Winners of two World Cups in generations' past, La Celeste of Uruguay have had to come to grips with life as a small footballing nation. Whereas a country with a population of less than four million could be a world power in 1950 (the last time Uruguay won the World Cup), soccer's status as the world's game means the bigger countries of the world are pouring resources into the sport. What's more, whereas few nations beyond Europe and South America were equipped to compete internationally sixty years ago, now every populated continent has a soccer power.
While these facts of the world mean Uruguay is unlikely to ascend to their previous heights, it makes their recent accomplishments even more remarkable. True, counting South Africa, Uruguay has only qualified for two finals in the last twenty years, but they have made it to the semifinals of the last four Copa Américas. Despite having fewer people than Puerto Rico, Uruguay still sports a pair of world class strikers and two near-world class central defenders. All this from a country that has about the same number of people as Connecticut.
This summer, through the luck of the draw, Uruguay could be set to regain a small piece of past glory. No, La Celeste will not challenge for a third World Cup; however, there is no heavyweight in their Group A. While wins over some of their group mates may be seen as mild upsets, it would shock no one if the Uruguayans were able to use the likes of Diego Godín and Diego Lugano to keep matches close while Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez steal wins.
That's the formula Oscar Tabárez will use to try and put Uruguay back on the international soccer map. While Uruguay has maintained its relevance by producing elite players, if has been some time since the team held significance in the competition they were first to win. And while a lot has changed in international soccer since 1930, for two weeks in the middle of June, Uruguay can hold hopes of being the little country that could.
How They Got Here
Uruguay looked a safe bet to qualify for South Africa after 12 of CONMEBOL's 18 rounds. While they'd won a mere four times, they'd only lost three, and with a 21:10 goal ratio, La Celeste was on track to join Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay as automatic qualifiers, leaving the struggling Argentines in their wake along with the Ecudorians and Colombians.
On June 6, 2009, that all changed, as Brazil came to Montevideo an trounced Uruguay. The 4-0 win was not only Brazil's first meaningful victory in Uruguay, it was the first of a three match slide that say the Uruguayans drop expected points at Venezuela (2-2) and bottom-dwelling Peru (0-1). Uruguay got strong wins versus Colombia (3-1) and at Ecuador (2-1), but in a win-and-in match with Argentina in Montevideo for the fourth and final CONMEBOL qualifying spot, Uruguay lost 0-1 to a Mario Balotti, 84th minute goal.
Uruguay was forced into a playoff against Costa Rica and got an impressive 1-0 victory at Estadio Saprissa. Four days later Uruguay was through to South Africa amidst some controversy, drawing 1-1 in Montevideo with the help of a disputed (and not granted) penalty shout from the Costa Ricans.
Players to Watch
The only striking tandem in the World Cup that has a claim to being better than Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez is Spain's duo of Fernando Torres and David Villa. Forlán won Spain's Pichichi in 2008-09 and followed that performance by leading Atlético Madrid to the 2009-10 Europa League title, while Luis Suárez has been good for more than a goal per game for Ajax in the Netherlands. The duo's capabilities were best displayed in Uruguay's trip to Ecuador late in qualifying, when a second half, go-ahead goal by the hosts was undone by two sudden, late goals from the Uruguayan stars.
Uruguay's striking tandem overshadows an equally important pair in central defense, with Villareal's Diego Godín and Fenerbahçe's Diego Lugano helping La Celeste accumulate a defensive record of 21 goals in 20 qualifiers (counting playoff matches). Along with Fernando Muslera, who has emerged as the team's clear number one, and right back Maxi Periera, Uruguay has a collection of quality in defense that will force their opponents to earn their goals.
How Far They Can Get
If things beak right, Uruguay could win their group. Regardless if they finish first or second, with Group A paired against Group B in the Round of 16, Uruguay will be hard-pressed to make it past the Round of 16. Perhaps they can find some fortune, win the group, and get either South Korea or an upstart from B - a team they could conceivably beat. That could put La Celeste in the quarterfinals.
|June 11||France||Cape Town|
|June 16||South Africa||Pretoria|
|Castillo, Juan||32||11||0||Depotivo Cali (Ecuador)|
|Muslera, Fernando||23||5||0||Lazio (Italy)|
|Silva, Martin||27||1||0||Defensor Sporting (Uruguay)|
|Caceres, Martin||23||18||1||Juventus (Italy)|
|Fucile, Jorge||25||24||0||Porto (Portugal)|
|Godin, Diego||24||37||3||Villareal (Spain)|
|Lugano, Diego||29||41||4||Fenerbahce (Turkey)|
|Pereira, Maxi||26||36||0||Benfica (Portugal)|
|Scotti, Andres||35||25||1||Colo-Colo (Chile)|
|Victorino, Mauricio||27||4||0||Universidad de Chile (Chile)|
|Eguren, Sebastian||29||26||5||AIK (Sweden)|
|Fernandez, Alvaro||24||7||0||Universidad de Chile (Chile)|
|Gargano, Walter||25||27||0||Napoli (Italy)|
|Gonzalez, Ignacio||28||16||1||Valencia (Spain)|
|Lodeiro, Nicolas||21||3||0||Ajax (Netherlands)|
|Pereira, Alvaro||25||14||1||Porto (Portugal)|
|Perez, Diego||30||49||0||Monaco (France)|
|Rios, Egidio Arevalo||27||5||0||Penarol (Uruguay)|
|Abreu, Sebastian||33||55||30||Botafogo (Brazil)|
|Cavani, Edinson||23||13||2||Palermo (Italy)|
|Fernandez, Sebastian||25||6||0||Banfield (Argentina)|
|Forlan, Diego||31||61||24||Atletico Madrid (Spain)|
|Suarez, Luis||23||29||10||Ajax (Netherlands)|
* - age as of June 11
Uruguay World Cup Team Card
SB Nation Soccer will be distributing team cards for each of the World Cup's 32 entrants. Here is Uruguay's:
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