A former footballing heavyweight with a once mighty reputation, now tarnished by decades of failure. La Celeste won the first ever
While basketball and rugby are very popular in Uruguay, football is the undisputed national sport. The tiny nation boasts 41 800 registered players, as well as 1220 clubs. The Uruguayan FA believes that success in the future goes hand in hand with nostalgia for the country’s glorious football past. In 2004, with the help of FIFA’s Goal Project, a new, hi-tech Centre for High Performance was opened in the capital Montevideo. Not far away that same year, a museum was opened dedicated to the amazing story of that first World Cup tournament, which was also played in Uruguay. The national team still plays in the 80-year-old, 100 000 capacity Estadio Centenario which hosted the historic first World Cup final, in which La Celeste overcame bitter rivals Argentina 4-2 in a thriller.
All of the major teams in Uruguayan football are based in Montevideo. The two most successful clubs are Penarol and Nacional, who between them have dominated the 16-team Primera Division since its inception in 1932. Both have also enjoyed international success, with Penarol winning five Copa Libertadores crowns and three World Championships, while Nacional boast three of each.
Of those players selected in the recent Uruguayan provisional squad, just four of the 26 play their football domestically. Currently ranked a healthy 18th in FIFA’s world rankings, La Celeste were once again the last team to qualify for the finals, winning the CONCACAF/CONMEBOL play-off against Costa Rica 2-1 on aggregate. This Uruguayan team, however, is unlikely to bring home another World Cup to place beside their triumphs of 1930 and 1950 and their record 14 Copa America titles (six more than Brazil). Drawn in Group A for South Africa 2010, they must face France, the always-tricky Mexico and an unknown quantity in the hosts themselves. At 43m above sea level, Montevideo has a more modest altitude than other South American nations such as Bolivia and Ecuador, and so it is possible that the Uruguayan team might struggle with the high altitude of Pretoria and Rustenbes, both of which will host Group A games featuring La Celeste. Progression beyond the group stages seems unlikely.
The major strength of Los Charruas is the firepower they have at their disposal. Atletico’s Diego Forlan is one of the world’s best strikers and looks a completely different player to the one who took eight months to score his first goal at Manchester United. The prolific Forlan seems to score as many spectacular volleys as he does tap-ins and is aided by a tremendous work ethic. His strike partner, Ajax starlet Luis Suarez, can play either as a winger or support striker and has taken the Eredivisie by storm following his move from Nacional. A promising debut season with Groningen convinced Ajax to shell out 7.5m Euros in 2007, and Suarez has netted 74 goals in 97 games since joining the Amsterdam giants. The fiery wonderkid seems on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the world’s top players and is definitely one to watch out for in South Africa.
Like most Uruguayan sides throughout history, Oscar Tabarez’s men are not short of enforcers at the back. Captain Diego Lugano, who plays in Turkey for Fenerbahce, is a defender in the Paolo Montero tradition – classy on the ball and ferocious in the tackle. Lugano provides strong leadership and has a knack of scoring crucial goals.
The Coach, Tabarez, is in his second spell in charge having previously led Los Charruas to the Last 16 at Italia 90. However El Maestro (the Teacher) finds himself under pressure going into the 2010 campaign. Tabarez has something of a reputation as a tinkerman, constantly switching between a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-3-1-2 depending on the opposition. Some of his selection policies have also been unfathomable, such as the deployment on occasion of top scorer Forlan in a midfield role during qualifying. Some, such as Juan Jos