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Disciplined Uruguay a dark horse


On the wall of Oscar Washington Tabarez's house in Montevideo hangs a plaque bearing the motto, "One must toughen oneself without ever losing tenderness." It is a line attributed to Che Guevara, and marks El Maestro, as he has known, in the grand tradition of left-leaning South American footballing intellectuals. It is also a line that seems to summarize Tabarez's soccer philosophy; his Uruguay team is one rooted on a defense strong enough to keep three successive clean sheets in this World Cup, and yet it still has a swagger and a charm.

"When you plan a match, you must limit the potential of the opponent," Tabarez said, after seeing his team, for the third game running, stifle supposedly more creative opposition. "The tougher the opponent the more you have to work on that. The statistics show we had more chances although Mexico had more possession. Mexico's football, we know, is about excellent technical control of the football. But we defended well and created lots of problems for Mexico."

Jorge Fucile was superb at left back, negating the threat of Giovani dos Santos. Fucile would surely have been named man of the match if such things hadn't been rendered worthless by being put to a phone vote, which means it is almost always the goalscorer who is honored. "Dos Santos is an A-class player considering his age," Tabarez said. "He knows how to play with the team and has well thought-out actions which makes him dangerous, but we were able to neutralize him. Fucile did an impressive defensive job. He danced with the tough people and he excelled."

The center back, Diego Lugano, also had a fine game. He may err towards the dark side, with his nudges and bumps while challenging with opponents for high balls. However, although the moralists may not like it, disturbing the opponent in the challenge is part of the art of defending, and he is a magnificently powerful header of the ball as well.

Tabarez is an urbane, eloquent speaker, a former schoolteacher, who has a habit of cocking his head to one side as he listens to questions, and delaying for several seconds as he considers his answer. With his neatly parted grey hair, navy jacket and striped tie, he resembles a senior detective in a seventies cop show, but he is one of football's great thinkers, somebody who regards the game as a part of culture to be discussed and debated.

He has at times come in for criticism of his defensive approach, but he has no doubts about his philosophy. "You mustn't demonize the word defense," he said. "When a coach wants to be popular, they say they are an attacking coach. When a coach says he is defensive, it is assumed something is lacking But we have good attackers and we insist on the intelligence of players knowing when to attack and when to defend. This is a virtue. It is not a crime to be strong in defense."

Results vindicate him. As Tabarez says, Uruguay has not progressed on the back of draws -- as they did in 1986 -- but with two victories.

Given in the past 40 years its only victory in a World Cup finals match came against South Korea in Italy 20 years ago, that alone is some achievement, testament to his ability to mould a young side.

And Uruguay does have attacking prowess. Against France, in the first game, its aim was purely to frustrate, and it set out in a 4-4-2 with just Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan. In the two games since, Edinson Cavani has come in, and Uruguay has at times operated in a classical South American 4-3-1-2, with Forlan as the enganche (hook) between midfield and attack, and at times in a 4-3-3, with Cavani as a right winger with Forlan flanking Suarez to the left.

Forlan has had an excellent tournament so far, not merely in his two goals in the 3-0 win over South Africa -- the first time Uruguay had scored more than two in a World Cup game for 56 years -- but in his general approach play. Cavani's cross for Suarez's goal against Mexico was superb, while Suarez is a poacher of great ability, as a record of 35 goals in 33 league games for Ajax last season suggests.

So how far could Uruguay go? Subsequent events have perhaps devalued the defensive performance against France, but it may equally be that France would not have imploded quite so spectacularly had it won that game. Other sides might have been intimidated by the passionate atmosphere that backed South Africa in Petroria -- on Youth Day, the commemoration of the Soweto Uprising -- but Uruguay successfully defused the atmosphere, and hit three goals on the break. "There is cohesion, there is friendship among the players," Tabarez said. "They are dedicated to the job they have to do." And, it must be said, they are led by an intelligent and inspiring coach.

A second-round tie against the runners-up from Group B should be well within Uruguay's capabilities, and no side will relish trying to find openings in its organized rearguard. Given the past 40 years, even reaching the second round is a great achievement, something recognised by the parades of cars around Montevideo, a scene Tabarez lovingly painted after a phone conversation with his family. "The kids, the adolescents, the young people in the last decades have not seen anything like this," he said. "As a Uruguayan citizen I am very proud."

Mexico, although it progressed, may find things rather tougher. Its passing remains hypnotic, and had Francisco Rodriguez not missed a simple header, it may even have nicked a draw. The difference in class, though, was obvious, and defensive frailties will surely cost Mexico against Argentina in the second round. The way the full backs, Carlos Salcido and Ricardo Osorio, get forward is intoxicating, but it does leave Mexico hugely vulnerably on the flanks, which was, of course, precisely where Uruguay's goal originated.