Tenacious Uruguay at their best when battlling against the odds
Tradition suggests they are likely to make this a difficult game for England
Luis Suarez in relaxed mood during Uruguay’s final practice session before tonight’s match against England in Sao Paulo. Photograph: Ddamir Sogolj/Reuters
You wonder if the task is quite tough enough for Uruguayan tastes; medium or well done. It is also hard to measure whether their pedigree for beating the longest odds can trump limitations in personal.
England’s scalp is a prize highly valued by all small nations, but too many of Oscar Tabarez’s players are past their best, warriors toting shards of ceramic instead of regulation weapons. Are they as hungry as they need to be? Are they as good as they need to be?
The disaster of the Costa Rica defeat was perhaps not the surprise it appeared for notoriously slow starters, who are less comfortable when fancied and right now vulnerable to players with speed.
Tonight is a better time to display la garra charrúa – the “claw”, or tenacity, for which Uruguayan footballers are renowned.
Luis Suarez’s importance lies in how he embodies that tenacity, both in his work and the things he tries: the astonishing volley in Liverpool’s rout of Arsenal last season an illustration of his seemingly never-ending desire to make the impossible possible.
In The Beautiful Game, Chris Taylor’s book on Latin American football, Gus Poyet describes this quality of character of Suarez and others like him: “This garra interna, this internal strength, makes the Uruguayan a player, I believe, who easily adapts to things and above all is a winner. I like to win everything. If we’re sitting here playing cards I want to win. We may be laughing, enjoying ourselves, having a drink - I want to win. And if I don’t win, even though I might not show it, inside I’m screwed. I think all Uruguayans are like that. There’s people who recognise it, there’s people in Europe who know what Uruguayan players will die to win.”
Certain sacrificeThey have never had to quite go that far, but close. A certain sacrifice was required in the country’s tortuous journey through their South American qualifying campaign, which began brightly but fell off a cliff.
Fourth in the World Cup in South Africa, Tabarez’s team went on to Copa América success in 2011, and after World Cup qualifying wins against Bolivia, Chile and Peru, and draws with Paraguay and Venezuela, they rose to a dazzling second in Fifa’s world rankings in 2012.
Then the campaign stalled, horribly. In the end only crunch away wins against Venezuela and Peru saw them sneak in to fifth place, and a playoff. A jolt of character when they needed it most.
You could not describe these Uruguayan characteristics without reference to the subject of their incredible 1950 success – the maracanazo or Maracanã disaster – when they broke Brazil’s hearts in the final in Rio. It became a scar on the Brazilian national psyche, but its impact on little Uruguay, a country of less than four million people, was profound too. The occasion’s great hero was captain and centre back Obdulio Varela, the first black man to captain his country -- Negro Jefe (the Black Chief) – whose battle-cry was a unifying “outsiders don’t count”.