Uruguay have always known as being gritty and physical, but that wasn’t enough. One man has changed that culture to turn the country into a global force
With the 2006 World Cup approaching, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina were preparing for football’s biggest showpiece. But not Uruguay, and it wasn’t even a surprise anymore. Granted, they did make the 2002 World Cup. That, however, was more of a fluke as the once dominant football nation failed to reach the World Cup three times between 1994 and 2006.
The famous La Celeste, that dazzled Europe both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and won the first two World Cups (1930 and 1950) they participated in, slowly became known for being cynical and brutal. The term Garra Charrúa, which stands for determination, hardness and being streetwise, was interpreted in a whole different way in the darker years of Uruguayan football.
The passionate style of the Uruguayan team was always played on the edge, but that line was often crossed. The Uruguayan Garra Charrúa spirit began to lose its face and changed into a reckless way of playing. ‘If you can’t beat them, BEAT them’ seemed to be the motto for the Uruguayans in the 80’s and 90’s. For decades Uruguay was not the football nation of the past, so something definitely had to change. All Uruguay needed was an instigator and it turned out to be Óscar Washington Tabárez.
El Maestro, as he is nicknamed because of his history as a school teacher, already knew what it was to manage his own country as he took over as Uruguay manager in 1988 to guide his nation to the Last-16 of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was a short spell in his illustrious coaching career which saw him at the helm of South American heavyweights Peñarol and Boca Juniors and European giants AC Milan among several other sides.
“When I took over in 2006, we found it very tough to even find opposition – we couldn’t play,” Tabárez recalls. “We were hardly competing internationally; we had not qualified for the World Cup and the previous management did not play preparatory friendlies. We had to travel to the most distant parts of the world just to have matches.”
Uruguay were 29th on the FIFA World Ranking when Tabárez was appointed and had become irrelevant in world football. Tabárez began El Proceso, making two areas the focal points in his mission to rehabilitate Uruguayan football. Firstly, Tabárez realized that he and his team had to revolutionize Uruguay’s national youth set up. Tabárez was looking for talented players but also insisted on teaching them the history of La Celeste and making it clear what it means to wear the Sky Blue of Uruguay.
Secondly, Tabárez worked on reinstating Uruguay’s reputation. Tabárez wanted Garra Charrúa to stand for the side’s mental toughness, rather than brutality and cynicism. Uruguay had to become hard to beat and Tabárez tried to instill a belief in his players that they could beat anyone, despite not necessarily being more talented.
And it wasn’t just naivety as Uruguay rose out of irrelevance at the 2010 World Cup by reaching the semi-finals. Tabárez’ Uruguay showed what they are all about that tournament. They didn’t dominate the ball, but were rock solid in defence, operated as a unit and pounced on opponent’s mistakes. It was Uruguay’s highest World Cup finish since 1970 and Tabárez was rightly lauded. To prove it wasn’t just a one-off, Uruguay won the Copa América in Argentina a year later, making Uruguay the country with the most Copa América wins, 15.
Next to his magnificent work with the senior squad, Tabárez’ work with Uruguay’s youth teams had also paid off. The Uruguay U20 side, for example, has qualified for every World Cup since Tabárez’ arrival and constantly provides new up-and-coming players for the national team.
The only criticism I could have of Tabárez is his tendency to hang on to players that have served him well in the past but who are currently not good enough anymore. However, with the 2018 World Cup in sight, the 70-year-old manager is finally rejuvenating his squad and is now searching for the right mix of youth and experience.
The 2018 World Cup might well be Tabárez’ last tournament as Uruguay manager and if it is, he leaves behind an enormous legacy. In his second spell as Uruguay manager, Tabárez has qualified Uruguay for three out of the possible three World Cups, which on its own is an unbelievable accomplishment for a South American country that’s not called Argentina or Brazil.
Tabárez has always emphasised that his pool of players is much slimmer than neighbours Argentina and Brazil, but his astonishing work in youth development and his rehabilitation of the senior side has allowed Uruguay to punch above its weight again and for that, Uruguay will be eternally grateful to Óscar Washington Tabárez.