Tuesday 25 September 2018

Uruguay have never lost the will to fight and this year's model follows a potent tradition

Luis Suarez celebrates after putting Uruguay into the lead in their final group game against Russia. Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
Luis Suarez celebrates after putting Uruguay into the lead in their final group game against Russia. Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
James Lawton

James Lawton

Maybe Lionel Messi has found a beam of reviving light, perhaps Brazil have rediscovered their destiny as football's most beautiful team but tomorrow night in Sochi the issue is as basic, as unfanciful, as a street fight.

Ronaldo v Suarez is rather more than another football contest.

It is a collision, whatever else it involves, of magnificently consistent wills supported by some extremely cold steel.

After the unfathomably gutless departure of reigning champions Germany, Uruguay and Portugal could well remind us that the pursuit of the highest ambition requires a most vital ingredient.

It is something that hurts and transfigures as it carries individual players and teams to new competitive levels.

Also, it doesn't pop up at convenient moments but is bred in the bones.

This, with all deference to the stunning and largely self-generated commitment of Cristiano Ronaldo against Spain, is especially true of Uruguay and their reigning superstar Suarez.

Heaven knows, Suarez is not the most engaging of football heroes - and there have been times when the game of Uruguay has represented nothing so starkly as tank-trap defence.

But then as the great powers have stuttered, and Germany hit rock bottom, in Russia, the South Americans have again called attention to arguably the most remarkable record in the history of international football.

The most stunning statistic of all is that only six nations with smaller populations have qualified for World Cup finals - Northern Ireland, three times to their immense credit, Slovenia twice, Wales, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Iceland - and this is set against Uruguay's two World Cup wins, three fourth places, two Olympic gold medals and the most Copa America wins drawn from a population that has now swollen to a mere 3.5 million.

Uruguay hosted and won the first great tournament 88 years ago and though it is true they entered a period of decline, especially creatively, after finishing fourth under the shadow of the Brazil of 1970 (Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao and Carlos Alberto, and a population of 200 million) their renewed World Cup weight has been re-established impressively, if at times savagely, since winning fourth place in South Africa eight years ago.

It's true that their return to high status - they lost the third- place game 3-2 to a Germany who would go on to crushing triumph in Brazil four years later - was besmirched, at least in the eyes of all those who didn't believe that winning was the only thing - by Suarez's gleeful celebration of Ghana's missed penalty after he had been red-carded for a shameless hand-ball.

Four years ago, Suarez paid a much greater price for the lawlessness of his cannibal munching of Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder but again the play of Suarez carried a heavy consequence… the ejection at the group stage of Italy and England.

And so, the strange but compelling mystique of Uruguay lives, wildly, dangerously again - a fact which surged to the surface with their demolition of Russia the other day, a performance filled with authority and triggered by the razor sharpness of Suarez's early free-kick.

They administered the same treatment to the South African hosts eight years ago - and by the same score.

Suarez, Uruguay's top scorer in international football, had the impressively combative Diego Forlan alongside him back then and now he is supported by a potentially revived Edinson Cavani and the superb, driving captaincy of the defensive lion Diego Godin.

The Atletico Madrid defender has not been slow to acknowledge the value to him and his colleagues of their football inheritance.

In Uruguay, he suggests, it came with the air they breathed.

"When you are a kid you play football knowing that at every level it is more than just a game," says Godin. "It has always been so important in the life of the country. When you are a boy, however much talent you have, you learn you have to fight - or you disappear."

How, you wonder, does an inordinately talented youth disappear in a country with a population which at its apex of football strength was barely two-and-a-half million?

You fail a test that down the years has been passed gloriously by players like the endlessly inventive Juan Alberto Schiaffino, the masterful defender Jose Santamaria and, even in the fallow years of the eighties, Enzo Francescoli, who was known as The Prince for his fine skill and his lordly air.

Schiaffino and Santamaria played together in what many still believe the finest World Cup game ever, the semi-final with Hungary in 1954.

Uruguay pulled back two goals before losing to the celebrated Hungarians in extra-time. Santamaria had a Spanish bloodline and he transferred to the colours of Spain, but not before returning his native country to the hierarchy of the game. He also won six La Liga titles and four European Cups with Real Madrid.

Can Godin and Suarez and Cavani achieve such distinction for their country? It could be that, like Spain, they are impaled by another Ronaldo eruption, but if it happens they should not be so easily forgotten.

The Russian World Cup, thus far, has cried out for evidence that some teams have brought more than professional skill and huge bank balances. The need has been for unequivocal statements of the highest ambition.

Some believe that last night's phony war between the already-qualified England and Belgium will deliver two serious contenders in the sudden-death action. Others say the Brazilian star is beginning to shine and no one can doubt the resolve of Croatia with their nine points and ravaging of Argentina.

In the meantime, Ronaldo against Suarez, the champions of Europe against the team who have never lost the will to fight, offers a rare certainty.

It is of a game utterly at home in the greatest tournament of them all.

Irish Independent

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