A nation of 3,3 million. A footballing nation with two World Cup trophies and two Olympic victories. A national team that was perhaps not supposed to be in the international footballing limelight ever again. A team that was the last to qualify for World Cup 2010. Uruguay turned it all around by reaching the semi-finals and were the last South American side to depart from South Africa.
The World Cup will perhaps not be the start of Uruguayan supremacy in either South America or in the World Cup tournaments, but they provided an excellent reminder of the fact that you don’t need the best players to succeed in a major tournament. Since the margins at the highest level are nowadays minuscule, a smaller team have the possibility to succeed if they manage to maximise every inch of their potential and instil a system to deliver the maximum result. In this respect Uruguay are a prime example of a small nation making good of its modest resources. In Oscar Tabárez they have a coach with plenty of experience and an excellent grasp of tactics; a coach who crafted a strategy to get the best out of a decent, but by no means spectacular, squad. Eyebrows were raised when Tabárez decided to leave Porto’s Cristian Rodriguez out of the World Cup squad but no one is questioning his decision now. Tabárez assembled a highly functional squad that was defined not by any notion of silky attacking play (which Uruguay were more than capable of producing) but by their tremendous industry and spirit, willingness to take the bullet (Luis Suárez showed now tears when he knew he would miss the historic semi-final, simply being happy in the knowledge that Uruguay were there) and stoic adherence to their strategy.
When you have the best possible system in place for the players available, good players with relatively small statuses have a tendency to become giants overnight. This is down to the coherence of the team as an operational unit in which each player has a clearly defined role, with clearly defined tactical details, that are geared not only to maximise the potential of that player but also the overall system. When this kind of a system works (of course, it might be a huge failure), every player who is carrying out the details of the role to the button should immediately become a better player (the best examples would be the midfielders Diego Pérez and Egidio Arévalo). Therefore, the question is not which comes first the players or the system; the two are interconnected and inseparable.
Uruguay played their trademark ruthless, organised and diehard defensive game, always having an eye for the counter-attack. This approach is hardly surprising with Uruguay or out of the ordinary in today’s football for that matter, but what made their strategy special was their collectivity and work rate. All players, regardless of status or position, worked extremely hard for the team. This might sound like a banal thing to say, but without their collectivity Uruguay could not have made their audacious run for the World Cup title (in contrast, look at France for instance). Of course, work rate and togetherness are never enough if you don’t have good enough players to compete and one or two special attacking individuals to provide the creative push and end product (think of Roger Milla for Cameroon in 1990, Davor Suker for Croatia in 1998 and Angelos Charisteas for Greece in Euro 2004). Uruguay had two, Diego Forlán (the Player of the Tournament) and Luis Suaréz.
Forlán is finally getting the credit he deserves. For many years, Forlan has been one of the most lethal strikers in the World (scoring 120 goals in 208 games of La Liga football) but still some (usually people who entertain the fallacy that in the Premier League they play the best football) have downgraded him due to his unsuccessful spell at ManUtd. Now in 2010, even the “terminally myopic” could be expected to make a full recovery and become believers after Forlán sank Fulham in the Europa League final and scored more goals in the World Cup than the England team could manage collectively. At the age of thirty-one, Forlán is finally regarded among the best players in the world.
In an age of hyper-celebrity footballers, Forlán is a breath of fresh air. He is a first-class example of a national hero and a role model on and off the pitch. Defined as much by his exquisite skills as by his tremendous work ethic, Forlán is never seen petulantly sulking at his team mates or whining at the referee; he just goes about his business of doing what he passionately loves and what he is paid for, play football.
First and foremost, Forlán is a team player. However, with his individual effort he inspired a good team to become unforgettable which is the true mark of a great player. Forlán lifted Uruguay almost on to the World Cup podium and hopefully the kids in Uruguay are not wearing the shirt of some corporated galactic mega-star, but the sky-blue shirt of Uruguay. With Forlán printed on the back.