Uruguay has a unique historical relationship with football, the game brought over by “los ingleses”: the first South American champions, the first World Champions, the first World Cup hosts and the first winners of the World Cup, and of course, the Maracanazo. And Uruguay were innovators of the short-passing, movement away from the ball, dribbling style that Barcelona is identified with but is seemed rarely in the current Uruguay national team. We have all probably read Eduardo Galeano’s depiction of Uruguay’s first participation at the Olympics: “The English squad had perfected the long pass and the high ball but these disinherited children from far-off America didn’t walk in their father’s footsteps. They chose to invent a game of close passes directly to the foot, with lightning changes in rhythm and high-speed dribbling.” L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot noted that “Uruguay showed marvellous virtuosity in receiving the ball, controlling it and using it. They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful and effective”. This creative, virtuoso-like footballing display contrasts with the defensive, unimaginative long-ball football currently played by the national team. La Celeste fans look around at other footballing nations and see how they have re-defined themselves and are asking for Uruguayan football to evolve, or rather, return to its roots.
Relative to other footballing countries, Uruguay is a small country, with only 3.4 million people, compare that with the 41.5 million Argentinians and 200 million Brazilians. There are two professional leagues, the Uruguayan Primera Division with 16 teams which is the elite professional league and the Segunda Division with 15 teams; 20 of the 31 teams are located in Montevideo, a city of 1.3 million people. Most teams have a traditional style of play that the fans associate with; however, the two biggest teams Peñarol and Nacional tend to play whatever style is dictated by their revolving door of coaches and players. While most of the world associates Uruguayan football with a defensive, counter-acting style, the truth is that there are quite a few teams that historically play a more stylish, creative, ball on the ground type of game with an emphasis on youth development.
Óscar Washington Tabárez was appointed coach of the Uruguayan national team on March 6, 2006. He took over from Ferrin and became Uruguay’s fifth coach in four years at a time when it was clear that there was no “project” in place. An admirer of the youth set-up that José Pekerman had implemented in Argentina from 1995, OWT started working on an integrated project which included youth development. OWT actively supervises the work of the youth teams (U15, U17 & U20), each of which has its own coach. It should be remembered that Uruguay failed to qualify for the U20 World Championship in 2001, 2003 and 2005. OWT implemented a plan where the youth teams practice and compete in more competitions per year, in order for them to gain experience, develop their skills and gel as a team. Since OWT took over, Uruguay has consistently qualified for the U20 World Championship; the following summarizes the U20 performance and players who have gone on to play for the senior team:
- 2007 team – eliminated in 2nd round World U20 – 3 players – Caceres, Suarez, Cavani
- 2009 team – eliminated in 2nd round World U20 – 6 players – Campaña, Aguirregaray, Coates, Ramirez, Lodeiro, Hernandez
- 2011 team – eliminated in 1st round World U20 – 2 players – Mayada, Rolán
- 2013 team – 2nd place World – 6 players – Emiliano Velázquez, Gastón Silva, Varela, Rolán, De Arrascaeta, Giménez
- 2015 team – eliminated in 2nd round World U20 – 1 player – Nández
On the current senior squad, approximately 77% have played on the Uruguay U20 teams; prior to the 2010 World Cup, a similar analysis showed only 50%. The current squad includes players from pre-OWT U20 teams like the 2003 team (5th in South American U20 – 2 players – Martin Silva, Cristian Rodríguez) and the 2005 team (5th South American U20 – 5 players – Fernando Muslera, Diego Godín, Álvaro Pereira, Cristian Stuani). Who are the players that were never part of the youth teams? Maxi Pereira, Carlos Sánchez, Egidio Arévalo Ríos, and Mathías Corujo. OWT recently indicated that part of his next project is to improve the network of talent scouts in the rest of the country.
For many years, the Uruguayan national team did not have a place to properly train. However, this changed prior to OWT’s appointment as coach. With the financial backing of approx. US$1 million from of FIFA and US$300,000 each from Tenfield and the AUF, the AUF began construction of the high-performance training center known as el Complejo Uruguay Celeste in the year 2000 while Figueredo was AUF president. On the 10 hectares of land, there are five regulation-size fields, four with natural turf and one with artificial which was inaugurated in 2012. It also other smaller areas for goalkeeper training or reduced space training. The modern complex also includes heated residences, cafeteria, recreational areas, gymnasium, library and conference room. This is the official training center for all the national teams, senior and junior alike.
OWT had some bold words at the new conference when he took on the job back in 2006: “The teams will play 4-3-3. It is a system that has history in our country. I remember the teams of Ondino Viera, of Raúl Bentancor, the constant pressing of Professor José Ricardo De León. There is a tradition and also a personal experience which I brought forth in Danube 84, Wanderers 86 and Peñarol 87. For our football, it is important to apply this formation. It allows us to play with less technical potential and have a greater chance of success. Mainly we will emphasize how to play, I think it is fundamental, beyond personal tastes, to pursue long-term strategies and tasks. The priority will be to establish and transmit the same theoretical and methodological basis for all national teams from U15 to the senior. With the national teams, we should be able to and aspire to achieve a football slightly different to the local football.”
OWT gave up on the 4-3-3 after the loss to Peru in the 2007 Copa America, in a game where Uruguay created few chances and the defense appeared slow and disorganized. The humiliation had nothing to do with formation, it had to do with personnel. So he completed re-worked his starting line-up of Carini, Diogo, Lugano, Godín, Darío Rodríguez, Pérez, García, Canobbio, Estoyanoff, Forlán, Sánchez. Only Lugano, Godín, Pérez and Forlán would make it to the 2010 World Cup. The period from 2007 to 2010 marked OWT’s most adventurous phase as he continually re-booted with different formations (3-4-1-2, 4-2-2-2, 4-4-2, 4-3-3) and personnel, until finding the formula that brought success in South Africa and Argentina. Until recently with the “retirement” of Perez, OWT had been partial to the two Central Defensive Midfielders destroyers Arevalo Rios and Perez. Lately, it would appear Uruguay have settled on a 4-1-4-1. OWT’s Uruguay does not play fancy football with short passing in the midfield or building up from the deep. They play a more direct style, placing the ball in the opposition’s half through the pelotazo, and then pressing hard. Suarez is particularly instrumental behind this tactic; he has the ability to hold the ball and draw attention from the defenders, to make space for teammates to exploit, or he can beat defenders. Upon loss of possession, the Uruguayan midfielders and defenders retreat and sit deep to draw opposition midfielders up in the pitch to make free spaces for quick counters and put their forwards in a dangerous 3vs3 situations. Instead of playing proactively, OWT prefers to set up the team on the basis of the opposition’s strengths in order to weaken them and then unleash the team’s potential on the pitch.
Part of the population, including many Uruguayan coaches, point out that this is how Uruguay plays, how some of the greatest victories in Uruguayan history were obtained like the Maracanazo in 1950 or Peñarol’s 1987 Libertadores tltle. Others are not satisfied and point to teams like Danubio, Racing, Wanderers, River Plate who historically play a more stylish, creative, ball on the ground type of game. A couple of years ago, Tenfield ran a series of interviews with Uruguayan coaches. Ex-Wanderers coach Arias had this to say:”Uruguayan football and Uruguayans have the fundamental characteristic, to overcome difficult situations. One can be in a disadvantageous condition and still succeed. This gives us the capacity of self-sacrifice and face challenges differently. But with regards to football itself, I rebel against the thought we cannot change what is “ours”. Because if it were such, the world in general and life in Uruguay would be the same it was fifty years ago and it is not. It’s not the same game, the rules changes, the conditions of the new fields, the athletic development of the players, have changed the way people play, confront and analyze games. For example, when I played, the No. 9 (center forward) spent fifteen to twenty minutes running at the goalkeeper, because they would put the ball on the ground, pick it up again, give it to a back, and have it returned to him… that it is no longer allowed implies a change in the intensity of the game, and how you have to prepare a team where the goalkeeper becomes predominant playing with their feet and suddenly plays with his feet more than a center forward. All change leads to other changes. Hopefully our football can continue to overcome its circumstances, with its value of sacrifice and add a little more ball possession and dominance in the game.”
End of Part 4.
- The structure of competitive soccer in Uruguay – from grass roots to the World Cup
- Uruguay’s Óscar Tabárez: We couldn’t just live based on past World Cup glory
- Tabárez: “Vamos a jugar con un 4-3-3”,
- ¿ Siempre jugamos así?
- La polémica de moda
- 3 millones con Alfredo Arias: “lo único que te salva del día siguiente al resultado es mantener un estilo”