Argentina, and eventually to Europe. Their best-known player, Diego Forlan, is still on good form but at 31 is approaching the backside of his career.

Still, they have a pedigree of success even if it’s a bid faded by now. Given the relative weakness of their group they have a good shot to advance to the knock out stages. Find out why, after the jump. 

Uruguay were drawn into Group A, which frankly is lacking a bit in quality. The European superpower is France, which only qualified as a result of a certain (future) Red Bull’s handball. Also in the group is hosts South Africa who will be seeking to continue the tradition of every host country making it out of the group stages. Despite enormous support from the vuvuzela contingent, the team is frankly pants. Lastly there is Mexico, who need no introduction. A team full of headcases, El Tri could easily win the group or crash out in fourth.

WC Fixtures:

Group A:
Uruguay vs. France – June 11 – Cape Town
Uruguay vs. South Africa – June 16 –  Pretoria
Uruguay vs. Mexico – June 22 – Rustenburg

Uruguay’s 26-man provisional squad for the World Cup finals:
Fernando Muslera (Lazio), Juan-Guillermo Castillo (Cali), Martin Silva (Defensor Sporting)
Diego Lugano (Fenerbahce), Diego Godin (Villarreal), Andres Scotti (Colo Colo), Jorge Fucile (Porto), Martin Caceres (Juventus), Mauricio Victorino (Universidad de Chile), Maximiliano Pereira (Benfica)

Walter Gargano (Napoli), Egidio Arevalo-Rios (Penarol), Sebastian Eguren (AIK Stockholm), Diego Perez (Monaco), Alvaro Pereira (Porto), Alvaro Fernandez (Universidad de Chile), Jorge Rodriguez (River Plate), Alvaro Gonzalez (Nacional), Ignacio “Nacho” Gonzalez (Valencia), Nicolas Lodeiro (Ajax)
Sebastian Fernandez (Banfield), Luis Suarez (Ajax), Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid), Sebastian Abreu (Botafogo), Edinson Cavani (Palermo), Jorge Martinez (Catania)

Home Base in South Africa:
Kimberly, Northern Cape province. De Beers got its start in this town famed for diamond mining, located in the center of the country. For those who are obsessed with the altitude of team’s training facilities, Uruguay’s choice passes muster at 3,900 feet of elevation.

The start of a bitter rivalry

Uruguay’s History in WC Competition:

Way back in 1930, Uruguay won the first edition of the greatest sporting event on earth, which was held on home soil with all games played in Montevideo. The team was the revelation of the 1920s, winning gold medals in the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and was credited with inventing a more modern style of play based around slick passing. As such, they were awarded the inaguaral World Cup by FIFA, which featured just four European teams. Uruguay beat Argentina in the final to win the trophy.

Their next World Cup appearance was the first post war edition, held in Brazil in 1950, which featured only 13 teams (missing were France and Celeste arch-rivals Argentina). Uruguay faced hosts Brazil in Rio and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history to claim their second trophy (by now officially named after Jules Rimet). “Needing only to draw, Brazil led through Friaca’s 47th-minute strike before Uruguay turned the game on its head via goals from Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghigghia,” FIFA.com notes. “A deathly hush descended on the Maracana as some 200,000 voices fell silent and Brazil’s little neighbour to the south celebrated a second world crown.” So shocking was the defeat that inspired the term  maracanazo, which roughly translated means a shocking home defeat in Brazil.

Nothing Uruguay has done since in World Cup competition has approached the heights scaled in 1950. They made the semis in 1954 and 1970, missed Argentina ’78 and Spain ’82, returned to make the final 16 in the next two World Cups, and missed both 90s tournaments. In 2002 they made it out of the group stages, before failing to qualify for Germany ’06. Both times they first had to deal with an epic, and now mercifully disbanded, home and home 10,000 mile death match of jetlag against Australia for the final World Cup bid.

Road to South Africa:
Uruguay had a tough campaign, finishing fifth in COMNEBOL qualifying after losing its last match 1-0 to the hated Argentines in Montevideo. With that disappointing result, they were forced to play Costa Rica in a home and home for the right to go to South Africa. The first leg was played in San Jose, where Fenerbache defender and national team captain Diego Lugano scored the crucial away goal in a 1-0 win. Three days later, the sides played out a 1-1 draw in Montevideo, with veteran striker Sebastian Abreu scoring in the 70th minute.

Team Style:
Despite what I wrote earlier about Uruguay’s contributions to the beautiful game in the 1920s, as of late the Celestes have been known more for their physicality and ability to grind out results than playmaking flair. The team also has a reputation as being a bit undisciplined; first choice wide midfielder Cristian Rodriguez picked up a red card in the last qualifier against Argentina and received  a four game ban as a result (including the first two games of the group stage, so he was omitted from the squad altogether).

That said, Uruguay managed to hang three goals on Switzerland in March, and with Forlan they have a proven goalscorer. Tabarez will likely go with some version of a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with a holding midfielder, two wide players, a creative number 10, and two strikers up top, with the Atletico man in a more withdrawn role. Against France, there has been some suggestion of going with a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders.

Recent Form:
Not much to speak of. There was the aforementioned two-legged win over Costa Rica in November, and then a 3-1 drubbing of an injury-riddled Switzerland in St Gallen in early March. Deigo Forlan has been scoring in Spain for Atletico Madrid, and put the nail in Fulham’s coffin in the Europa League final. The other striker, Ajax captain Luis Suarez, was on scintillating form in the Erdivisie with 35 goals (49 in all competitions; cue “Scoring in Holland is so easy even a cavemen Michael Bradley can do it” jokes). The team has one friendly before the World Cup scheduled, with Israel paying a visit to Montevideo on Wednesday.

What the media says:
Diego Forlan, upon his arrival back from Spain for pre-tournament preparations, told the local wretches that the goal was to get out of the group. He fingered France as the key game, although in all honesty the game against South Africa will make or break the tournament. Expectations locally are not especially high, as reaching the finals at all is an improvement over the last qualifying cycle.

Tabarez, however, told Reuters that “[w]e must go to the World Cup with expectations because we have players who are in the important leagues along with other players from the elite teams…I have the hope that we could be a surprise, although at no time are we going to be believe that we are the favorites or think we are champions.” There is always vague talk of the team making a deep run, usually with allusions to Uruguay’s glorious history in the tournament, but in reality the current squad is not world class in comparison with its South American neighbors.

Key Players:
Diego Forlan, ST – Atletico Madrid
Forlan is by far the most potent offensive weapon at the disposal of coach Tabarez. His recently concluded La Liga campaign was not quite as scintillating as last years effort, but he still managed to strike rate of one goal every other game. Notably, Uruguay haven’t lose a game in the past four years in which Forlan scored. Here’s his Europa cup clincher:

Luis Suarez, ST – Ajax Amsterdam
The Ajax man scored 35 goals in the Dutch league this year, which was the highest league tally in Europe (edging mes de un club’s David Villa with 34). The reigning Dutch footballer of the year also has ten international goals to his credit. He has been linked in transfer rumors to the usual English suspects Arsenal and Manchester Uni…………..Zzzzzzzzz. Sorry, I’m already completely bored of transfer bulls**t.

Question Marks:
The two biggest question markets both involve the Uruguayan midfield. Who is going to take over for the suspended and dropped Cristian Rodriguez of Porto, and will 20-year-old Nicolas Lodeiro (a January transfer to Ajax) will get a chance as the team’s creative engine at the head of the diamond midfield?

Rodriguez started for most of the qualifying campaign, but since he suspended the team will have to look elsewhere. One possibility is often injured Nacho Gonzalez, who famously was signed by Kevin Keegan to play for Newcastle in 2008 based solely on YouTube clips. One of the right sided fullbacks could also be pushed up into the midfield, or the gaffer could opt for a 4-2-2-2 formation with two holding midfielders.

Lodeiro, meanwhile, debuted for the senior national team in the critical tie against Costa Rica after starring at the U-20 World Cup. Will Tabarez gamble on such an inexperienced player in a pivotal role in the World Cup? The manager also appears to have decided to bring stability to the long-shaky keeper situation by installing youngish Fernando Muslera of Lazio as the clear #1, despite that fact that his first cap for the senior team was just eight months ago.

UF Prediction:
Frankly, the Celeste have everything you want from a darkhorse. In Forlan and Suarez they have a strikeforce that would rival the world’s best, while the defense has been stout and the team is well organized. The questions revolve around the midfield, and whether some of the team’s young players, like Muslera and Lodeiro, will perform under the intense cauldron of pressure at the World Cup.

Uruguay are easily capable of taking points off of France in the opener, especially if their opponents start out with their usual Gallic indifference. The second game against the Bafana Bafana should be a victory on paper (the hosts just drew with Bulgaria). Of course, in front of frenzied home support, its impossible to know what will happen, and South Korea was not fancied at all prior to the 2002 World Cup. The last group match against Mexico will likely determine who advances out of the group in second place, and Uruguay have both the tactical nous and guile to frustrate El Tri.

If Uruguay finishes second in the group their likely round of sixteen opponent will be old enemy Argentina, which would set up one of the most intriguing matches of the tournament.

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