Since their team won the Copa America in 1995, Uruguay's fans have had little to cheer about. They missed out on qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, but oddly enough this seems to have signalled a big change: their U-20 team won the silver medal in Malaysia, and the new young A-team got through to the semi-final in the FIFA/Confederations' Cup in Saudi Arabia. The architect of both successes was Victor Púa.
BY: JORGE SAVIA
Sports editor for the daily paper El Pais in Montevideo.
The question that people have been asking more and more in South America recently - and not just in football - is: "How does Púa do it?" How does he manage to get the country's representative sides - like the U-20 squad in Malaysia or the young national team in the FIFA/ Confederations' Cup - to achieve such good results? In addition they play an attractive game, not the kind of football at all that Uruguay has shown during recent years, even though this did bring a few good results.
Dreams of past glories
There is no big secret. Victor Púa was born 42 years ago in the city of Paso de los Toros in the state of Tacuarembo in the middle of Uruguay. He is not a man who seeks attention, in fact he is very modest. The explanation lies rather in the way he deals with the expectations of people who still dream of seeing Uruguay right up there with the world's best, as they were from the mid-1920s to the 1950s. There are many complex factors involved, but what Púa has done is get the team to play the kind of football that the fans like. After his U-20 team finished in the runners-up spot in Malaysia, there was jubilation back home such as the country had not seen since the finals of the World Cup in 1950. Púa's view of the matter was: "The key lies in choosing the right players; that's where most mistakes are made." His philosophy is: "You have to choose players who fit your plan, not necessarily those who may be the best in their positions but can only turn in an average performance later when they are assigned a definite function."
The coach, who was appointed to take temporary responsibility for the young national team at the Confederations' Cup in Saudi Arabia, is guided by the old proverb: "You have to begin at the beginning...". Which means with the players. This is a further reason for his undisputed success. Púa himself sowed the seeds, working with the typical Uruguayan footballer's basic characteristics, in both the physical and mental areas. On the physical side he had the assistance of Prof. Jorge Franco in getting the players used to a fast and dynamic pace, with a lot of work involved - something that until now has been unknown at national team level in Uruguay. Junior competitions in the country normally take place between March and October, and for the rest of the year the players are not under the supervision of any football institution; their life style at this stage probably would not correspond with what is in the coach's handbook. From the mental angle, Púa tried to get the players to look at things, on both the professional and the private side, from a different point of view than simply earning piles of money, which anyway is only possible for Uruguayans if they are transferred abroad.
In the eyes of the fans, Púa's greatest achievement is to get the team away from playing hard, defensive, speculative football over to a style that has polish and personality, similar to the days of former glory. He employs a libero who usually plays behind a two or three-man defensive block, but is not anchored there and comes forward now and then to take part in an attack. Of course, other factors are involved in this resurgence of Uruguayan football, which has seen names like Nicolas Olivera, Pablo Garcia and Marcelo Zalayeta come to the fore - all very promising young players - shortly after the nation had been eliminated during the World Cup qualifiers. Discipline and self-sacrifice are part of Púa's working plan, and he is not joking. In Malaysia he did not allow his players to switch on the air-conditioning in their hotel rooms, so that they would become better acclimatised to the oppressive heat there, having just arrived from a Uruguayan winter. They were also the only team at the U-20 tournament that did not partake of the hotel buffet for lunch and dinner - they stuck strictly to a dietary plan specified by the doctor.
Púa never gets tired of explaining to his players, and to anyone else who might be around, that football is a game. This is the reason why he picks players with good skills and personality, factors which it could be argued have been missing from Uruguayan football for many years. His way of getting the message through to the team is simple and clear. He prefers to have tactical talks that are short and to the point, immediately before a match. At half time he only speaks for five minutes: "About minor points. The important factors we work on during the whole week, and even then you can get surprises. But if all the preliminary work doesn't seem to be having the right effect, then I can't alter much with four or five words at this stage. In fact I could be causing more confusion, and that could lead to a catastrophe..." On one occasion Púa was at the airport with his junior team, when he pointed out one of Uruguay's former football stars. He asked the team, in a fatherly tone: "Do you know who that is? He may not be all that well dressed, but he has achieved something that all those players earning big money overseas haven't managed. He's a World Cup winner. Understand?"
Victor Púa is no magician. He is just a trainer, with perhaps a bit of the schoolmaster in him, the kind we were used to in school. That's why people believe in him. He's one of us. That's his secret.