Few nations have the footballing history of Uruguay. Nestling on the northern bank on the River Plate, the country has a population of a little over three million yet boasts an impressive collection of world, Olympic and continental titles and a record that compares favourably with the world’s best. The glory years of Uruguayan football are but a fading memory, however, with La Celeste having made just two appearances at the last five FIFA World Cup™ finals.

The man charged with the task of improving that record and raising their profile once more is Oscar Tabarez, who is now in his second stint as national coach, having taken the Uruguayans through to the last 16 at Italy 1990. El Maestro, as he is known in his homeland, certainly has the resources to do achieve those objectives. Sprinkled with players from Europe’s major leagues, his young side are determined to impress in South Africa, and in Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez they have the star quality to advance beyond the group phase and into the knockout rounds for the first time in two decades.

The road to South Africa
Just as they did in 2001 and 2005, Uruguay finished fifth in the ten-team qualifying group, which meant yet another play-off. But unlike four years ago, when they were eliminated by Australia, the Uruguayans were this time pitted against Costa Rica, the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF Zone. The South Americans gained the upper hand in the first leg in San Jose, winning 1-0 through a goal from captain Diego Lugano. Four days later they completed the job in Montevideo, with Sebastian Abreu, one of the few survivors from Korea/Japan 2002, scoring in a 1-1 draw.

In the group phase Los Charrúas scored 28 goals in all, the third-highest tally behind Brazil and Chile, and collected 24 points. Those figures were almost good enough for an automatic qualification slot. A top-four place would have been theirs had they beaten neighbours Argentina at home on the final matchday. As it turned out, their rivals from the other side of the River Plate snatched a 1-0 win to condemn them to their now customary fate.

The star players
The Uruguay side features a mix of youthful players and household names and is led by the authoritative figure of Diego Lugano. The latest in a long line of temperamental, strong-willed Uruguayan skippers, the blond centre-half likes to combine his defensive duties with often-profitable forays into the opposing penalty box.

Up front La Celeste can count on a fearsome strike partnership formed by Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. The Atletico Madrid striker is another veteran of Korea/Japan 2002 and has put together an impressive CV during his time in Europe. His sidekick Suarez is busy making a name for himself with Ajax Amsterdam, taking over the captaincy after barely two years with the Dutch giants. Together the duo scored 12 goals in the qualifiers.

The coach
The 62-year-old Oscar Washington Tabarez is preparing for his second appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals with Uruguay. Tabarez was the man in the hotseat when Los Charrúas were knocked in the Round of 16 at Italy 1990 by the host nation. Now, 20 years on, El Maestro is set to return to the big stage with a youthful and resilient side.

Reliable, hard-working and a man of few words, Tabarez began coaching with local club Bella Vista and the U-20 national team. During his lengthy career he has worked at some of the biggest clubs in world football, among them Penarol, Boca Juniors and AC Milan. He was reappointed Uruguay boss in 2006, taking over from Jorge Fossati following La Celeste’s penalty-shootout loss to Australia in the Germany 2006 play-off.

Previous FIFA World Cups
. Uruguay will be appearing in the FIFA World Cup for the 11th time at South Africa 2010.
. Uruguay hosted the inaugural FIFA World Cup finals in 1930 and went on to win the tournament after defeating Argentina 4-2 in the Final.
. The last time that the men in sky blue advanced beyond the last 16 of the FIFA World Cup finals was at Mexico 1970, when they finished fourth.

What they said
“We had to work hard to qualify, especially in the games in Montevideo. Luckily for us, though, the World Cup’s taking place far away from home! I know we have to improve a lot if we are to perform well in South Africa but we do have a lot of strong points and we hope to be able to show them.” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez