Óscar Tabárez: The maestro who gave Uruguay their spirit back

Óscar Tabárez is a man who is obsessed with history. As a former primary school teacher, he is obsessed with how the past can inform the present and there is rarely a press conference when he doesn’t make a reference to Uruguay’s illustrious history. It would make sense that Tabárez would be so eager to remind Uruguayan fans, and journalists, of teams of the past. He saw many them after all, though he was just three-years-old when La Celeste shocked the world in Maracanã and left a permanent scar on the Brazilian psyche.

Since that famous World Cup win in 1950, El Maestro has lived Uruguayan football as a fan, briefly as a player, and more than anything as a manager. The term “embodies what his team is all about” gets flung around a lot in football writing, so much so that it’s nearly a cliché, but when someone says that Tabárez embodies everything that the Uruguay national team is about, it’s a statement of fact. Quite like the history he so often references, Tabárez has arguably shaped the Uruguayan national team in more ways than any one man has ever influenced a football team.

To understand why this is the case, one would have to go back to the summer of 1986. The Uruguayan national team are 56 seconds into their Group E match against Scotland when José Batista throws himself into a two-footed lunge, leaving Gordon Strachan in a heap. There seemed little doubt in Joel Quiniou’s mind when he dished out the fastest red card in World Cup history and one would suspect that even Uruguay fans watching in the stands and at home had little argument with the decision. Uruguay would depart Mexico having failed to win a single game, their biggest contribution to the tournament coming through José Batista’s unwanted piece of history and a 6-1 thumping from Denmark, however more than just Uruguayan pride was hurt that summer.

The Uruguayan national team has always been about being aggressive and intense, possessing an intangible, almost mystical, quality known as Garra Charrúa. Given the size of Uruguay’s population – just over three million people – and the fact that the country is flanked by rivals and South American football behemoths Brazil and Argentina, Los Charrúas need such a spirit like this to defy the odds, like they have done repeatedly throughout their history. However, when Tabárez was first appointed as the national team manager, this spirit was crossing the line into cynicism.

The South Americans had struggled on the international stage, with the 1986 World Cup being the first tournament they had reached since 1974, having to failed to qualify for the 1978 and 1982 World Cups. La Celeste were beginning to garner a reputation for overly aggressive football, something not entirely uncommon during this time. Tabárez was well-known within the Uruguayan national team set up, and indeed in South American football. He had managed Uruguay’s Under-20s in two stints, with the last one ending as recently as 1987, and had won the Copa Libertadores with Peñarol.

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El Maestro’s brief was simple: improve the image of the national team, a task he fulfilled before moving back into club football with Boca Juniors. During Tabárez’s first stint as Uruguay manager, La Celeste reached the final of the 1988 Copa America before losing to the host, Brazil, and put in a much more respectable performance during the 1990 World Cup, albeit being eliminated at the same stage of the competition as they were in Mexico four years earlier.

Tabárez’s first spell as manager of Uruguay could be described as an appointment that stemmed the tide as, after he left, the team continued on the destructive path they had previously been on. The 1990 tournament was the last World Cup in which La Celeste would appear in for the rest of the decade. They were able to reach the 2002 World Cup, but once again failed to win a game and were dumped out in the group stages. When the country lost a play-off to Australia in 2006, failing to reach a third World Cup in four attempts, the federation once again turned to Tabárez.

El Maestro, who spent four years teaching before his re-appointment in 2006, inherited a national football scene more in crisis than how he found it 18 years earlier. Recognising a talent drain to Europe, Tabárez threw himself into the youth ranks of the national side and attempted to instill the Garra Charrúa Spirit, one that resembled the teams of his childhood rather than the cynical and aggressive game Uruguay had adopted. Tabárez ensured his philosophy was taught across the revamped national team setup, from the youth sides to the senior squad.

Tabárez’s methods slowly began to take hold and after a challenging qualification campaign, Uruguay achieved its goal of reaching the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After disappointing in so many previous tournaments, few fancied the South Americans to cause too many upsets. Given a group containing the hosts and the 2006 runners-up, France, Uruguay surprised everyone by finishing top and playing some of the tournament’s best football in the process. A Luis Suárez brace proved the difference in their first knockout round wins against South Korea, and it was his hand that proved the difference in a quarter-final win against Ghana.

The two surprise packages of the World Cup, the Netherlands and Uruguay, met in the semi-finals and played out the game of the tournament. In the end, the attacking verve of Arjen Robben and a wonder-strike from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst was enough to see the Netherlands progress 3-2, leaving Uruguay to contest the third-place play-off against Germany. Another entertaining 3-2 defeat was probably not how Tabárez would have liked his side to finish the tournament, but fourth place was the country’s best finish at a World Cup since 1970 and, even more importantly, Uruguay easily played the best and most entertaining football. In the following year’s Copa America, Uruguay carried on its form from South Africa, winning the tournament for the first time since 1995. As in South Africa, Uruguay won the Fair Play award, a further sign of the progress La Celeste had made since Mexico.

Under Tabárez, Uruguay have continued to compete at the top level, qualifying out of another difficult group before losing to Colombia during the 2014 World Cup and finishing fifth overall in Russia this past summer, only being denied another semi-final spot by eventual champions, France. With his future currently in doubt, Uruguay could very well be set for a future without Tabárez at the head of it. However, it is impossible for them ever to forget him or to forget the lessons that he taught them. Tabárez’s name is now destined to be a whole chapter of the history he has spent his tenure as coach so enthralled in.

By Kristofer McCormack for the SOUTH AMERICA series

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