Known throughout his career as El Loco (The Madman), thanks to his outgoing character and sense of humour, Sebastian Abreu is not your average football player. The larger-than-life Uruguayan centre-forward has nurtured a gift for the unexpected during his odyssey around the world’s leagues, a gift encapsulated by the coolly chipped penalty he scored to seal Uruguay’s quarter-final shootout win over Ghana at South Africa 2010.
Behind that extrovert exterior, however, lies the analytical mind of a player who has accumulated a deep tactical appreciation of the game, which he hopes to apply from the dugout once his globe-trotting playing career is over.
The enigmatic Uruguayan goal-getter discussed those coaching plans and more in an illuminating and exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Sebastian, what’s the key to Uruguay’s recent success?
Sebastian Abreu: The thing we never quite managed to do in the past was to take an idea, a mystique and a certain type of chemistry and turn it into something real. We had good players but they never got support or a decent run in the team. Then, when El Maestro [Oscar] Tabarez came in, we found our identity, and now we’ve got a very clearly defined base and solid tactics. We’re working in the right way and the results have started to come.
What conclusions did you draw from this year’s Copa America triumph?
We needed to achieve some glory and win a title to set the seal on all the hard work we’ve done in the last few years. By winning the trophy we did that, and we did it in a way that made it worth celebrating even more. We beat the host nation and [Lionel] Messi, with a man down after only 27 minutes. We won the semi-final and final in the way that we did, and became the most successful team on the continent. All that makes me feel very happy.
Do you think Uruguay are now the best team in South America?
There’s no doubt about it. We’re the best in terms of results, play and consistency.
The day Uruguay stop showing grit is the day they’ll no longer be Uruguay.
You’ve said on more than one occasion that you want to go into coaching. Is that still an objective of yours?
I’ve had my mind set on that for many years now. Some of the coaches I’ve worked with have inspired me with little details in training, weekly training programmes and the like, and obviously I’ve been picking things up as I’ve gone along. I’ve always been interested in tactics, and spending time with Pep [Guardiola] and [Juan Manuel] Lillo at Los Dorados, where we had these amazing chats after training, made me want to be a coach. I’ve learned a lot from them and from [Diego] Simeone, [Manuel] Pellegrini, Tabarez, and Botafogo coach [Hugo] de Leon. They’re all modern, dynamic coaches and thanks to them I’ve been able to read games in different ways.
You’ve played in many countries during your career but you’ve never enjoyed sustained success in Europe. Is that something you want to put right?
No, not at all. I was very young when I went to [Deportivo] La Coruna and I played 18 games in my first season. I didn’t figure in the club’s plans, though, and I started to look for teams that suited my game. A few sides from the Americas came in for me and my aim was just to get regular football and hold on to my Uruguay place, which was what really mattered to me. I didn’t lose sleep over coming back, and in any case I went to Real Sociedad a couple of years ago and scored 11 goals in 17 games, which made me happy. I think European football is a bit overrated anyway.
What do you mean by that?
Europe’s not the whole continent. It’s England, Spain, Italy ... well, let’s stop there. In footballing terms Brazil is much stronger than a lot of European teams and is up there with Italy, but it doesn’t get the same recognition because it’s not in the “first world”. The way we look at it is all wrong.
You’ve played in seven countries during your career. Is that because you’re a curious person?
I’ve always looked for a challenge, for a club that fulfils my needs, which is what I’ve found in Botafogo. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out like that, with the exception maybe of La Coruna, who never loaned me out to the same club twice and forced me to discover new places. That’s where that desire to experience new cultures came from.
What career goals do you still have?
To keep on searching for glory, first of all, and to increase the prestige of my club. To carry on playing to the standard I need to stay in the Uruguay team, and being disciplined and professional. I’ve always wanted to take on new challenges, like winning the World Cup for example.
Do you have another Maracanazo (Uruguay’s shock win over the host nation at Brazil 1950) in mind?
No, that’s not something we think about. It’s given meaning to the Uruguay jersey but it’s part of the past now, part of our history and the journey we’ve taken. When you’ve never won the World Cup as a player you don’t go around thinking about who your opponents should be. All you want to do is win trophies. It doesn’t matter whether it’s against Brazil or not.
I’ve always wanted to take on new challenges, like winning the World Cup for example.
You always carry a camera around with you and film things to show your children in the future. Where did you get the idea from?
I’d like to show them the things a football player goes through because a lot of the time we’re seen as these untouchable people. I want them to see the things you don’t usually see on TV, the good times and the bad times and how we like the same things as ordinary people. It’s good for them to see that. You get insults hurled at you sometimes, but at the end of the day you’re just a person with a family, like anyone else.
Are you planning to do anything else with the photos?
During the World Cup the Uruguay players set up the Celeste Foundation to help disadvantaged children through sport. We want to make a documentary about everything that’s happened during Tabarez’s time in charge and we’re sure that people will enjoy it.
Turning back to football now, do you think centre-forwards like you are a dying breed?
The dynamics have changed. The modern-day No9 is a mobile player like Luis Suarez, with no fixed position, and that’s the approach being taken at youth level now. There are penalty-box centre-forwards, but they’re being told at youth level that they have to have other aspects to their game. Those of us who still play in the old way come from another culture, but you have to adapt to today’s game. As soon as I become a coach I’ll take a close look at the role of the classic No9. They don’t always have to be part of the starting line-up but you can switch your tactics around and try to unsettle opposing defences. You can break through the middle, down the wings or hold the ball up for the midfielders coming through.
Uruguay are famous for their 'garra' or 'grit'. In these changing times, do you think the team should move on from that?
The day Uruguay stop showing grit is the day they’ll no longer be Uruguay. We’ve got a solid tactical system, a defence with very compact lines that closes down the space, and the best strikers in the world, which all make a difference obviously. But the grit is there. Look at Luis Suarez. He was fouled 13 times in the Argentina game, one of their players was sent off as a result, and he helped set up a goal. La Celeste will be nowhere if our players ever lose that.