Monday, July 5, 2010
Unexpected guests aim to party on
Jayaditya Gupta, Cape Town
Uruguay have many dreams - about what will happen on Tuesday night, about what could happen on Sunday, and about the implications of the days to come and the weeks that have gone past. They have many dreams but are under few illusions about their place at football's top table: they know they are the surprise guests but are just as aware that they have earned that place.
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"We are now in a party, a celebration," coach Oscar Tabarez said on Monday. "We haven't been invited, if you like, but we certainly have a right to be here."
Their progress beyond Tuesday depends on many factors, not the least of which is their ability to prove once again their fluidity and ability to adapt to challenges. Tabarez avoided his usual practice of naming his side the day before the game, apparently angry at reports suggesting sweeping changes and a switch to 4-4-2, but it's clear, given the injuries and suspensions, that Uruguay will be a different side to the one that beat Ghana.
Few outside downtown Montevideo expected Uruguay to reach the semi-finals, as Tabarez acknowledged. Fewer still, among the neutrals, will be backing them on Tuesday following Luis Suarez's deliberate handball and then his inability to stop talking about it. In fact, every conversation about the game, whether in a bar or on a bus or on the street, ends with the expressed hope that Netherlands beat Uruguay.
They are the accidental tourists, seemingly at this stage by mistake after taking a wrong turn. They are the least obviously attractive among the South American quintet here: Argentina and Brazil are the behemoths, Chile caught the eye and Paraguay captured hearts, especially with their showing against Spain.
Yet here they are, their continent's lone representatives in the last four, having come a long way from that dour opening game against France here in Cape Town. Let no one doubt that they deserve to be here - the only argument against their coming this far is that you can take the entire population of Uruguay and pack them into Cape Town, with only a couple of vineyards needed for the overflow. That's how small they are, as Tabarez pointed out. And it's that size, perhaps, that has bred a certain toughness in the Uruguayan footballer, an image that is dispelled every generation or so by an Enzo Francescoli or, indeed, a Diego Forlan.
Forlan is a man whose response to a bleak spell at Manchester United - and the sort of humiliation by supporters, and even by his own manager, that would have broken lesser characters - was to twice emerge the top scorer in all European leagues. His quality was never in doubt, not even at Old Trafford, where some big goals saw him commemorated in song as the man who "made the Scousers cry".
Now he is the fulcrum of a team in the semi-finals, sending out a steady stream of passes, but he retains his appetite for big goals. Two of his three in this tournament have come from some distance, showing his ability to master the Jabulani, while the third was the penalty against South Africa, the goal that killed the game. Forlan had to wait five minutes to take that kick but when he did it was with a confidence and calmness that seems to run through this team.
It was that same calm that Oscar Tabarez exuded the day before the first game, against France. His team had just come off a bumpy plane ride - their plane had a "breakdown", according to Forlan's rather dramatic tweet - but Tabarez wore his usual poker face. Spending the period before the World Cup at home, rather than acclimatising in foreign locales, has evidently paid off.
Forlan, for his part, has attributed the team's hardiness to the tough South American qualifying campaign - and the two extra games Uruguay had against Costa Rica in the play-off. "You play at altitude, in warm weather, in cold weather, different types of climate and pitches, and it's really tough."
It's now about to get incrementally tougher. Not merely because their opponents are unbeaten in 24 games and currently on a nine-match winning streak, but because they will have to beat them without one half of their strike force. For five games, Forlan and Suarez have played like twins, sharing the burden of creativity. They have six goals between them and one assist apiece. Where Forlan has had 19 shots, Suarez has had 20, but the latter's 13 shots at goal outstrips Forlan's eight. The symmetry goes back further: Suarez scored 33 league goals in the past Eredivisie season, Forlan 30 in the Primera Liga.
Suarez's instincts and clinical finishing up the field have allowed Forlan to play behind him, to roam across the pitch and fire in his passes, knowing Suarez will be there to meet them, or simply shoot himself. Now Forlan will have to rein in the roaming, though the absence of Nigel de Jong opposite him may encourage Tabarez to let him continue.
And then there's always Sebastian Abreu. Once his country's top striker, he has, in the twilight of his career, yielded his place to Suarez. Yet he has proved he hasn't forgotten how to score: His five goals in qualifying matched Suarez's record in approximately half the playing time. It was Abreu who replaced Suarez in second leg against Costa Rica and scored the goal that booked Uruguay's passage to South Africa. And it was Abreu's audacious chip in the quarter-final that ensured the trip to Cape Town.
Whether Abreu will play, what role Forlan will be given, whether Tabarez will actually make the changes he's reported to be considering - these are all in the realm of the hypothetical. The reality is that Uruguay are here, in the semi-finals, and they are up for the contest. The accidental tourists have designs on the World Cup.