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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 sacrifice

They 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”.

Successful squad

When the successful squad returned to Montevideo the committee men had gold medals cast for themselves, while the players got silver medals and money. But the biggest impact of the day was psychological rather than material. In Golazo: A History of Latin American Football, Andreas Campomar describes the birth of a mentality that has hindered them:

“Triumph in adversity would be Uruguay’s undoing; victory would render her lazy, and forgetful of the very traits that had allowed her to succeed. A belief became current that Uruguay could only win against the odds: Uruguay contra mundum.

“Uruguay’s tragedy was not to be suffocated under the weight of expectation, but by a misplaced faith that they could always rely on a miracle to rescue them – even in the most dire of straits.”

Much of Uruguay’s experience since their fourth-place finish in Mexico in 1970 – the last time they beat European opposition at a World Cup – has been especially poignant: “a peculiar mix of masochism and nostalgia”, as Campomar puts it.

It got no more masochistic than the ugly scenes of 1986, when José Batista’s sending-off after 56 seconds for a lunge on Scotland’s Gordon Strachan was followed by 90 minutes of violence.

It was a long way from the poetic sentiments of Uruguayan writer Eduardo H Galeano, who writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow: “Every time the national team plays, no matter against whom, the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their caresses, and flies stop flying”.

In their success in South Africa, Tabarez and his players helped renew the image of Uruguayan football, skilful, hardworking, tenacious. Now they fight where it matters.

At yesterday’s press conference at the stadium, Tabarez said: “Of course we are worried after starting the World Cup with a defeat, but it is not over. We are a team that’s always willing to fight and to recover. We still have two games and tomorrow both teams need to win. We know our opponents will be hard to beat . . . But we have had similar situations which we have been able to overcome. . . we know that our team always fight until the end.”

Of that much we think we can be sure. But can they pull out another miracle? The ageing of the side leaves them at times exposed.Yet it would not be a surprise if a win-or-bust encounter was decided by something beyond tactics, formations or personnel. Who will impose themselves? Who will want it most?