If you exceed expectations & become everyone's second team at the World Cup, where do you go from there? Welcome to IBWM Mark Critchley.
Life’s most intriguing and absorbing features are invariably its most baffling. Religion, James Corden, cheese and onion crisps – anything greatly fêted yet not entirely explained for will always yield a good number of furrowed brows and raised index fingers.
By reaching the semi-finals in South Africa, Uruguay’s national side triggered equal amounts of praise and puzzlement the world over, and questions inevitably surrounded such a remarkable campaign. Questions such as is Diego Forlán really that good? What about the coach Oscar Tabárez? Does Luis Suárez's moral compass perpetually point to the fiery gates of hell? And just how exactly did a country with a population smaller than Moldova’s finish fourth at a World Cup? All acknowledged, all argued and to an extent, all answered (it’s yes, yes, no and another commentary’s worth of supposition, for anyone still unsure). However since July 6 and La Celeste’s ultimate elimination at the hands of Holland, a curious problem has prevailed unanswered from the column inches. It’s the question on nobody’s lips but then there's no denying it’s the biggest one left – what next for Uruguay?
Apart from the almighty beano that is. Defeat parades upon the return of gallant losers are nothing particularly new but drinking, dancing and chanting “semi-finalists!” from rooftops upon the very freshest moments of World Cup failure is quite a phenomenon. Slap bang in the aftermath of the Holland loss, Montevideo’s first thought was to party whilst their continental co-habitants did anything but. They, namely Brazil and Argentina, were simultaneously holding something of a eulogy-free wake, complete with incessant wailing and tiresome lamentation. However this grieving proved somewhat proactive and from it have stemmed the burgeoning rebirths of the continent’s football monoliths under Mano Menezes and Sergio Batista respectively. Recriminations, on this evidence, can bring renewal but celebrations, if anything, bring hangovers. Bearing in mind their perpetual state of keeping up with the Juninho’s, here’s one headache La Celeste could do well to avoid.
Trite images of Oscar Tabárez armed with a full English, bottled water and eleven sachets of Resolve, ready to compensate for any World Cup comedown are therefore tempting ones to consider, and on Uruguay’s post-tournament results you could argue he has provided just that. The last four months have seen them negotiate past Angola (0-2), Indonesia (1-7) and China (0-4) without losing much of their South Africa glow. Granted, in all three games La Celeste looked groggy (they took 70 minutes to open the scoring against both Angola and China, whilst also going 1-0 down in Jakarta), but like a dirty stop-out wrestling key with lock, Tabárez’s side got there eventually. Hangover cured then? Technically, no. For the man Montevideanos call ‘El Maestro’, this is all about prevention.
Since his reinstallation as coach in 2006, Tabárez has taken it upon himself to consider the long term, even if at times this means to overlook the here and now. Distinctly average performances at the 2007 Copa América and throughout World Cup qualifying have been tempered by the modest achievements of Uruguay’s youth sides, who continue to develop the ludicrously technical and talented footballers that the world has almost come to expect of this modest nation. Whilst the seniors progressed in South Africa, the under-17 side comprehensively triumphed over their American, Chilean and Argentine equivalents in the brevity friendly Copa Diario La Voz del Interior tournament, thus emulating the impressive showing of their elders at last year’s Under-20 World Cup in Egypt.
There, despite exiting early in a tight contest against eventual finalists Brazil, the new bloods of Uruguayan football held the tournament’s ultimate champions Ghana, as well as qualifying on the same number of points as them and splayed one bastion of inspiring youth football in the process – poor old England (who incidentally finished below another mainstay in Group D, Uzbekistan). Each and every stirring pubescent performance, at any level, has acted as a swig of cold water to counter the oldsters’ summer binge, and carried reassurances that Uruguay’s big international blow-out will actually be anything but. If there really does prove to be no hangover, it’ll probably be down to the clear head of Tabárez and his bunch of forthcoming fresh faces.
Yet considering the modest impact of these Uruguayan youths on the full international stage so far, ‘forthcoming’ is, for now at least, very much the word. Bacary Sagna would definitely use it; that Under-20 side’s captain and brightest hope Nicolás Lodeiro seemed rather too approaching whilst splicing through the right back’s ankles, thus earning the World Cup’s first red card this summer. Injuries and Lodeiro’s subsequent suspension have postponed the Ajax playmaker’s rise through the senior ranks, whilst the international fortunes of his former teenage dogsbodies, none of whom made Tabárez’s World Cup twenty-three, have been equally stagnant.
Only Gastón Ramírez of Bologna, introduced for the Indonesia and China friendlies then retained for this week’s fixture against Chile, and fellow Italianised ex-pat Palermo’s Abel Hernández who scored a debut goal against Angola, have thus far witnessed the full extent of Tabárez’s confidence in youngsters. ‘If it ain’t broke…’ you may shrug, but the increasingly rusty nails of Forlán, captain Diego Lugano and others cannot gulp oil forever whilst new talent lies in wait. Whether the international beginnings of brutish centre-back Sebastián Coates, the deftly left footed Matías Mirabaje or wing-back Matías Aguirregaray (the latest blushing wench playing towards European advances, this time of Inter Milan and La Liga’s Hércules) will see some kind of promotion, the coming friendlies and next year’s favourable Copa América group will tell, but Tabárez’s youth record suggests an answer in only the affirmative.
Even so, some people will still be puzzled. Some people will still wonder why, and even more will still wonder how. How that is, when squeezed into South America’s third smallest country like sardines in the Death Star’s trash compactor, with Brazil and Argentina towering over the garden fence, this population consistently produces absurdly gifted footballers in a disproportionate fashion, beyond anyone’s belief. Again and again. And again. And there’s your secret – regeneration; the constant integration of talent. The longer it goes on, the more believable it gradually gets.
So what comes next for Uruguay? Don’t act like you don’t know, because for once, there’s really no question about it.
To read more from Mark have a glance at his own & rather excellent 'Spotter's Badge' blog, you can also follow Mark on twitter @markcritchley.