Sandwiched between the footballing powerhouses of Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay have sometimes overshadowed their more illustrious neighbours to pen some of the most glorious pages in the annals of the game. Two-time Olympic gold medallists in the 1920's, the first FIFA World Cup champions in 1930, and repeat winners in 1950 before a stunned Maracana Stadium, the famous sky blue shirts regularly punched above their weight to earn the respect of football lovers the world over.
Those happy days are now an all-too distant memory however, and the recent history of the once-proud Celeste has been a sorry tale of underachievement, with the South Americans making a solitary appearance in the last four FIFA World Cup finals. All that could be about to change though at the upcoming FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, where Uruguay boss Venancio Ramos will be hoping his side can make waves in Rio de Janeiro and build on their reputation as the continent's second-best beach soccer outfit.
If anyone can buck the recent trend of failure, it is Ramos. An international in the 1970s and 80s, the ex-striker helped Montevideo giants Peñarol to Copa Libertadores and Copa Intercontinental success before ending his playing career in beach soccer. Now, as the national coach, his aim is to bring the good times rolling back for Uruguay.
As he explained to FIFA.com, Ramos believes his side has a golden opportunity for success in Rio "Although you can't really compare the two forms of football, the fact is we are ranked higher in beach soccer than in any other discipline of the game. There's no other Uruguay side ranked fifth in the world," he commented, visibly proud of his team's achievements.
"Our aim is to do even better than we did last year and we've got the resources to do just that," he continued. "The guys are in excellent physical shape, we know how to control games and we've had a settled side for years now. Having that continuity gives us plenty of options and that's vital in this sport."
The skill factor
Ramos began his career on the sand in 1995 and has become something of an authority on the game. Who better, then, to give an insight of what we can expect to see at the Copacabana over the next few days? "It's going to be a very well organised event for sure. As far as the football's concerned, all the teams are going to be in good physical shape, and the games will be decided by individual pieces of skill."
"There's not much difference between teams because everyone takes beach soccer very seriously now," added Ramos, clearly expecting a tight competition. "Recent results speak for themselves. Just look at Europe. France were world champions last year but had to go through the last chance bracket to qualify. Then there's Portugal, who've lost ground to Spain recently."
The European runners-up are among Uruguay's opponents in Group D and coach Ramos is expecting a tough fight from all three first-round opponents. "The Portuguese are a world power and have got bags of international experience," he commented. "We don't know much about Cameroon, but they're sure to be a very physical side. The Solomon Islands are also new to the event, but like Cameroon they might be able to close the gap. For a start they won't be under any pressure."
A staunch proponent of the beach game, Ramos is keen to make a distinction between it and the version played on grass. "People say there is a physical edge to the sport and that's right. What I like to see though is the right kind of physical approach, to see people playing for pride and sticking together when things get tough."
After storming to second place in the South American qualifiers the Charruas are aiming big in Rio, and for Ramos a place at the very top of the podium is within reach: "I want Uruguay to have a great tournament. If we can do it, we can go home with our heads held high."