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Farewell, Uruguay and ... thanks?

Saying goodbye to a brilliant, villainous World Cup side.

Uruguay v Portugal: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

It was, from all possible angles, a terrible shame. Antoine Greizmann’s shot was optimistic, but Fernando Muslera’s rabbit-punch was weak, and the ball ballooned over his head and into the net. Uruguay were 2-0 down, and in front of him, his defenders collapsed to the ground.

It was a terrible piece of goalkeeping, yes, but it was more than that. It was the moment that knocked the spirit out of Uruguay; the moment the most intense team at the World Cup realised that this wasn’t going to be their day. Everything after that was admin. Even the scrap felt half-hearted. And the watching world realised something too. That thing we tuned in for? That Uruguay thing? Not this time.

Over the last few World Cups, this Uruguay team have been cast in, and have lived up to, the role of spiky secondary antagonist. The one standing next to the Bond villain, with diamonds in his face or razor blades in his hat. In 2010 they took the feel-good story of Ghana outside, gave it a good kicking, and threw it in the shark pool.

Then in 2014 they scrapped, fought, and literally bit their way past two former champions, Italy and England, in the group stages. This is their job, when it came to these quadrennial festivals of football. This is their party piece. Do something weird. Do something unexpected. Do something really, really Uruguay.

However admirable you found any of that, there’s no denying it was compelling, dramatic (and secretly just a tiny bit funny). But World Cups need villains just as they need heroes, and Uruguay were happy to play heel. As long as it meant they could play their football, their way, they didn’t seem to care.

And the football was admirable, at least on its own terms. Uruguay have rarely been pretty to watch at World Cups, and the line between brave tenacity and regressive machismo is often a blurry one. But there is much to respect about a team that understands itself as well as Uruguay: what their strengths are, and how to maximise them while minimising everything else. And what else are you meant to do with a collection of bastard-hard central defenders and a few genius attackers?

The figure behind all this has been Óscar Tabárez, the coach who took over for the second time in 2006 and reorganised the entire national structure from the bottom up. Though the high point of his time in charge wasn’t a World Cup run, but rather the 2011 Copa America victory, this team has been one of the defining teams of the World Cup throughout the 2010s. Defining, as in: you definitely don’t want to get drawn against Uruguay.

Perhaps that’s why José Giménez let a few tears fall as the game wound down: This definitive team is coming to a close. Giménez is 23 now, he would have been 15 years old when Luis Suarez tipped the ball over the bar against Ghana, then celebrated the missed penalty in front of everybody. Today, he was been playing and losing alongside his ageing heroes.

For Suarez and Edinson Cavani are both 31, while captain Diego Godin is 32. If any of them make it to Qatar 2022, it will likely be as experienced back-up. And Tabarez, for his part, is 71 and unwell. There is a young core of players coming through, but at the same time, the totemic figures are receding. Perhaps this quarter-final defeat will be the moment that the guard changes.

If so, we should salute them. For their endless reserves of dastardliness, yes, but also for their constant assertion that just because a nation is small, doesn’t mean it can’t leave a mark. They’ll be missed. Though not by anybody’s ankles.