The achievements of Oscar Tabarez in his second spell in charge of Uruguay are impressive to say the least. Since returning to the Charrúa dugout in March 2006, his coaching team have sparked a renaissance in Uruguayan football, tasting success after success with the country’s senior and junior sides.
Aside from overseeing collective feats such as La Celeste’s fourth place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and their triumph at the 2011 Copa America, the man they call El Maestro has also picked up a number of individual accolades for his contributions to the social development of football in Uruguay. These include being named a UNESCO Champion for Sport and collecting the FIFA Order of Merit.
Another of the 65-year-old master tactician’s notable successes has been to steer the Uruguayans to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament for the first time since 1928, the year in which Los Charrúas won a second consecutive gold medal. In this the first instalment in a lengthy two-part interview with FIFA.com, Tabarez talks in depth about Uruguay’s upcoming appearance at London 2012.
FIFA.com: What does it mean to you personally to be going to the Olympic Games?
Oscar Tabarez: As a sportsperson in general and a football lover in particular I’ve always followed the big sporting events. And after the World Cup, the Olympic Games is the most important there is. The Games have exemplified sportsmanship and brotherhood since ancient times and have a very popular feel about them. To be able to experience them in the flesh is a gift of life.
Is your first memory of the Olympic Games related to football or another major sport?
Football, of course. When you mention the Games in my country everyone thinks of 1924 and 1928, especially those of us who love this sport. Don’t forget that it was through the Olympics that Uruguay became the first South American country to compete in Europe. And though they weren't actual FIFA World Cups, they were world tournaments in their own right and they marked the start of a period of international dominance in which Uruguay went unbeaten in the first half of the 20th century. Some people disparagingly refer to that period as prehistory, but I think we’ve been able to build on and establish a link with those successes.
Aside from their rich history, Uruguay are also on a roll and much is expected of them now. How will you cope with the pressure of being favourites in London?
We’re not putting any pressure on ourselves, just as we didn’t relax before, when the pressure was on other teams. The most obvious example of that was the World Cup in South Africa, where everyone offered us their condolences for the group we were in and we ended up taking fourth overall. The media and the fans like to talk their heads off before the event but none of that gets remembered. The only thing that does is what actually happens.
Yet there must be lots of fans in Montevideo who are asking you to bring back the gold medal
Yes there are, but with every respect for the fans, I try not to get involved in all that. We’ve got two World Cup qualifiers coming up in June but the only thing the supporters are talking about is the Olympic Games, which start at the end of July and finish in the middle of August. And then they’re over. The main objective for me as the coach is Brazil 2014. Don’t get wrong – the Games are a big event. It’s a prestigious, globally important competition and we’re working hard for it. So what we’re trying to do is to shut ourselves off and work, because the rest of it either wears you down or disturbs your concentration, and that’s fatal when you’ve got a competition coming up, especially one where you’re going to be up against good sides.
Let’s turn to your rivals at the Games. What does it mean to be taking on the host nation?
It’s a real challenge because in theory the hosts have always got a better chance of doing well. The responsibility of being the host nation of the Olympic Games is going to be a factor, and then there’s their footballing heritage and the fact they’re competing as Great Britain, with all the symbolism attached to that. As for the other two teams, I’ll be honest and say that we know as little about them as they probably know about us. We don’t even know each other’s squads yet. And then it comes down to how the ball rolls, because football’s unique in being the only team sport in which the weak can beat the strong.
How far have you got with selecting your squad?
We’re selecting it right now, taking a look at young players and keeping track of a few names in particular. The more players who are involved at this stage, the better. That’s how the likes of [Luis] Suarez, [Edinson] Cavani, [Martin] Caceres, [Gaston] Ramirez, [Nicolas] Lodeiro and [Abel] Hernandez started, none of whom were in the national side when this process started and who now all form part of a stable squad. We’ve already had a look at the U-23 players based in Uruguay, and we’ll start our specific training schedule on 18 June.
All the big names will want to be there, so what criteria are you going to use to pick your three over-age players?
If we do pick an over-age player, we might well do it to cover positions where we don’t have everything we need to put together a truly competitive team. We know everyone wants to be there, and that’s why they’re on the preliminary list, but they know what I’m saying here. That makes me glad. I’d be concerned if there was a Uruguayan player who didn’t want to go to the Olympic Games.
Did you ever think you’d be the coach who’d take Uruguay back to the Olympics after an 84-year absence?
Absolutely not. Reality is stranger than fiction a lot of the time, and that’s the case here, and with the Uruguay team in general lately.
In the second part of his interview with FIFA.com, to be published on Wednesday 30 May, Oscar Tabarez talks about the qualifiers for Brazil 2014, UEFA EURO 2012, Diego Forlan’s current form and Uruguay’s participation at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013.