Diego Godín: Luis Suárez was treated like a dog
‘There’s experience, maturity, we’re in good shape, playing for teams competing for titles’
Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Diego Godin of Uruguay pose for a World Cup portrait in Russia. Photograph: Getty Images
As the Uruguay team boarded their plane bound for the World Cup, elaborate thermos flasks under their arms, the cargo was loaded in the hold: boots, shirts and shorts, plus 180kg of yerba mate and 30kg of dulce de leche. They needed a special permit to take them into Russia, but they were not going to go without their impossibly bitter “tea” or their impossibly sweet caramel. Anyway, why change? There is something about Uruguay, something different, which has served them well. Something in the way they live, the way they play – and, says the captain, Diego Godín, in Uruguay living and playing are the same thing. That’s part of the secret.
Uruguay, who kick off their Group A campaign against Egypt on Friday, are football’s great overachievers: they have won two World Cups and 15 Copa Américas, were World Cup semi-finalists in 1970 and 2010, and four years ago knocked out Italy and England. They arrive in Russia with Godín insisting expectations are high: “We’re going there to win, to compete,” he says. “We’ve won more international titles than anyone else.” None of which makes sense: this is a country of only 3.4 million people, less than half the population of Greater London.
“It doesn’t make any sense mathematically and demographically,” Godín says, “but if you look at our football history and culture it does. You’re born in Uruguay and they’re telling you about football: the first World Cup, Maracanã, great players, win and win and win. That generates a culture of competitiveness, a desire to play, a need. You want to go to the World Cup and when you do, you feel that history, which is genuinely important.”
Take Luis Suárez. “Luis has got where he is because of the way he is: you see he gets angry, wound up, he fights, protests, competes,” Godín says. “If he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t be the player he is.” The player that, at some level, they all are.
It starts with “baby football”, which is brutal. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Godín says. “In fact, when I first started in Rosario, at four, my parents let me train but not play. I was skinny, not especially little, but it was too much. There are thousands of teams and they teach them to compete from very small.
“It’s lamentable at times: you see the competitiveness, the need, the way some families see economic salvation in their son, and that reaches extremes that aren’t good for the child’s development, their values. It’s hard: there’s not much in the way of resources, kits or money, and sometimes that creates bad habits.
“Sometimes the parents are the worst: fighting with the coach, opponents, the kid. Demands are made on children that shouldn’t be: seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds with obligations and responsibilities they shouldn’t have. That’s not good, but the truth is it does push players: they improve, compete, grow. I was lucky: my parents used it as a tool to make me study and behave well. If I didn’t get good grades, I didn’t play.”
Godín smiles: “I studied.”
That culture still marks the way Uruguay play, different in a world of increasing homogeneity. “Football’s changed,” Godín says. “Everyone wants to play nicely now: they want to bring the ball out, the goalkeeper, players, lots of touches. It’s worked for many teams – it’s been good for Spain – but some forget the other side of the game. To use the ball, you have to win it back. And you don’t get it back with everyone doing their own thing. You need to know how to do that, and it’s not so easy.
“You can’t turn your back on your collective DNA. We’ve always been very good defensively, direct, balls in to the forwards quickly, speed on the outside, but I think we’ve improved inside: we keep the ball better, the younger players have come in and given us that. But Uruguay hasn’t lost that commitment, that fight, the sacrifice and solidarity, the determination to overcome adversity.”
No one embodies that personality like Óscar Tabárez, the 71-year-old whose coaching career spans four decades and who has been in charge of the national team for 13 years. El Maestro, they call him – a line of continuity. As much teacher as tecnico, Tabárez suffers from chronic neuropathy, taking training sessions with the aid of a crutch and sometimes even a mobility scooter. You wonder whether players have been tempted to have a quiet word, encourage him to have a well-earned break, ease into retirement.
“Are you mad or what?” Godín responds. “No, no: quite the opposite. What gives him vitality is the national team, being with us. I’m convinced of that. It’s life for him. The moment he leaves all this behind will be hard. He could say: ‘I’ve done it all now, I’m going home.’ But not him. He works. He gives us so much. He’s still standing for us. ‘Upstairs’ he’s lucid, spectacular. We have a huge respect for him and he has such mental strength. He’s an example to us all.”
Thirteen years on, this could be Tabárez’s last World Cup, though. Godín has been with him all that time and, after 117 caps, it could be his last too. The last for a generation – arguably the country’s best since 1950 – and an opportunity they are determined to take. “There could be another World Cup, why not?” Godín says. “But I’m convinced that for Fernando Muslera, Martín Cáceres, me, Cebolla [Cristian Rodríguez], Suárez, Edinson Cavani, this is the moment. There’s experience, maturity, we’re all in good shape, playing for teams competing for titles, we have a nice mix with young players coming through.”
Godín has been to one semi-final; four years on, Uruguay appeared set to try to emulate that, until that moment when Suárez bit Giorgio Chiellini. “I’m convinced that if what happened against Italy hadn’t happened it would have been a different story,” Godín says. “First, we lost our best player. Second, everything that happened affected us: it affected Luis and the rest of us. It was very hard to live through that, to see him dead, crying, fallen, kicked out of the World Cup. The whole country was sunk, indignant – and that was all we talked about until the Colombia game.”
Watching Suárez marched out of the team hotel, it was difficult to focus on football. “Look,” says Godín. “I’m not going to say he didn’t make a mistake – he’s admitted that himself – but I still feel the same as most Uruguayans, most people in football who look at it objectively. It was very, very, very unjust. For an ‘assault’ you get maybe four games. They took him out the World Cup, kicked him out like a dog. He wasn’t allowed at the Copa América. It was disproportionate, unjust, and no one will take that indignation from us.”
There is a long pause. “Lots goes on around football; people can’t imagine some of the things you live through. Political issues are powerful and I can assure you some of the things fans can’t understand are played out on other ‘fields’, and it’s not the field of play. It’s offices. And that is what happened to Luis, I’m convinced of that.
“I’m not talking about the game itself, but things like suspensions, decisions. On the pitch, it’s the ball, the players. There’s a ref who can make mistakes, but there it’s down to us.”
And on the field, Godín believes Uruguay can leave a mark. “It’s my third World Cup and I’m excited, my expectations are even higher than before. I think we have players with which we can compete, in a good moment. You have to try to win the first game: starting strongly has always been fundamental. Now’s the moment.”