Uruguay prepares for the end of its golden generation

Luis Suárez arrived first. And in the normal course of events, for a city like Salto – a sleepy place tucked away in a remote corner of...


Luis Suárez arrived first. And in the normal course of events, for a city like Salto – a sleepy place tucked away in a remote corner of a small country – that would have been its claim to fame: producing one of the best strikers in a generation. Except that, precisely three weeks later, a second arrived.

Edinson Cavani grew up just a few blocks from Suárez. The curiosity that the two players who for more than a decade would help make the Uruguayan national team one of the most powerful in the world were born so quickly, in such close proximity, gives their origin story a slightly fantastic glow. Lightning, after all, isn’t meant to strike twice.

If this sounds like sheer coincidence, the sort of thing that couldn’t – wouldn’t – will happen again, that’s not quite how they see it in Salto, Uruguay.

“It’s a coincidence, of course, but it’s not just luck,” said Fabián Coito, longtime youth coach in Uruguay. “There are a lot of football teams in Salto. Children play from an early age, in competitive leagues. It is industrial and agricultural. This is the kind of place where this sort of thing is more likely to happen.

This is the story that Uruguay, more broadly, has been telling itself for some time, how the country explains its disproportionate role in world football, its status as a two-time World Cup winner, in 1930 and 1950. Yet even by these standards, the past decade has been something of a golden age.

A stubborn defense, built around the indomitable Diego Godín and complemented by a diamond attack, including Suárez and Cavani, has made Uruguay, by some measures, arguably the most consistently successful soccer nation in America. from South.

The last three World Cups have brought a semi-final, a quarter-final and a place in the round of 16, a better performance than Argentina, and the equal of Brazil. There was also a Copa America title. Uruguay has done it all with a population of just three million. It is a place where lightning strikes more often than expected.

Slowly, suddenly, however, a shadow creeps into Uruguay’s place in the sun. Their last two World Cup qualifiers, against Argentina and Brazil, have ended in heavy defeats, and a second leg against Argentina on Friday in Montevideo and a visit to Bolivia on Tuesday offer little respite. Uruguay sit fifth in the South American qualifiers ahead of these games, risking missing an automatic qualifying spot for Qatar 2022, and the risk of straying from the safety net of a playoff spot.

For the first time, the coach who oversaw Uruguay’s revival on the international stage – Óscar Washington Tabárez, 74, his movement but not, he insisted, his abilities now restricted by Guillain syndrome -Barred – seemed vulnerable. There are those in Uruguay who believe his day is over.

For many, the very idea borders on the unthinkable, somewhere between anathema and heresy. Suárez suggested it shows how successful “spoiled” people – fans, journalists, executives, maybe even gamers – have been. One of his teammates, the imposing central defender José María Giménez, lamented that “football has no memory”. Even Diego Forlán, the now retired striker in a role of beloved statesman, looked hurt. “It would hurt me,” he said after the team’s last two losses, “if it ended like this.”

It didn’t end, of course, or at least it didn’t end then. In the aftermath of the defeat against Brazil, Tabárez and his assistants were summoned to the headquarters of the Uruguayan football federation. For two hours, they pleaded their case to the executives. The leaders of the federation have agreed to sleep on the decision; the next morning they confirmed that Tabárez would remain in place.

It looked, however, of a sudden delayed rather than avoidable. Tabárez could be removed from his post at the end of the year, to give his replacement time to prepare for the finals of qualifying in 2022, or when Uruguay fail to reach Qatar. If the country qualifies, it will leave, at the latest absolute, when its participation in the world Cup is finished. No one really wonders if the Tabárez cycle is over. They are just discussing when.

It’s not just the manager, however, who is in this position. “Time is running out,” Coito said regretfully. Many South African veterans, including Forlán, the player of the tournament in 2010, and Diego Lugano, the captain, have retired. Those who remain are in the fall of their careers. Godín, the grizzled heart of the defense, is 35 years old. Fernando Muslera too, the gifted and erratic goalkeeper. Suárez is 34 and Cavani only three weeks younger.

Qatar will also mark the end of its roads, one way or another. As that bookend looms on the horizon, Uruguay has been forced to grapple with a question it has been fortunate enough to ignore for more than a decade: What is life like after? Golden age ?

“Of course there is a bit of a coincidence in having three top attackers – Suárez, Cavani and Forlán – on the same squad,” said Tito Sierra, agent, talent scout and investor in multiple teams. Uruguayan. “But we’ve done it every decade. There is always more talent.

His optimism is rooted in history. When the best player Uruguay produced, Enzo Francescoli, faded, he was replaced by Rúben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca. When their time passed, came the charismatic brutality of Paolo Montero and the vacillating brilliance of Álvaro Recoba.

Suárez, Cavani, Godín and the others are not the culmination of a process, but simply another chapter in the autobiography of Uruguay, its history as a place that is not subject to chance, where the lightning continues to strike.

Others, however, are not so confident. For some, it is simply an appreciation of what this generation has accomplished. “The bar is very high,” said Germán Brunati, sporting director of Montevideo City Torque, the South American brand of City Football Group, the organization behind Manchester City and New York City FC. years at the top level in Europe is not going to be easy.

For others, however, the concern runs deeper. Forlán, for his part, expressed concern that the country, stagnant in self-righteousness, is not doing enough to build on the legacy of Tabárez and his team. “We have a very rich history, but the world is going one way and we are going another,” he said. “I’m comparing 10-year-olds here with 10-year-olds in Europe, and they don’t come close.”

The immediate evidence suggests that Forlán’s vision is a bit apocalyptic. Uruguay have qualified for every Under-20 World Cup since 2005, a record even Argentina and Brazil can’t match. “And we didn’t just attend the tournaments,” said Coito, who was in charge of the country team in two editions. “We animated them, reaching a final, the semi-finals.”

Many of these young players are now thriving in Europe. Beyond his core of veterans, Tabárez – when his choices aren’t limited by injury – can call on Ronald Araújo, a defender who is emerging as a star at Barcelona; Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde; and the elegant Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus. The latter is the oldest of the three, at 24 years old. Giménez, anointed for a long time as Godín’s heir, is only 26 years old. It is hoped that Darwin Nuñez, currently with Benfica, and Valencia’s Maxi Gómez could prove to be long-term replacements for Suárez and Cavani.

“Obviously they are not at that level yet,” said Brunati, the sporting director. “A lot will depend on their mentality, but the raw material is there. “

He is also not convinced that they will not be alone. Brunati doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of ​​an innate and mystical superiority over Uruguayan football – what they call garra charrúa, an indomitable fighting spirit – but there are conditions, he said, that play out. in favor of the country.

“Every year there is an exodus of players,” he said. “You can earn more by playing not only in Brazil and Argentina, but also in Peru and Ecuador. And these places are then occupied by younger players. Players can go from here to improve their technique or tactical knowledge, but they are experienced in the competition. And it is something that is coveted everywhere.

Coito, one afternoon this week, was in Montevideo, the capital, to watch babyfútbol. The players on whom he glances are 5 or 6. They are only two teams, in a park, in a city. There are thousands more across the country.

There may not be Suárez or Cavani among them, but they will be there, somewhere, another love at first sight. “The players will come,” he said. “They might be different, but there are always more players. “

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