It was only a short while ago that Uruguay were on the crest of a wave. After squeezing through to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ La Celeste suddenly clicked, embarking on a storming run to the semi-finals and going on to prove that was no fluke by winning the Copa America the following year.
Then, just as suddenly as it had built up momentum, the Uruguayan juggernaut stalled, the push for a place at Brazil 2014 losing steam as the confidence the team had acquired in a glorious two years evaporated. Nobody, least of all the Uruguay players themselves, could explain why. In fact, such was the reverse in their fortunes that stalwarts such as Diego Forlan and Diego Lugano, both into their 30s now, feared their golden era was over.
It was little wonder, then, that Thursday’s 2-1 defeat of Nigeria in Salvador was greeted with relief and no little delight by the two veterans. The result has opened the door to the FIFA Confederations Cup semi-finals for the Uruguayans, and also provided a further indication that they are on the road to recovery, one they embarked on earlier this month with a timely 1-0 Brazil 2014 qualifying win over Venezuela.
“The most important game we’ve had this month was the one against Venezuela, no question,” Lugano told FIFA.com after the Nigeria match, in which he opened the scoring and fellow elder statesman Forlan struck the winner. “We had everything to lose, and if we’d lost we would have been out of the Cup. And that would have been the end for this generation. There’s no doubt about that.”
The Charrúa skipper added: “We beat the Venezuelans and we’re still in with a chance of qualifying [for the World Cup]. That put us all in the mood to come here for what is a very important competition and play a starring role, which is what we’ve done, as you’d expect from a team with Uruguay’s history. The Venezuela win was crucial to us getting three points against Nigeria.”
As the former Sao Paulo player pointed out, the team were under a cloud on account of their faltering qualifying campaign, aware that failure to reach Brazil 2014 would spell the end for a generation that had achieved so much.
The adidas Golden Ball winner at South Africa 2010, Forlan shares that view, as he told FIFA.com: “We know that if the results don’t come, then it’s only natural there should be a change of generation. If things go well, though, or at least a little bit better, then that handover will be delayed. Football’s a merciless business. If you don’t win, it’s all change. As simple as that.”
For the time being at least things are going that little bit better, though only a little bit. Uruguay are still far from guaranteed a place at Brazil 2014, having only just moved back into the play-off place in the South American qualifying competition, tied on 16 points with the Venezuelans, who lie one place below them in sixth.
It remains to be seen how much time this month’s important brace of victories have bought for Uruguay’s thirtysomethings, yet there is one thing that is clear: La Celeste’s old spark has returned.
“We can feel it,” agreed captain Lugano. “It’s definitely back.”