For a nation with Uruguay's rich footballing heritage and passion for the game, the last few decades have been very hard to endure. The occasional success in continental competitions aside, there has been very little to celebrate, and the nation's epic triumphs on the international stage are now but a fading memory.
Some light is beginning to appear at the end of the Uruguayan tunnel, however. Famed for their ability to rear talented players, the Charruas seem to be awakening from their international slumber thanks to the time-honoured virtues of hard work and sacrifice. The U-20 side is a case in point, having qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in Canada later this year and aroused the expectations of a success-starved nation in the process.
Uruguayan hopes are based not just on the new breed of players but also on the man behind the recent renaissance: Gustavo Antonio Ferrin Rodriguez. In 2005, the 47-year-old Montevideo-born coach guided the same group of players that will head to Canada to the South American U-17 title, a triumph that brought with it qualification for that year's FIFA U-17 World Championship in Peru.
The disappointment of a first-round exit was tempered by the fact that Uruguay had at least returned to the big stage after three successive qualification failures. "Putting the results to one side, I'm happy with the other triumphs we've managed to achieve here," commented Ferrin at the time. "These players have learnt to be professional in their work and that's priceless. I'm sure they will achieve great things for their country."
If recent events are anything to go by, Ferrin was right to be
confident about the future. Following three consecutive failures to
qualify for the main event, the Uruguayan side that contested the
South American U-20 championship in Paraguay had the same baggage
to contend with as their U-17 counterparts. Yet although they
narrowly missed out on continental glory, the
Charruas accomplished their mission by claiming a ticket
to Canada 2007 .
"It's tremendously satisfying, a similar feeling to the one I had with the U-17s," says Ferrin in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "We made up for our lack of resources by applying ourselves and building up a strong sense of togetherness between the players and the coaching staff."
What Uruguay want to know now is, can Ferrin take the class of 2007 one step further in Canada, and achieve the success he believes is within their grasp?
Hard work and application
For Ferrin the answer to that question lies in the squad he is taking to Canada, which largely features the 2005 U-17 side as well as one or two new faces, striker Edinson Cavani among them. "The fact that a lot of the boys have been playing together for such a long time is very important," he explains. "They know each other well on and off the pitch and that makes up for the lack of competition. This is a team that has matured by playing in tournaments but which hasn't even been to Europe yet. What we're trying to do is compensate for that lack of competitive edge, which helps you hone your style and toughen your spirit, with hard work."
"Let me give you an example," he continues. "The South American championship showed us that we can beat sides that play in very different ways. And if you look at the group we're in, I think it's safe to say Spain, Zambia and Jordan all have widely contrasting styles. Although it's hard for us to test ourselves against similar teams in the run-up to the tournament, at least I've got something I can use to judge the team by with those sides in mind."
With over 50 coaching courses behind him, Ferrin is regarded as something of a football scholar in Uruguay. His extensive research into his Group B opponents certainly seems to bear that out. "We know Spain pretty well," he says. "They like to keep hold of the ball and they're always in the frame in youth tournaments. As for Zambia and Jordan, we're still getting material together. The first thing I did was to look at a map and see where they are, put them in a context, find out their philosophies on life. The videos and reports will come next. The idea is not to leave anything to chance, because the boys have never played an African or Asian team before."
A record that speaks for itself
Ferrin is well acquainted with success. One of the highlights of his long career as a youth coach is a record that will take some beating: a 76-game unbeaten run with Defensor Sporting's youth team that stretched between 2000 and the end of 2001. Suitably impressed by his achievement, the Uruguayan Football Association invited him to join the U-17 and U-20 sides as an assistant coach the following year.
In 2003 he was appointed caretaker manager for two tournaments and won them both, steering the U-20s to success at the Copa Alcudia and winning the Carlsberg Cup in Hong Kong with the seniors.
He then changed tack in 2004, accepting the seemingly impossible task of ensuring Defensor Sporting's continued survival in the Uruguayan top flight. Not only did he manage that, but Ferrin also laid the foundations for the club's renaissance, capped by its return to this year's Copa Libertadores de America.
So what is the secret of his success? "To keep on learning and working and guiding the players. They're the ones who decide," he explains. "I base a lot of my training sessions on technical skills. That's what keeps football alive. You see, there are lots of ways of winning, and some of them push the rules to the limit. But I don't like to see that. Of course, I'm not happy just with playing well and losing. I want to win, and Uruguayan players have to learn to live with that pressure, because they'll have that for as long as they wear the blue shirt. My job is to prepare them for that."
Asked if his charges are genuine contenders in Canada, Ferrin oozes belief. "It's not a pipe dream," he responds. "If the officials, coaches and players all do their bit, I think we've got a real chance. The fact that Argentina and Brazil couldn't beat us, that we've come very close to success, means we've been getting something right. We've earned their respect on the pitch, not through our history. To answer your question, I'm not saying we will be champions, but I firmly believe we've got a chance."