The Little Country That Could Wonders if It Still Can

Luis Suárez arrived first. And in the ordinary run of things, for a city like Salto — a sleepy place tucked into a distant corner of a tiny country — that would have been its claim to fame: producing one of the finest strikers of a generation. Except that, precisely three weeks later, a second arrived.

Edinson Cavani grew up only a few streets from Suárez. The curiosity that the two players who would, for more than a decade, help turn Uruguay’s national team into one of the most potent in the world were born in such quick succession, in such proximity, lends their origin story a faintly fantastical gleam. Lightning, after all, is not supposed to strike twice.

If it feels like sheer coincidence, the sort of thing that could not — would not — happen again, that is not quite how they see it in Salto, Uruguay.

“It is chance, of course, but it is not just chance,” said Fabián Coito, a longtime youth coach in Uruguay. “There are a lot of soccer teams in Salto. Kids play from a young age, in competitive leagues. It is industrial and agricultural. It is the sort of place where that kind of thing is more likely to happen.”

That is the story Uruguay, more broadly, has told itself for some time, the way the country explains its outsize role in global soccer, its status as a two-time World Cup winner, in 1930 and 1950. Yet even by those standards, the last decade or so has been something of a golden age.

An obdurate defense, built around the indomitable Diego Godín and complemented by a diamond-bladed attack, comprising Suárez and Cavani, has turned Uruguay into — by some measures — arguably soccer’s most consistently successful nation in South America.

Credit…Raul Martinez/EPA, via Shutterstock
In Salto, the home of Cavani and Suárez, pride in their native sons is everywhere.Credit…Raul Martinez/EPA, via Shutterstock
Photos of Cavani adorn walls in the city, and a statue celebrates Suárez on a sidewalk.Credit…Raul Martinez/EPA, via Shutterstock

The last three World Cups have brought a semifinal, a quarterfinal and a place in the last 16, a better showing than Argentina, and the equal of Brazil. There has been a Copa América title thrown in, too. Uruguay has done it all with a population of only three million. This is a place where lightning strikes more often than might be expected.

Slowly, suddenly, though, a shadow is creeping into Uruguay’s place in the sun. Its last two World Cup qualifiers, against Argentina and Brazil, brought heavy defeats, and a return match against Argentina on Friday in Montevideo and a visit to Bolivia on Tuesday offer little respite. Uruguay sits fifth in South American qualifying entering those games, in danger of missing an automatic qualification spot for Qatar 2022, and at risk of falling away from the safety net of a playoff spot.

For the first time, the coach who has overseen Uruguay’s revival on the international stage — Óscar Washington Tabárez, 74, his movement but not, he has insisted, his ability now constricted by Guillain-Barré syndrome — has seemed vulnerable. There are those, in Uruguay, who believe his day has passed.

For many, the very idea borders on the unthinkable, somewhere between anathema and heresy. Suárez suggested that it showed how “spoiled” people — fans, journalists, executives, possibly even players — had been by success. One of his teammates, the towering central defender José María Giménez, bemoaned that “soccer has no memory.” Even Diego Forlán, the striker now retired into a role as beloved elder statesman, seemed wounded. “It would pain me,” he said after the team’s two most recent losses, “if it ended like this.”

It did not end, of course, or at least it did not end then. In the aftermath of the loss to Brazil, Tabárez and his assistants were summoned to the headquarters of Uruguay’s soccer federation. For two hours, they pleaded their case to executives. The federation’s leaders agreed to sleep on the decision; the next morning, they confirmed that Tabárez would remain in place.

Óscar Washington Tabárez has been Uruguay’s coach since 2006.Credit…Nelson Almeida/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It had the air, though, of a blow delayed, rather than avoided. Tabárez may be relieved of his position at the end of the year, to give his replacement time to prepare for the final stage of qualification in 2022, or the moment Uruguay fails to make it to Qatar. If the country qualifies, he will leave, at the absolute latest, when its participation in the World Cup is over. Nobody is really debating if Tabárez’s cycle has come to an end. They are simply discussing when.

It is not just the manager, though, who is in that position. “Time passes,” Coito said ruefully. Many of the veterans of South Africa — including Forlán, the player of the tournament in 2010, and Diego Lugano, the captain — have retired. Those who remain are in the autumn of their careers. Godín, the grizzled heart of the defense, is 35. So is Fernando Muslera, the gifted, erratic goalkeeper. Suárez is 34, and Cavani only three weeks younger.

Qatar will mark the end of their roads, too, one way or the other. As that bookend looms on the horizon, Uruguay has been forced to confront a question it has had the good fortune to ignore for more than a decade: What does life after the golden age look like?

“Of course, there is a bit of coincidence in having three strikers of the top level — Suárez, Cavani and Forlán — in the same team,” said Tito Sierra, an agent, talent scout and investor in several Uruguayan teams. “But we have done this every decade. There is always more talent.”

His optimism is rooted in history. When the finest player Uruguay has produced, Enzo Francescoli, faded, he was replaced by the likes of Rúben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca. When their time passed, along came the charismatic brutality of Paolo Montero and the flickering brilliance of Álvaro Recoba.

Heavy defeats against Argentina and Brazil in October have complicated Uruguay’s path to next year’s World Cup in Qatar.Credit…Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Suárez, Cavani, Godín and the rest are not the culmination to a process, but simply another chapter in Uruguay’s autobiography, its story as a place that is not subject to random chance, the place where the lightning keeps striking.

Others, though, are not quite so confident. For some, that is simply an appreciation for what this generation has achieved. “The bar is very high,” said Germán Brunati, the sporting director of Montevideo City Torque, the South American imprint of City Football Group, the organization behind Manchester City and New York City F.C. “Replacing players who have spent 15 years at the top level in Europe is not going to be easy.”

For others, though, the concern is more deep-seated. Forlán, for one, has made public his fear that the country, stagnating in self-satisfaction, is not doing enough to build on the legacy of Tabárez and his team. “We have a very rich history, but the world goes one way, and we go another,” he said. “I compare 10-year-old kids here with 10-year-olds in Europe, and they don’t come close.”

The immediate evidence suggests Forlán’s vision is a little apocalyptic. Uruguay has qualified for every under-20 World Cup since 2005, a record that not even Argentina and Brazil can match. “And we have not just been at the tournaments,” said Coito, who was in charge of the country’s team in two editions. “We have animated them, getting to a final, to the semifinals.”

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

Uruguay is counting on a new generation of talents to keep pace with rivals and neighbors like Argentina, its opponent on Friday.Credit…Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

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

Nor, he is confident, will they be alone. Brunati does not necessarily subscribe to the idea of some innate, mystical superiority to Uruguayan soccer — what they call garra charrúa, an indomitable fighting spirit — but there are conditions, he said, that work in the country’s favor.

“Every year, there is an exodus of players,” he said. “You can earn more playing not only in Brazil and Argentina, but Peru and Ecuador, too. And those places are then taken by more young players. Players might leave here needing to improve their technique or their tactical knowledge, but they have experience of competition. And that is something that is coveted everywhere.”

Coito, one afternoon this week, was in Montevideo, the capital, watching babyfútbol. The players he is casting his eye over 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 a Suárez or a Cavani among them, but they will be out there, somewhere, another bolt from the blue. “The players will come,” he said. “They might be different, but there are always more players.”

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