20 long months ago, after having followed and become increasingly enraptured by Uruguayan football ever since watching Oscar Washington Tabarez’ team beat the greatest England side of my lifetime at Wembley in May 1990, I arrived in this beautiful country. Throughout that time, the question I’d always asked myself about its celebrated football team wasn’t just “how can such a tiny country have achieved such an incredible amount?”; but “why is it always such a constant, epic struggle? Why do Uruguay always, always, always have to do things the hard way?”
16 teams qualified from 24 finalists at the 1986 and 1990 World Cup. On both occasions, Uruguay qualified number 16. 8 teams qualified from 12 participants at the 1999 and 2007 Copa America. On both occasions, Uruguay qualified number 8. And with 4 sides qualifying directly for the World Cup Finals, and the fifth placed side playing off, Uruguay finished number 5 in 2002, 2006, 2010… and now they’ll finish number 5 in 2014 as well.
This isn’t some extraordinary coincidence; nor, tempting though it must be for many to ascribe, is it fate. There’s a reason for this: a reason why Uruguay only ever get going when the going gets truly tough. It’s because this country is The Land of the Last Minute.
Imagine a place where, if you have to go out to deal with some minor administrative task, you have literally no idea how long it will take. If you’re lucky, it might take 10 minutes; if you’re unlucky, it might take 2 hours. Imagine a country where, if you become frustrated and find yourself on the verge of a sense of humour failure about anything at all, the response is always “tranquilo, tranquilo” – followed by the inevitable reassurance (although frequently, it feels like the exact opposite) that your problem will of course be dealt with… “mañana”.
Imagine a capital city in which even McDonald’s take 20 minutes to make a coffee, or 30 minutes to make a hamburger, and service in restaurants is considered an optional extra; an immigration service which sends you to queue after queue after queue after queue, meaning that you end up spending all day dealing with something that should really have taken 5 minutes in a country which wasn’t so terminally bonkers; and a state telecommunications monopoly with whom you arrange to install an internet connection in your new apartment, who tell you to be there between 9 and 5 on the given date, then fail to turn up, tell you anything about why, and expect you to reschedule the appointment: only for the same thing to happen again, and again, and again, and again. In my case, more than ten times in total.
Yet here’s the thing, my friends. Somehow, in spite of bureaucracy so exasperating that it often feels as though Uruguay was the creation of somebody’s very twisted sense of humour; or a way of life so laid back that I swear every single driver in this city takes at least 5 minutes just to get out of their car at the end of their journey, this country works. I’m not exactly sure how – but it does.
The people are friendly, welcoming and cannot do enough to help you; the quality of life is good, as long as you can afford it; the economy continues to grow; the internet, which was finally installed after a month of pleading telephone calls and multiple trips to Antel’s commercial centre, is fast, modern and reliable. And the country’s pride and joy, its football team, in whose honour it literally grinds to a halt whenever it plays, is still on the rails, and stumbling towards an incredible twelfth appearance at the game’s greatest tournament.
It might take a long time – a very long time – but ultimately, it all works out. And as it is with this country, so it is even more with its national team. I mean, honestly: did anyone really expect Uruguay, with everything we know about them, to go to Quito, saunter past the hosts, and qualify for the World Cup directly? Why finish fourth when you can finish fifth, and still ultimately secure the same prize? Why do it with a minimum of fuss when melodrama and suffering are on offer instead? Why do things the easy way? This is Uruguay. We have a reputation to uphold here!
Legend has it that two bulls – one young, the other old – were standing on a hill eyeing up a group of cows being herded into the pasture below. “Hey – let’s run down there and service some of those cows!” exclaimed the excited youngster. “No”, his senior replied – “let’s walk down and service them all”.
Thus in any group stage – whether in qualifying or at a major tournament – can La Celeste be found frequently in second gear: taking things gently, always ensuring that their energies are reserved until they’re really needed later. Were they needed in Venezuela and Peru? So serious had the situation become, yes; but were they needed last night? Daft as though it might sound, not really, no.
Please don’t misunderstand me and think for a moment that I’m somehow suggesting that Uruguay went out to lose the match. Of course they didn’t. But that edge, that garra, without which La Celeste are just another perfectly ordinary football team, was missing. Given that the players’ backs weren’t to the wall, that’s actually only natural.
And of course, the very thing which makes so many Uruguay sides so frustrating, so infuriating, so much like watching Groundhog Day, is also what’s enabled this country to over-achieve so extraordinarily often on the greatest of stages. Its footballers have an instinct for how to remain calm in the tightest of corners; how to face down overwhelming odds and succeed again and again and again. How to win by just doing enough.
So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if just this once, I neglect to obsess over Tabarez’ team selection or failure to truly renovate his side; or refuse to immerse myself in gloom over a disappointing performance and still more disappointing result. This is Uruguay, the Land of the Last Minute. Everything will work out in the end.
Meaning that on Tuesday, mark my words, the players will return to Montevideo, beat Argentina, and assure themselves of being seeded – as (how could it have ever been otherwise?) the eighth of the eight seeds – then they’ll enter a play-off in which defeat is unthinkable and would constitute the humiliation to end all humiliations, probably give the nation multiple heart attacks over the 180 minutes… and go through to Brazil, as the thirty-second of the 32 finalists.
Tranquilo. Mañana. Esto es Uruguay. And try as they might, I’m not at all sure that the people would have it any other way.