In injury time, Luis Suarez sat on the Uruguay bench, the top of his shirt and bib clenched between his teeth, hands half-covering his eyes. His teammates stood around him, patting him on the back and ruffling his hair. There was anxiety as England threw ball after ball into the box, but there was also laughter. They all knew what Suarez had done, producing two sensational finishes with Uruguay’s only two shots on target of the game to down England.
Four weeks ago, he was having surgery on his knee; on Thursday, he was resurrecting his nation’s hopes of making it through to the knockout stage of the World Cup.
“They really love him,” said the Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez. “His teammates really love him. We all love him, because he’s a wonderful person and he’s a very important player for our team. And of course we admire him. We admire him and we’re very proud and very happy for many reasons. Some people say he had problems in his knee but we have respected him and his recovery and we decided from the beginning that we would just wait and see how he felt.”
The photographs that showed him leaving hospital in a wheelchair, it turned out, were misleading; he was able to walk but Uruguayan law demands patients leave the hospital in a chair.
INFOGRAPHIC: England may have no points, but what are its chances of going through?
“He’s been training,” Tabarez went on. “He has been able to train every day a little more, and today he has played in a way that has been really positive for our team. We told him from the beginning not to worry if things didn’t go well, that he might miss a ball and might not feel strong enough or whatever, but I really trust him and I know what he can do close to the goal.”
He also has a remarkable capacity to find his form instantly after an absence. His first 12 Premier League games after returning from his 10-game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic brought him 19 goals in 12 games. Others – notably Wayne Rooney – need time to play their way into form; Suarez seemingly just flicks a switch.
His two goals gave Uruguay its first victory over a European nation since beating the USSR in the quarterfinal in 1970 – a run of 15 games – a success that had Tabarez hailing his “destiny.” The reasons for the win might be rather more prosaic. Uruguay was unrecognizable from the shambles it had been in losing to Costa Rica in its opening game. In a sense, that was always likely: this is a side that prefers to sit back and absorb pressure, striking on the break. Against Costa Rica, compelled to take the initiative, it lost defensive structure.
Against England, Uruguay defended well, rode its luck as Rooney headed against the bar from a yard and hit another decent chance straight at Fernando Muslera, and struck with two lethal breakaways.
“Maybe we do not have a very attractive form of football but we keep fighting,” Tabarez said. “The players love their country."
And this time, of course, it had Suarez to take advantage, a player whose love for his country is such that he wept as he ran away in celebration after his winner and then broke down in tears again in a post-match interview on Uruguayan television.
The first goal was born of the tactical nous of Tabarez. He had been expected to play two flat banks of four in midfield but instead deployed Nicolas Lodeiro at the tip of a midfield diamond. That meant that not only was Egidio Arevalo Rios there at the back of midfield to do his Pacman job and stifle Rooney, but that Steven Gerrard had a player in his zone he had to try to deal with – with Edinson Cavani also ghosting into that zone from the left.
Sure enough, after Uruguay had regained possession, Suarez rolled a pass to Lodeiro, who ran at Gerrard, beat him all too easily and slipped a pass to Cavani. Perhaps he did get lucky, as Roy Hodgson claimed, with a ricochet off Glen Johnson’s shins, but his cross was then perfectly weighted and Suarez converted with a deft header.
“I thought we controlled Suarez well in general play,” said Hodgson. “He did very, very well to get away to the back post for the first goal, but quite frankly for long period of the game we kept him very quiet. We’re used to seeing him a lot more active around the penalty area than we saw him today.”
The second owed little to tactical acuity and everything to basic English errors and brilliance from Suarez. After England had got back into the game and was tearing forwards in search of a winner – thrillingly if naively – Muslera launched a long kick forwards, the ball glanced off Gerrard and Suarez somehow was allowed to run on to the loose ball before thumping a majestic finish past Joe Hart.
“The second goal was an unfortunate flick off Steven Gerrard’s head…” Hodgson went on. “[Suarez] doesn’t miss from that area. He was voted the player of the year by almost everybody in England: by the sportswriters, by his own players, by the league managers association, he was the player of the year. Today of course he’s coming back from injury so he was to some extent quieter than we’re used to seeing him but two chances came his way and as a top player he took his chances and that probably ended our chances of staying in the competition.”
England could still make it through if Italy beats Costa Rica Friday and then in the final set of games Italy beats Uruguay and England beats Costa Rica by a big enough margin to have the best goal difference of the three sides that would be on three points. Uruguay’s position is contingent on the other two games, but what is clear is that it has a much better chance of making it through than it appeared on Thursday morning – and for that Suarez and his remarkable powers of recovery are responsible.
Brian Straus contributed reporting to this story.