No man has simultaneously frustrated and engendered as much affection in the history of Uruguayan football and dare I say Uruguay in general as much as Oscar Washington Tabarez. The man known as “el Maestro” has the hardest job in Uruguay (yes even harder than the President) and in his 7 years as the master to his pupils he has delighted, captivated and enthralled the fans while at the same time angered, bewildered and downright bamboozled them. This is a man of almost seemingly complex character and conviction who has the unenviable task of raising the hopes of 3 million people with one of the proudest sporting histories and traditions ever seen anywhere in the whole wide world. Whether you love him or hate him, Oscar Washington Tabarez is almost the embodiment of Uruguayan football, for good or bad.
It was March the 7th 2006 when news broke out that the AUF had decided to give Tabarez a second shot at guiding la celeste to another world cup. The appointment and announcement was subdued and low key with very little fan fare or sharp in takes of breath by the public. The people of Uruguay were exhausted, battered and bruised, they had just witnessed their once proud national team get embarrassed on the world stage in a scale not yet seen before.
The years of 2003-2005, where easily one of the worst periods of Uruguayan football. It was an epoch of dizzying heights and incredibly low lows. After such a lack lustre world cup in 2002, the AUF had decided to appoint Juan Roman Carrasco as coach of the national team. JR was the cavalier and gun-ho coach of Fenix who under his helm oversaw the best period of success in the clubs long history. For the first time ever, Fenix had been serious contenders for the championship and had gone as far as to book a place in the Copa Libertadores, even notching up a famous 6-1 victory over Sebastian Abreu’s mach more fancied Cruz Azul of Mexico. After his seemingly miraculous work in transforming such a small and modest outfit into an attacking machine the likes of which many hadn’t seen before, JR was seen as the perfect tonic to shake up and rejuvenate a seemingly tired and out of date national team.
After such a great start, the wheels began to fall off after a string of loses and an embarrassing home defeat to Venezuela, which has now gone down in Vinotinto folklore as “El Centenarioazo”. JR was more “Don Quixote” then “Che Guevara” and was duly given his marching orders.
The public demanded a more “mature” and “tactical” coach who was not so schizophrenic and with more of a slowly, slowly approach to football rather than a crash through or crash mentality. Jorge Fosatti was appointed coach and had the task of Victor Pua before him to reignite the chances of qualification to the World Cup. Uruguay had seemingly gone from bad to worse in a short amount of time losing 3-1 to Peru at home and then 5-0 to Colombia away. Not all was lost because Fosatti used the upcoming Copa America to formulate and mould a team into shape and with some positive results both home and away, Fosatti was able to manage a play off birth to the World Cup finals, eventually losing to Australia on penalties in Sydney. Uruguay missed out on Germany 2006 and so Fosatti was gone and a new coach was needed to take his place.
With many pundits claiming that Sergio Markarian, Gerardo Pelusso and Hugo De Leon were the obvious choice to take charge of la seleccion, the AUF had gone down the path of familiarity and appointed Oscar Washington Tabarez.
Tabarez was hired due to his thoughtful and analytic approach to football, his experience overseas and the fact that the last time Uruguay made it to the second round of a World Cup was in 1990 with “El Maestro” as coach, the air of nostalgia was so deep that they even signed up with Puma as their shirt sponsors who were Uruguay’s sponsors at Italia 90.
For the past few years, the national team had seemingly binged on nothing but sugar, downing bottles of Coke and Pepsi while scoffing copious amounts of chocolates simultaneously, the public had enough of the intense sugar rushes and it was time to settle down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit instead and thus Tabarez was seen as the perfect fit.
The appointment of Tabarez and the very little fan fare that came with it was the complete opposite to the rock star reception and appointment of JR. Tabarez was not just given the reigns of the senior side but was also given the responsibility to oversee and direct a project that included the youth sides with the aim of captivating new and emerging talent from all over the country and to develop these players into modern and dynamic footballers. It was a mammoth task but one which Tabarez seemed to accept with great relish.
The second Tabarez era had gone under way with a trip to the United States to play a few friendly games against mediocre European opposition like Northern Ireland and Romania. The new look Uruguay rendered a renewed yet cautious sense of optimism as a new generation of players had began to blossom under Tabarez’s leadership. Other friendly matches at home and abroad confirmed that it was indeed a new era and a new beginning for la seleccion.
Young players like Juan Surraco, Diego Vera, Mauro Vila, Jorge Fucile, Diego Godin, Ignacio Ithurralde, Walter Gargano, Alvaro Gonzalez, Walter Lopez, Maximiliano Pereira, Arevalo Rios, and Sebastián Fernández were given opportunities to play alongside some more experienced heads like Nico Olivera, Loco Abreu, Guillermo Giacomazzi, Lolo Estoyanoff and Fabian Carini.
Youth players like Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Martin Caceres started to cement a place in the side and re affirm the belief that Tabarez was indeed injecting some much needed youth into the senior set up. But not everything had been rosy on the selection front as Tabarez began to show signs of ignoring popular opinion in terms of reserving specific players and ‘rewarding’ players who were considered to be undeserving of a call up. Several players hitting form for their clubs in various positions have been seen as being ‘unfairly ignored’ in favour of players who have been granted licence to play for la celeste despite not playing for their club side on a frequent basis or in some cases not playing at all.
During Tabarez’s reign he has denied players such as Walter Pandiani, OJ Morales, Antonio Pacheco, Santiago Silva, Carlos Sanchez, Alberto Acosta, Guillermo Rodriguez, Rodrigo Mora, Juan Manuel Olivera a chance to play with the national team even in friendly matches while players like Flaco Fernandez, Emiliano Alfaro and Cristian Stuani have all been given surprise call ups.
Tabarez has demonstrated severe stubbornness with player selections but none more so with goalkeepers. For a large part of the beginning of his second reign as coach, Tabarez had stuck with Fabian Carini as his number 1. Carini had been out of favour for his club side in Spain and later in Brazil yet Tabarez had put his confidence in a keeper with very little match fitness. This lack of fitness had cost Uruguay dearly as Uruguay lost valuable points due to some school boy errors made by Carini. After much conviction Tabarez finally dropped Carini and opted for Castillo instead, whether or not he is the obvious candidate to replace Carini is neither here nor there, because unlike Carini Castillo was actually playing for his club. With Castillo injured in came Sebastian Viera who at the time was not playing for anyone. Viera’s time with the seleccion was nothing short of ludicrous as he was at fault at several goals, what was more alarming was the fact that during that time Fernando Muselra had become the number 1 at Lazio and was totally ignored by Tabarez despite the fact that Muselra had experience at youth level with la seleccion and was even called by Tabarez during his time with Nacional for some training camps. Muslera was begrudgingly selected and the rest in history.
This example is the perfect embodiment of one of Tabarez’s most annoying traits, his stubbornness and inability to consider change when it is needed the most. During the last few matches Tabarez has denied many players access to the national team sighting the need not to change things that aren’t necessarily broken. However Tabarez has indeed added players some more unfancied than others to the national set up and at various stages. Players like Victorino and Arvealo Rios hadn’t featured during the Eliminatioras yet played in the World Cup. Lodeiro came in very late during the matches against Costa Rica, Muslera started against Ecuador late on, just to name a few. He has also sighted age as a barrier in selection criteria yet he handed Andres Scotti his first call up at age 30 while other players like Abreu, Perez and Forlan will all be in their mid to late 30’s for Brazil 2014. Players like Tanque Silva, JM Olivera and Recoba are in the 30’s and may not get a call up due to this hypocritical policy.
Tabarez as manager has guided Uruguay to some amazing and famous victories, (2010 vs Ghana, 2011 vs Argentina) but not everything had been so rosy. During the last round of qualifiers Uruguay was languishing in 7th place and with one foot out of the World Cup and some very lack lustre performances under their belt, Uruguay were almost a shoe-in to stay home once more. However a late victory against Ecuador and some favourable results from other matches sealed their passage to the knock out stage, and the rest you all know. Whether this was luck, Garra Charrua or brilliant tactical work is up in the air, the fact of the matter is Uruguay was perilously close to not qualifying and in an incredibly irritating manner, due to the fact that proper player selections in key areas (such as goalkeeper) could have swung results in Uruguay’s favour. However Tabarez would save his worst moment for last as the Olympics was nothing short of a disaster.
After 80 odd years Uruguay were finally back to where the success and glory all began and with Tabarez at the helm there was a severe sense of “it was meant to be” from an excited and hungry supporter group eager to see Uruguay triumph at an Olympic games once more. This was the chance to enhance the Tabarez project and move the national team forward from such great successes like the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Copa America, the 2012 Olympics was meant to be another link in the chain. However it was the total opposite. Players who were clearly not pulling their weight were left on the field to continue to play as appallingly as they have done since the first minute, while players with speed and depth like La Joya Hernandez, Urretevicaya and Polenta were left to rot on the bench. And Tabarez’s tactics and general approach was nothing short of plainly flippant. It was not a pretty sight. At the moment Uruguay is in a position it knows only too well (5th place) and has been the subject of intense criticism due to some subpar performances at home and abroad and with player selections. It will be interesting albeit frustrating to see how Tabarez will get out of this one.
Not everything has been all doom and gloom with Tabarez because Uruguay has experienced one of its most successful periods in recent history. Uruguay had been for almost 20 years a team with little to no real hopes of ever achieving success of any grand scale on the international arena, save for the 1995 Copa America won on home soil. Uruguay under Tabarez has finished a respectable 4th place at a World Cup and also claimed the title of ‘king of kings’ winning their 15th Copa America in Argentina of all places. Uruguay has over time changed its reputation from a country of thuggish and brutish players who deem it necessary to hack, kick and slice their way through opponents in order to win games, into a team that plays purely on modest talent, team ethic and of course the famous ‘Garra Charrua’.
Players like Arevalo Rios, Diego Perez and Sebastian Abreu epitomized the uniquely Uruguayan approach to football, that it’s a game that doesn’t necessarily have to be played in a physical sense but an emotional and sometimes illogical one too, that it doesn’t matter if the football is fancy or indeed elegant but that it is played with a passion and energy that it can overcome any rival no matter what their the skill level. And individual performances from the likes of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez have enhanced the image of the Uruguayan footballer hell bent on doing everything necessary to not just score goals and win games but to lead with strength, poise and humility. Their individual efforts at both the World Cup and Copa America is something truly inspiring. With players like Sebastian Coates, Gaston Ramirez and Abel Hernandez the future does seem bright for la celeste and with great success at international level many of the Under 20’s and Under 17’s are giving Uruguay supporters room for a higher sense of optimism. The modern incarnation of the national team has brought about a refreshed image and reputation with many people worldwide admiring, respecting and adoring the style of play from Uruguay. The sheer shock and awe of footballing fans world wide as to how such a small country with an even smaller population can conjure up such a dynamic and successful team has been received with delight and joy by the millions of Uruguayan supporters worldwide who for so long were forced to defend and spin the negativity that came their way and suffer such embarrassing performances of a team that were so mighty many years ago.
The last 3 years has ushered a new era of success the likes of which have not been seen in decades. Both senior and youth sides have made immense inroads on the world stage at various tournaments which has bolstered the pride of an already proud footballing nation. The success of the national team under Tabarez wether fully intentional or lucky is completely hard to ignore. The current incarnation of the national team has for the first time enabled a whole generation of Uruguayans the opportunity to witness a winning team in action instead of hearing about it from their relatives.
Oscar Washington Tabarez has the hardest job in Uruguay; he has the role of uplifting an entire nation of 3 million people who see football not as a sport but as a religion and as a way of life. He has the task of continuing and reigniting a footballing tradition the likes of which has not been seen before or ever likely to be repeated for a country of its scale and magnitude. Whether you love Tabarez, hate him or both simultaneously, Oscar Washington Tabarez has revolutionised the national team in ways in which no one ever imagined he could. He can be frustrating, stubborn and pig headed but at the same time inspiring, thoughtful and just plain brilliant. All character traits of an incredibly complex man who has painted Uruguay on a bright new canvas. On which canvass you chose to brush him with is up to you
GUEST WRITER: in_your_bright_ray