Four years ago, in the opening game of the last Copa America, Uruguay went down 3-0 to Peru. Panic stations!
Veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez had taken over for a second spell in charge of the national team. A studious figure, known as "el Maestro" for his teaching qualifications, Tabarez had spent the previous years dwelling on how little Uruguay, with a population of just 3 million, could recapture former footballing glories in a globalized world. One of his conclusions had been that the national team, at all levels, would play an old fashioned 4-3-3 formation, something which he had decided was intrinsic to the identity of Uruguayan soccer.
But as Winston Churchill once said, "however brilliant the strategy, one should occasionally look at the results." That 3-0 mauling by Peru meant that after just one competitive game Tabarez opted to abandon any inflexible obsession with 4-3-3. "Reality was too strong for us," reflected the coach a few years later, "and we realized that we have to change our formation according to our opponents."
Uruguay regrouped after its defeat, tightened up its defense and conceded no more goals in its two remaining first phase matches. Uruguay only scored one, but the regulations of the Copa America came to its rescue -- of the 12 participants, 8 go through to the quarterfinals. A win and a draw were enough to seal Uruguay's place, and then it was away, picking up momentum as it went. It eliminated the hosts Venezuela and then probably shaded a draw with Brazil in the semifinal. It went to penalties. Had midfielder Pablo Garcia, one of its most experienced players, scored with his kick instead of hitting the post then Uruguay, and not Brazil would have met Argentina in the final.
But there was no reason for Tabarez to be downcast. He had found a group of players to take him into the marathon World Cup qualification campaign. He also had a pair of highly promising strikers, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, ready to be promoted from the U-20 team. With a good youth development structure in place, there was every reason for Tabarez to face the long term with optimism.
The short term proved more problematic. Uruguay paid a price for throwing a relatively young side into the ultra competitive environment of the World Cup qualifiers. Performances were inconsistent, and sweating to the last, Uruguay booked its place in South Africa through the back door, finishing fifth in the table and having to go through a playoff against Costa Rica.
But once Uruguay had made sure of its presence in the World Cup, the whole emotional mood changed. "The qualification campaign is something to be suffered," said Tabarez, "the World Cup is to be enjoyed." It is all the more enjoyable with a dangerous strike force at your disposal. Mixing attacking threat with defensive grit, Uruguay reached the semifinals. It was Uruguay's first foray into the last four since 1970 -- generations had grown up believing that, unlike their grandfathers, they would never see their national team do so well. A mood of euphoria took hold of Uruguayan soccer. What Tabrez refers to as "the curse of 1950" had been laid to rest -- the melancholy feeling that the team that beat Brazil to win Uruguay's last world title in 1950 was the true champion, and that its latter day successors were hardly worthy of wearing the shirt.
And so now Uruguay cross the border to Argentina anxious to maintain its momentum and prolong the feel good factor. History is on its side; its 14 Copa America wins include two versions held in Argentina, the first tournament, in 1916, and 1987, the previous occasion on which its neighbor hosted the competition. And its present day situation is good; Uruguay are taking the same group that went to South Africa last year. For some it will surely be their final tournament, but with the pressure off, Tabarez can afford to make serene progress -- during the course of the next set of World Cup qualifiers he will gently replace some of his veterans with graduates from the U-20 squad. And there is a powerful extra motivational factor; a Uruguay triumph will out them ahead of Argentina by 15 to 14 in the all time Copa America -- an achievement that the Uruguayans would relish all the more for taking place on the soil of their neighbors and rivals.
There are, however, a couple of clouds on the horizon. One, acknowledged by Tabarez, is a problem with the goalkeeping position. First choice Fernando Muslera is athletic and capable of dazzling saves. But he is also prone to nerves at decisive moments. Second choice Juan Castillo is simply not good enough. Third choice Martin Silva might even be the safest bet, but the lack of a quality option is a cause for concern.
The other possible worry is highlighted by a statistic from the World Cup. In all of their games, Uruguay had less possession than its opponents, but despite this managed more shots. One reading of this figure is as a tribute to the firepower of Uruguay's strikers. Another is that it betrays a lack of midfield elaboration.
Indeed, Tabarez faced a problem with this very area last year. Playmaker Ignacio Gonzalez was discarded after one game, and his replacement Nicolas Lodeiro was out of action after being sent off. Tabarez found a solution by dropping Diego Forlan a few yards deeper, and asking him to set up the play as well as operate as a striker. It worked wonderfully well, helped by the fact that his fellow strikers, Suarez and especially Cavani, were prepared to work so hard in the collective cause. Indeed, Forlan was chosen as the player of the tournament.
But he is now a year older. At 32, will Forlan still be sharp enough to fill the role? True, Cavani and Suarez have come on considerably since last year, forming perhaps the most dangerous attack in the competition. But they still need someone to move the ball with quality through the midfield and take some of the strain off Forlan.
Lodeiro is one candidate. He scored last week against Estonia, but he has suffered an injury-hit season and has yet to establish himself at Ajax. Another possibility is Gaston Ramirez of Bologna, who has been given a few opportunities in friendlies but has yet to look comfortable.
This is a key area for Uruguay because its central midfielders -- Diego Perez, Egidio Arevalo Rios, Walter Gargano -- are unselfish runners and markers, but offer little in possession. Frequent substitute Sebastian Eguren is a fiery character with the lung power to burst into the opposing penalty box, but his passing is unlikely to unlock an international defense.
This lack of creativity in midfield, then, is perhaps the biggest impediment to Uruguay's hopes of a record breaking 15th title. Their strikers are hungry lions. Who will serve them at feeding time?