Tabarez the driving force behind Uruguay's rise to soccer greatness
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- One figure has dominated this Copa America. The shadow of Sergio Markarian, the balding, bespectacled Peru coach who had such an influence on the philosophy of the sides who finished first, second and third, lurked in the background, but the man of the tournament was the tall, grey-haired figure with the limp who calmly wandered around shaking hands and exchanging hugs at fulltime in the final, as his players cavorted in one great mass of celebration.
What Oscar Washington Tabarez has done to Uruguayan football over the past five years may be without precedent. Five years ago, when he took the job, la Celeste had failed to qualify for the World Cup. He insisted on having complete control over all levels of the Uruguayan national team; the decision to centralise power has been emphatically vindicated. The U-17 side reached the final of the World Cup earlier this month. The U-20 side reached the final of the South American Championship and, in so doing, qualified for the Olympics at Argentina's expense. The senior side reached the semifinal of the Copa America in 2007 and the World Cup last year. And, in Buenos Aires on Sunday, Uruguay won the Copa America for a record 15th time.
The only downside to its victory in the final was that it was so emphatic. A 3-0 win over Paraguay was thoroughly deserved, but it did mean that the finale to a tournament high on drama and perhaps a little lacking in quality was more of a procession than a climax.
The problem if you set up to contain is that you're pretty much stuffed if you concede the first goal -- and that was precisely was what happened to Paraguay. It started out in a 4-5-1, albeit with Nelson Haedo Valdez cutting in from the left to support Pablo Zeballos, the center forward, the aim presumably being to cut the supply to Uruguay's front two, Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan, the area in which Uruguay had an obvious advantage. It failed, which is not necessarily to blame Gerardo Martino. To a large degree, the Paraguay coach had no option but to be cautious. Having lost Roque Santa Cruz to injury and with Lucas Barrios struggling, he was desperately short of attacking options, although he could perhaps have included Marcelo Estigarribia on the left.
Uruguay began at a ferocious tempo, a concerted plan to get the first goal early, and tried to prevent Paraguay from settling and shredding its tactical approach from the off. By the time Suarez put Uruguay ahead after 13 minutes, it had already had a string of chances. Suarez had drawn a low save from Justo Villar at his near post, and Diego Lugano had forced Villar into a superb block -- yet another one in what has been an excellent tournament for Estudiantes' new keeper -- from the resulting corner, only the hand of Nestor Ortigoza then stopping Sebastian Coates forcing in the rebound. When it came, the opening goal was opportunistic, and showed just why Suarez is such a valuable player.
"Garra" is a much-talked about concept and represents the core of Uruguayan football. Literally the word means "claw," but its use in football combines mental toughness, determination, resilience, streetwiseness and cunning; basically, the ability to win a game. Suarez has it in abundance. He is awkward and must infuriate defenders, but is also brave and skillful and endlessly imaginative. He has that golden ability to defy to turn a sniff of a chance into something concrete. When Maxi Pereira's cross was deflected to him, even controlling the dropping, spinning ball took astonishing control. He then jinked by Dario Veron and sent a low finish skidding, via a slight deflection, just inside the post. That capacity gives Tabarez a get out; if the worst comes to the worst, he can just leave Suarez up the pitch, pack men behind the ball and rely on the Liverpool forward to generate something.
Not that there was any need for such functionality on Sunday. Uruguay was in complete control, the extra man Paraguay had in midfield negated in part by the way Forlan dropped back from his second-striker position, and in part by the advances of Maxi Pereira and Martin Caceres from fullback. Victor Caceres, the Paraguay holder, was so deep that Forlan was pretty much operating in his zone anyway.
After the initial surge, Uruguay took a breath, and then came again before halftime. The tournament entered its sentimental stage. Judging by the responses to the announcement of the team, Forlan is by some way the most popular Uruguayan but, after a difficult season with Atletico Madrid in which he fell out with his coach, Quique Sanchez Flores, and he became tabloid fodder after the break-up of his relationship with his fiancee Zaira Nara, he had struggled with his finishing at the Copa, well as he has played in general.
Two goals, both sumptuous -- the first following a neat pass from Egidio Arevale Rios, the second after a clinical break ended with Suarez cushioning Edinson Cavani's cross into his path -- secured the 3-0 win and took Forlan level with Hector Scarone as Uruguay's all-time top-scorer. They also made Forlan the third member of his family, after his father Pablo and his grandfather Juan Carlos Corazo, to win the tournament.
Shortly before the second, as the crowd chanted for the forward Sebastian Abreu, Tabarez brought on Diego Godin, who has been struggling with a virus. That ensured that all of his outfielder players had played some part in the victory, a typically classy touch that emphasised just why this Uruguay side give such an impression of being a collective.
It is collective virtues that won this Copa. Brazil and Argentina have better individuals, and they have more of them, but neither found a way of effectively deploying those raw materials.
Uruguay, meanwhile, was the best
And so the greatest plaudits must go to the man who created that team, Oscar Washington Tabarez.