Uruguay braces for the end of its golden generation

Luis Suárez arrived first. And in the ordinary, for a city like Salto – a sleepy place tucked away in a remote corner of a small country – it’s claimed to be famous: producing one of those moneys. The best leader of a generation. Except for that, exactly three weeks later, a second arrived.

Edinson Cavani grew up just a few streets away from Suárez. The curiosity that two players would, over a decade, help turn the Uruguay national team into one of the strongest in the world, born in such rapid succession, makes the origin story of the Uruguayan. they become hazy. After all, lightning is not allowed to strike twice.

If it feels like an absolute coincidence, the unlikely – won’t – happen again, which is not how they saw it in Salto, Uruguay.

“It’s an opportunity, of course, but it’s not just an opportunity,” said Fabián Coito, a longtime youth team coach in Uruguay. “There are a lot of football teams in Salto. Children play from an early age, in competitive tournaments. It is industry and agriculture. That’s where that kind of thing is more likely to happen. “

That is the story Uruguay, more broadly speaking, has been telling itself for some time, how it explains its outsized role in global football, its status as a two-time World Cup champion. , in 1930 and 1950. Even by those standards, however, the previous decade was something of a golden age.

A solid defence, built around the indomitable Diego Godín and complemented by a diamond-like attack, which included Suárez and Cavani, has turned Uruguay – by some measures – arguably national most successful football in South America.

The last three World Cups have brought a semi-final, a quarter-final and a place in the round of 16, outperforming Argentina and on par with Brazil. There was also a Copa América title awarded. Uruguay has done it all with a population of just three million. This is where lightning strikes more often than expected.

Slowly, however, a shadow was creeping into Uruguay’s position in the sun. Its last two World Cup qualifiers, against Argentina and Brazil, have yielded heavy setbacks, and Friday’s second leg against Argentina in Montevideo and Tuesday’s visit to Bolivia provide little respite. . Uruguay finished fifth in the South American qualifiers entering those matches, in danger of missing out on an automatic qualifying spot for Qatar 2022, and risk falling off the safety net of a playoff kick.

For the first time ever, the coach who oversaw Uruguay’s resurgence on the international stage – Óscar Washington Tabárez, 74, who has insisted his abilities are limited by Guillain-Barré syndrome – seems easy. hurt. There are people in Uruguay who believe his days are over.

For many, the very idea lies in the unimaginable range, somewhere between anathema and heresy. Suárez suggests that it shows how successful “spoiled” people – fans, journalists, executives, maybe even players – have been successful. One of his teammates, the towering central defender José María Giménez, lamented that “football has no memory”. Even Diego Forlán, the now retired striker playing the role of a beloved elder statesman, looked injured. “It would hurt me,” he said after the team’s last two defeats, “if it ended like this.”

Of course, it didn’t end, or at least it didn’t end then. After the loss to Brazil, Tabárez and his assistants were summoned to the headquarters of the Uruguayan football federation. In two hours, they asked the chief executive officer of their case. The leaders of the federation agreed to sleep with the decision; the next morning, they confirmed that Tabárez would remain in place.

However, it had the air of a hit that was delayed, rather than avoided. Tabárez could be dropped from his position later this year, to give his replacement time to prepare for the final stage of qualifying in 2022, or the time when Uruguay fails to get past Qatar. If the country qualifies, he will leave, at the latest, when that country joins World Cup passed. No one really argues if Tabárez’s cycle is over. They simply discussed when.

However, it is not only the manager who is in that position. “Time flies,” Coito said sadly. Many South African veterans – including Forlán, player of the 2010 tournament and Diego Lugano, captain – have retired. Those who stay are in the fall of the career. Godín, the gray heart of the defense, age 35. Fernando Muslera, a talented but erratic goalkeeper, is also. Suárez is 34 years old and Cavani is just three weeks younger.

Qatar will also mark the end of their path, one way or another. As that boom loomed over the horizon, Uruguay was forced to face a question it had fortunately ignored for more than a decade: What does life after the golden age look like?

“Of course, it is a bit of a coincidence that there are three of the best strikers – Suárez, Cavani and Forlán – on the same team,” said Tito Sierra, an agent, talent scout and investor in several teams. Uruguay team said. “But we’ve been doing this every decade. There is always more talent. ”

His optimism is rooted in history. When the best player Uruguay produced, Enzo Francescoli, faded, he was replaced by the likes of Rúben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca. As their days passed, with Paolo Montero’s charismatic brutality and Álvaro Recoba’s sparkling brilliance.

Suárez, Cavani, Godín and the rest are not the culmination of a process, but simply another chapter in Uruguayan autobiography, its story as a place independent of random chance , where the lightning continued to strike.

However, others are not completely confident. For some, it’s simply an appreciation of what this generation has achieved. “The bar is very high,” said Germán Brunati, sporting director of Montevideo City Torque, the South American imprint of City Football Group, the organization behind Manchester City and New York City FC, “Replacing players who already have 15 The year to compete at the top level in Europe will not be easy. “

For others, however, the concerns are deeper. Forlán, for one, has openly feared that the country, stagnating in complacency, is not doing enough to build on the legacy of Tabárez and his team. “We have a very rich history, but the world moves in one direction, and we go in another,” he said. “I compare 10-year-olds here with 10-year-olds in Europe, and they don’t come close.”

Instant proof that Forlán’s vision was a bit apocalyptic. Uruguay has surpassed every Under-20 World Cup since 2005, a record that no other Argentina or Brazil can match. “And we don’t just go to tournaments,” said Coito, who was in charge of the country’s team in two editions. “We motivated them, to get to the final, to the semi-final.”

Many young players are currently thriving in Europe. Beyond a core of veterans, Tabárez – when his options are not limited by injury – can call on the likes of Ronald Araújo, a defender emerging as a star at Barcelona; Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde; and the elegant Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus. The second is the oldest of those three, at the age of 24. Giménez, long anointed as Godín’s heir, is only 26. There is hope that Darwin Nuñez, now at work for Benfica, and Valencia’s Maxi Gómez could prove to be a long-term replacement for Suárez and Cavani.

“Obviously they’re not at that level yet,” said sporting director Brunati. “A lot will depend on their mentality, but the ingredients are there.”

Nor, he was confident, they would be alone. Brunati doesn’t necessarily accept the idea of ​​some innate, mystical superiority over Uruguayan football – what they call garra charrúa, an indomitable fighting spirit – but there are conditions, he said , beneficial to the country.

“Every year, there is an exodus of players,” he said. “You can make more money playing not only in Brazil and Argentina, but also in Peru and Ecuador. And those places are then taken over by more young players. The players leaving here may need to improve their technique or tactical knowledge, but they have competition experience. And that’s what everywhere is coveted.”

Coito, one afternoon this week, was in the capital Montevideo, watching babyfútbol. The players he is keeping an eye on are 5 or 6. These are just two teams, in one park, in one city. There are thousands more across the country.

There may not be Suárez or Cavani among them, but they will be out there, somewhere, another flash of blue. “The players will come,” he said. “They may be different, but there are always more players.” Uruguay braces for the end of its golden generation

Dustin Huang

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