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.

Celebrations after the play-off against Costa Rica 4 years ago. We’ve been here before…

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.

El Maestro knows how to take his time over something good

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.

The critical win in Lima was not repeated last night

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.              

thebigfeller thebigfeller 3 like

45 Responses so far.

  1. MaroonFox4 Foxfang4 says:

    Bigfeller I laughed my ass off reading that. Thanks for the article.

    Current score: 1
  2. Yorugua Yorugua says:

    One last link and then I’m out…
    Jonathan Wilson’s pre-Ecuador article, in case some of you missed it:
    http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2013/oct/09/uruguay-oscar-washington-tabarez-world-cup
    There’s one clear error in the piece though… lets see if someone else spots it.

    Current score: 2
    • thebigfeller thebigfeller says:

      Ecuador did not win the 2001 game. Nor did Uruguay qualify in 2010 by beating Ecuador; it just helped secure 5th place.

      Current score: 4
    • Yorugua Yorugua says:

      Heh-Heh yes that and the fact that he misspelled Stuani’s name!

      Current score: 0
  3. Yorugua Yorugua says:

    This is for the dreamers… but hey you never know:
    “If Uruguay win by two goals and Chile by four, then Ecuador will have to settle for the play-off and Uruguay will be through automatically. It is unlikely – but it cannot be dismissed as impossible, and it at least means there is something to play for in the last round of South America’s World Cup qualifiers.” From Tim Vickery’s Blog on BBC website.

    Current score: 2
  4. Yorugua Yorugua says:

    Interesting comments… however, as per OWT, seeding is not on his mind:
    http://www.ovaciondigital.com.uy/futbol/no-se-termina-mundo-no.html

    Current score: 1
    • thebigfeller thebigfeller says:

      I refuse to worry myself over these comments. I think it’s just Tabarez doing his usual thing of playing everything down – and of course, if Uruguay aren’t seeded, they’ll have to accept it and get on with it.

      However, against a weakened Argentina with nothing to play for, if Uruguay don’t try and win the game tomorrow, I will go nuts. In common with just about everyone else, I imagine. Because the truth is that seeding is MASSIVELY important. At the World Cup, it always has been.

      Current score: 1
    • NicoGF NicoGF says:

      get ready to go nuts cause tabarez manages to turn a football game into a chess match always. we never really play to win, we lack a midfield with ball control and we never really push for the win. all we do is wait, and then counter attack. if we win, fans will say we played to win, and it was good enough. if we lose, it all sucked and tabarez was all wrong. when in fact, i have to admit it is not possible to play for the win with our midfield, we can win, but it doesnt mean we are desperate to do so.

      we have played this game for quite some time under tabarez and im tired. so, if smaller teams like peru have managed to impose a possessional game over us, why would i expect uru to dominate an messi less argentina. even with 1 starter, they dont need aguero, messi, higuagin lalalal, they just need the name, argentina. again, we can win, we can lose, but i guarantee you, uruguay will be always boring till we start giving chances to: cristoforo, alejandro silva, de arrascaeta, nacho gonzalez, stuani.. faster players, younger, more ball control etc.

      Current score: 3
  5. thebigfeller thebigfeller says:

    ***WARNING! WARNING!***

    Should, as I do not anticipate, Uruguay fail to beat Argentina on Tuesday, it isn’t Holland’s result in Turkey we need to look to first. It’s Switzerland’s against Slovenia.

    If Switzerland win that home game (a tricky one, against opponents still fighting for 2nd with Iceland), they will be seeded if ANY of Italy (at home to Armenia: should be a simple 3 points), Colombia (away in Paraguay: not simple) or Uruguay fail to win.

    Holland are next in the pecking order, after Switzerland. They need to win – which I don’t really envisage – and hope that two of the sides above them don’t.

    To answer TaurusZA above: believe it or not, FIFA say they’ll unveil the pots (or at least, the criteria for them) on October 17. These will be based on the October rankings, to avoid giving a ludicrous advantage to those sides involved in the play-offs. Given that one of their prospective seeds is likely not to have qualified yet, I find the prospect of an early announcement remarkable even by their standards – but in the scenario you outline, what I *think* they’ll do is move the lowest ranking European qualifier into Pot 3, alongside what remains of CONMEBOL and either CAF or CONCACAF, depending on how many CONMEBOL sides are seeded.

    Current score: 2
    • AussieCeleste AussieCeleste says:

      Bloody hell, you’re right.

      Switzerland are so second rate that I even worked out USA and Russia instead!

      But if Uruguay win they are seeded.

      Current score: 0
    • TaurusZA says:

      Thanks tbf – I’ve also been working out the rankings and the last team I would have expected to be in contention is Switzerland! Slovenia is a dark horse, though, and their results have improved in leaps and bounds in recent times. I’m backing them to get at least a draw as they are desperate to qualify.

      Current score: 2
  6. NicoGF NicoGF says:

    when did exactly all these smart people arrive in here, i am feeling weird.

    Current score: 3
  7. TaurusZA says:

    tbf, congratulations on a stellar article. One of the best I’ve read. Thanks for a great conversation and some interesting debates, everyone.

    I have a question about the seeding that perhaps someone could answer: FIFA seems to have announced that the seeding will be based on 17 October’s world rankings, where the top 7 teams will be seeded plus Brazil. I am of the opinion that Turkey will get something against Holland – coach Fatih Terim is an astute, experienced war-dog, Turkey’s stadia are filled with hostile, passionate fans and the team has everything to play for, whereas Holland are qualified and are fresh from the rout of a pathetic Hungary team. So I think that Uruguay will sneak into that 7th spot.

    Having said that, I’m concerned that Uruguay will not yet officially be qualified by the 17th of October – how can FIFA seed a team that has not yet qualified? Did I perhaps miss a clause in the announcement that would allow the top 8 already qualified teams on 17 October to be seeded, thereby eliminating Uruguay on a technicality and giving the spot to Holland?

    I’m also interested as to how FIFA would organize the pots if they give both Uruguay and Colombia a seeding, based on the requirement to keep nations of the same geographical region except for Europe apart in the group stages. If the final three seeds are Colombia, Belgium and Holland, the pots would follow a logical division:

    Seeded teams: Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy, Colombia, Holland, Belgium, Argentina.
    Pot 2: 8 European teams
    Pot 3: four Asian teams, four CONCACAF teams (or three CONCACAF teams plus New Zealand)
    Pot 4: five African teams plus Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador.
    This seeding would make it straightforward to keep the teams from the same region apart, and would obviously be disastrous for Uruguay.

    If, however, Uruguay get seeded instead of Holland, there is a logistical difficulty for FIFA in that there are now nine unseeded European teams, which means that one must go into pot 4 instead of Uruguay. Which team would that be and how would this be determined? It’s surely easier for FIFA to seed Holland instead. I’d be interested in your thoughts!

    Current score: 1
  8. AussieCeleste AussieCeleste says:

    Holy ****.

    I’ve just finished watching a pretty good Croatia team get absolutely splattered by a frightening Belgium team. I’m now going to hide behind the sofa until after the World Cup.

    At the Confederations Cup we learned that:

    1. Spain is still a very good team, but palpably in decline and highly unlikely to win in 2014.

    2. Brazil is a fairly strong side, with one genius and they over-achieved on a wave of nationalist hysteria, but “pride comes before a Maracanazo”.

    3. Italy is its usual solid self, but unlikely to win the World Cup.

    I would add that I learned from last year’s Mendoza match and their win in Colombia that Argentina is substantially better now than Brazil or Spain, and is the obvious favourite for the World Cup.

    But I’ve been watching this Belgium team from afar for a long, long time.

    They reached the semi-finals of the 2007 Euro Under-21s, which is when I first saw them. They had Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Witsel, Fellaini and Mirallas in that team, and competed against the likes of Chiellini, Nani, Joao Moutinho, Hart, Cahill , Milner, Montolivo, Aquilani, et al.

    The next year they reached the 2008 Olympic semi-final by beating Italy, and by then Dembele and Kompany had joined the squad. They finished second behind Brazil in their group (losing 1-0 to them), knocked out Italy in the Quarter-Final and were eliminated in the semis by a comically over-age opponent even by Nigerian standards.

    Now they have added even better players like Hazard, Lukaku and Benteke and they look awesome.

    I put out some imaginary betting odds for the World Cup a couple of weeks ago. Having watched Croatia v Belgium, I’m going to adapt my World Cup victory prediction as follows:

    Argentina 40% likely to win the 2014 World Cup.
    Belgium 35% likely.
    Brazil 10% likely.
    Spain 5% likely.
    Germany 2%
    Italy 2%
    Uruguay 2%
    All other teams combined: 4%

    For the record, the “real” odds from UK chain SportingBet are:

    Brazil 4
    Argentina 6.25
    Germany 6.25
    Spain 7.5
    Belgium 13
    Italy 21
    Holland 21
    England 23
    Colombia 29
    Uruguay 41
    France 41
    Portugal 41

    Current score: 0
    • thebigfeller thebigfeller says:

      I think these percentages are absolutely hilarious. In the entire modern day history of the World Cup – say, from 1966 onwards – I doubt any side has EVER gone into the tournament with a 40% chance of winning. It’s a Cup competition: any side needs luck, to avoid injuries, a kind draw, referees not to make bad calls against them, all sorts of things.

      In Argentina’s case: they’re my tip too, but obvious favourites, they are not. They’re vertical, very open at the back: one simple pass was all it took for Peru to take the lead the other night. And since 1990, and especially since 1993, what have they done? Nada. Every time they’ve met a good side which was well organised and choked off space, they’ve been lost.

      I feel differently about them this time because they finally have a coach who’s accepted their defensive limitations, and is getting the best out of the world’s best player. They certainly have more technique and subtlety than Brazil: the question is though, do they have the mental strength?

      And yes, Belgium’s performance on Friday has set tongues wagging the world over: it was a bit reminiscent of Spain’s 2-0 going on 200-0 walloping of France in the build-up to the last World Cup. But it was only Croatia – no more than a top 20 side really – and Belgium are too young and just don’t have the pedigree as a nation to win this: least of all in another continent. They’ll have a huge chance at Euro 2016 – France v Belgium would be my long range forecast for the final there – but sorry, they ain’t winning the World Cup.

      Who are the clear favourites? Brazil. Because they’re at home; because their manager’s already won this thing before; because referees will favour them, a side very well versed in the dark arts and in winding opponents up to the point of destruction; because of their absolute destruction of Spain, who are still a very fine side with chances next summer… and maybe most of all, because they’re Brazil. The vast majority of opponents will already be beaten mentally before they even step on the pitch against them – and barring a terrible draw, they are guaranteed semi-finalists in my view, and probable finalists.

      Much as finishing above Manchester United was largely the key to winning the Premier League during the Ferguson era, whoever beats Brazil wins this tournament. They have a huge, huge chance. Meanwhile, for all their defensive vulnerabilities, if this event was being played in Europe, Germany would be almost as clear favourites as Brazil are now. 2% for them is a complete and utter nonsense.

      Current score: 1
  9. AussieCeleste AussieCeleste says:

    Farerets,
    I have to say two things.

    Firstly, 95% of people misunderstand the problem of altitude. It’s simply impossible to use the same unacclimatised players back to back up the Andes and then in another game against anyone 96 hours later.

    Markarian used a different group of players in La Paz from the one he used everywhere else, and they were players used to Cuzco. He got a point.

    If you look at my sample Quito team and my sample team v Argentina, I don’t think the Quito one had a lower chance of winning than the one which played. In fact, with the likes of Laxalt and Abel Hernandez they had the pace to score on the counter-attack.

    The likes of Lodeiro, Palito, Forlan, Hernandez, Stuani and Laxalt are good enough that if they were Ecuadorian or Peruvian or Paraguayan they would be starters. It’s perfectly reasonable to use them as starters in a split squad strategy.

    My other point is Jordan. Yes, they’re weak. But so were the UAE at the Olympics, and they came damn close to beating Uruguay.

    The Jordan team is already in camp full-time and has been for a month.

    And I remember how close Costa Rica came to a late goal and eliminating Uruguay four years ago.

    Current score: 1
    • Farerets Farerets says:

      I don’t think people misunderstand the problem of attitude, as it is existing and real. But any line up without Suárez and Cavani clearly is a weakened team and I am sure that a vast majority of Celeste fans would agree with me. Why not sparing them for Argentina game rather than Ecuador?

      As for Jordan, they are, in all due respect, not Costa Rica. Costa Rica would also beat them comfortably, should they meet in play offs.

      Current score: 1
  10. SangreCharrua SangreCharrua says:

    Wow people are now starting to talk about a 2 squad option something i have spoke about for some time. This should have been a policy OWT should have had in place from jump for the simple fact that as per other teams the main objective is securing the points at home and then stealing a couple away by this calculation had we won the games against Paraguay & Ecuador would have placed us 4 points up in the ladder but it seems that this approach is too out there. As i have said before we have the player base to be able to put out 2 very good teams that have the capacity top play different styles but this old man is more and more entrenched in the siege mentality.
    By his latest comments he is resigned to playing against Jordan although there is still a hope that we could steal fourth if there is no collusion between Ecuador and Chile. He spoke of setting a base in Europe in preparation ( What for ? really he is going to play the same players in the same way, he just wants a European getaway). I ask what does this man do all year does he really follow the players that are not in his circle, does he not see that there are players who have virtues and abilities above some he always selects. Tata Gonzales is a prime example, granted he is a great and polite guy personality wise of the pitch is a model of a pro player but on the pitch he is average at best , limited, slow, no danger of scoring or locking a player down even more against Brazil in the confeds cup got into it with Neymar for no apparent reason sparking the kid into a more determined mode up till that point Cavani had Neymar in fits with his defense on him ( Think about that OWT had Cavani marking Neymar so what was the point of having Tata on the field and not taking Castro. In this last game he filled the middle with Gargano, Rios , Gimenez, Lugano and Godin, I was thinkg what the F!@# for if Ecuador play the flanks again he left Castro out did not select Laxalt left Ale Siva on the bench till it was too late. With Casatro he would have been a perfect option to replace Cebolla or hell play on the right as he is a 2 footed player. I know people here love Gargano but on the field with Rios in a game we needed to dominate possession, be more on the attack and obviously not reliant on counter attack as the altitude not only affects the player but also the ball. Watch the game again and you will see the best moments for Uruguay was when the decided to play short passes also Cavani ans Suarez did not to be in that game La joya and Stuani upfront hell La Joya and Forlan ( as this is the only position he is to play at this point forget the idea of repeating his cameo as the enganche) I am hoping that after the WC even if we win it ( one can dream still) that things go south at Sunderland due to the board and Poyet takes over as National coach.

    Current score: 1
 

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