When Luis Suárez limped off the field with a hamstring injury in Barcelona’s win over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final, one man would’ve been wincing more than most. Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez is a wily old tactician, and has now been in charge of his national team for almost a decade. But no amount of reshuffling would be able to compensate for the absence of a striker who’s not only the best in Uruguay’s Copa América squad, but perhaps the very best on the planet.
In the domestic season just gone, Suárez netted a remarkable 58 goals in all competitions, seeing off both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to secure the title of La Liga’s top scorer. He’s arguably established himself as the key man in the strongest attack in world football, and will have to arrive at the Copa América in good shape if Uruguay is to stand any chance of succeeding in the latter stages of this tournament.
The good news is that Suárez should be available for selection, with Barça’s medical team having allowed him to continue his recovery alongside his international teammates. It's expected that he’ll be sidelined for their tournament opener against Mexico, though he’ll hope to be fit for subsequent group games against Venezuela and Jamaica. The draw has been kind to Uruguay, who should have little problem in making it through into the knockout stages, even in a worst-case scenario in which Suárez doesn’t recover until the competition’s latter stages.
Though Suárez would doubtless love to help his nation to their first Copa América title since 2011 — a tournament at which he scored four goals en route to being crowned its best player — there’s another motive that will be driving him to return to action as quickly as possible: the prospect of winning the Ballon d’Or. Since 2008, football’s most prestigious individual honor has been traded between Ronaldo and Messi, though recent seasons have suggested the era-defining duopoly is losing its stranglehold on the game. A strong showing in the United States on the back of his remarkable domestic season could well seal the deal for Suárez, who, at 29 years old, is at the absolute peak of his career.
But of course, he will be relying on his teammates as much as the other way around, and Uruguay’s major tournament showings don’t make for particularly good reading. Their 2011 Copa América victory marked a last hurrah for a few of their most important first-team players. Captain Diego Lugano, legendary striker Diego Forlán and ever-present midfield anchorman Diego Pérez were among those who would soon set sail into the sunset of their international retirement. It left Uruguay a little rudderless, and though Suárez and Edinson Cavani are a fine strike partnership, they’ve generally struggled to find such momentum since.
At the World Cup in Brazil two years ago, they were eliminated in the first knockout round, and at last year's Copa América they fared no better. They were too often lacking inspiration in midfield, and even a player like Suárez needs some service. They’ll be relying on big performances from the likes of playmakers Nicolás Lodeiro and Gastón Ramírez to rectify their creative problem in the States — two players who were once tipped for stardom, but have yet failed to live up to expectations. There’s no doubting their energy and defensive grit, but it remains to be seen whether, Suárez aside, they’ll have enough spark to compete with the best.
For Uruguay, it’s all about balance. Tabárez’s teams tend to be more functional than free-flowing, though the coach may well have to be a little braver in his team selection to unlock their full potential. In their squad, they have two of the finest strikers on the planet. In Diego Godín, they may well have the world's best centre-back. If Suárez returns to full fitness and the coach finds the right combination in the centre of the park, they could well be a serious contender to lift this trophy for the second time in the space of five years. But if not, they could be on course for a third consecutive major tournament disappointment — a run that could spell the end for the long-serving coach once dubbed El Maestro.