Uruguay makes South American statement in demolishing Jordan
AMMAN, Jordan -- It was a good 10 minutes after the final whistle had blown that Uruguay's players, having celebrated in front of their fans, finally left the pitch. They were applauded off by the few thousand Jordanian fans who had remained, a sporting gesture but one that seemed rather to sum up the gulf between the sides. Before the game, a number of Jordan's fans had insisted that Kalil Baniateyah and Ahmed Ibrahim would outshine Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but the sense had been that mainly they were excited to have players of that stature playing in their country.
If this really was, as the qualifying tables would suggest, the fifth-best team in Asia playing the fifth-best team in South America (without Brazil), then Sepp Blatter's stated desire to increase Asian representation, possibly at the expense of South America, looks even more ridiculous than it did when he first mooted it.
"South American qualifying is the most difficult in the world and you saw the quality of the South American sides at the World Cup in South Africa," said Uruguay's coach Oscar Washington Tabarez.
The real problem was that the sense of awe was evident from the start. Jordan's fans were enthusiastic, noisily sang their national anthem and raised their keffiyeh to create a carpet of red and white, but there was never the nastiness or the intensity that might have upset Uruguay. Luis Suarez was booed and there was jeering before the national anthem, but it stopped as soon as the anthem began: there was a lack of hostility to the atmosphere.
That, of course, is for the most part a very positive thing, but it didn't help Jordan's chances. Besides which, there are few sides in the world less likely to be intimidated than Uruguay. La garra -- literally 'the claw' but a term that brings in toughness, streetwiseness and cunning -- is celebrated as a national characteristic, and in Tabarez, Uruguay have one of the most astute and experienced coaches there is.
He is 66 now, and walks with a stick, his lined face noticeably softer than it was at the last World Cup, when he resembled the stern but scrupulous precinct chief from a seventies cop show, but he still speaks with the same patience and wisdom he always has.
Before the game, he had been keen to prevent complacency, speaking of his willingness "to put up the umbrella" if necessary. But in his selection of Nicolas Lodeiro rather than Walter Gargano -- the only change from the side that beat Argentina last month -- he showed he expected his side to take the initiative. Sure enough, the Botafogo playmaker set up the second for Christian Stuani with a delicious angled pass after a clever dummy from Cavani, and then scored the third, sweeping in Cavani's cut-back.
"I don't think it was a great game but the difference was in the power of the Uruguayan attack against the Jordanian defense," Tabarez said.
And that really was the truth of it: Jordan show glimmers of possibility, but too often misplaced the final ball, while Uruguay was ruthless. Maxi Pereira got the first, stabbing in from close range after Cavani's header had been saved with needless extravagance by Mohamed Shatnawi, playing in goal because Amer Shafi, the hero against Uzbekistan, was suspended.
Cristian Rodgriguez crashed in a fourth and Cavani completed the scoring with a superb late free kick. It was all very simple.
Jordanian fans were left to grumble at their coach, Hossam Hassan, who arrived late in the qualifying process and whose preference for youth left many perplexed, but for the hundreds from Uruguay there was glee.
Many had come from Israel, descendants of Uruguayan Jews who made aliyah in the fifties, and in a handful of cases those who had emigrated. One 86 year old fan was there with his children and grandchildren and carried a Uruguayan flag he had waved at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro in 1950, when Uruguay beat Brazil in the final game to win the World Cup. For him and his family and dozens like them, this was an unexpected once-in-a lifetime chance to watch Uruguay live.
Jordan now must pick itself up, hope things aren't too embarrassing in the away leg in Montevideo next week, and then look to build on the gains of this qualifying.
"We have a philosophy dealing with our coaching staff and players but we have been working on grass-roots, which is a little bit lacking in Asia," Prince Ali bin-Hussein, brother of the king, president of the Jordanian Football Association and a FIFA vice president, explained. "That is one of the reasons that has helped this team to get where they are. We have had them in place for a while. Many of the players on this team played in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Canada. They were products of youth centers across the world. This includes the boys and girls. The focus is on the boys today. But the girls have become the first team anywhere from West Asian to qualify for the Asian championship."
The top five of the eight sides competing in Vietnam next May then qualify for the women's World Cup in Canada in 2015, and qualifying for that tournament is perhaps a more realistic goal for Jordanian soccer.
The men's team simply ran into a side that was much, much better than it and a coach who was much smarter than its own. In the applause after the final whistle, there was at least a recognition of that.