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Tabarez and the revolution: The return of Uruguay
Before professional football hardly existed at all, Uruguay was a dominant force in the sport, winning the South American championship in 1923, 1924 and 1926, and the gold medal at the Olympic soccer tournaments in Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928. They then won the first-ever World Cup trophy in 1930, on home soil against Argentina. In protest that few European teams had bothered to turn up, they then declined to travel to Italy in 1934 and also boycotted the third World Cup, in 1938 in France, allegedly because the organisers had reneged on a promise to alternate between Europe and South America.
They were back in full force in 1950, defeating Brazil at the Maracana in what is known as the Maracanazo, a traditional Spanish suffix to indicate a big blow, or a coup. In fact, when it comes to football, Uruguay have a younger-sibling relationship with both Argentina and Brazil. They have always been capable of taking on the big guns with a lack of stage fright. They seem to have a psychological conviction they can win.
In spite of this, during the latter part of the last century the twice world champions seemed to have slipped off the international radar. These days, entire series of articles and documentaries on World Cup greats omit Uruguay on a regular basis, often with the excuse that their main achievements pre-date the TV era. But Uruguay's football history is extraordinary. Known as 'the Switzerland of Latin America', Uruguay boasts the highest levels of literacy in the continent and one of the lowest levels of corruption. The close to three-and-a-half million people who live in one of the smallest countries in the Americas enjoy the highest index of human development, one of the most equitable distributions of income and one of the highest lifeexpectancy rates. "There are countries with more footballers than we have people, " Oscar Tabarez told journalists on the eve of the semifinal against Holland during the last World Cup. He wasn't kidding.
Tabarez is known as El Maestro (the teacher), because he actually did teach in a school for a while, in between his life as a not-particularly-distinguished defender and his more superlative career as an attacking manager.
He is a self-confessed devotee of Che Guevara's teachings. The motto "one must toughen oneself without ever losing tenderness" hangs on a wall in El Maestro's house in a residential area of Montevideo. He named his daughter Tania after Che's last companera. Almost two decades ago, he was introducing the political writings of his fellow countryman Eduardo Galeano to young sports hacks.
On the pitch at club level, El Maestro won a Libertadores Cup with Penarol of Uruguay and took Boca Juniors of Argentina to its first major league title in decades. His career in Europe was succinctly summarised as a "disastrous 22-match spell at Milan in 1996", but he did better during two periods at Cagliari.
He managed Uruguay in 1990 but exited the World Cup one match past the group stage. "We came up against a problem that arose from the long time that the players were away from the things that for Uruguayans are very significant, like their loved ones, their everyday habits, " he said last summer.
His decision to keep the team in Montevideo, taking advantage of a climate similar to that of South Africa and virtually forgetting about arranging warm-up matches seemed to pay off. Footage of the Uruguayan players drinking mate (a traditional infusion drunk through a silver straw) in their suits before the semifinal corroborates the significance of sticking to ritual and habit. "I've been working with these players for four years, " he added, "So I just had to make sure they were fit and that they'd recovered after a long season. I didn't need to play friendlies to draw conclusions. "
His project finally paid off last week as the team picked up the Copa Amêrica. With a squad which includes the extraordinary goalkeeper Muslera (" who seems to stretch across the entire goal as if he's made out of nylon, " as one Argentine commentator so aptly described him), the young survivor Luis Suarez - whose life story is already staggering - and the veteran Diego Forlan, who has the pedigree of the southern South American men of football. His father Pablo was a Uruguay international who played in the 1966 World Cup, and his maternal grandfather, Juan Carlos Corazo, manager of the country's national team.
Forlan had a stint at Manchester United about a decade ago, where he spent more time on the bench than on the pitch and was widely hailed as a flop. Uruguay's latest triumph is in a way Forlan's own redemption from his unrecognised contribution to the Premier League, Tabarez's own revenge on his last stint as manager, and even the resurgence of the forgotten tradition of the country's footballing identity.
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