With three matches remaining in the South American qualifying competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, not many Uruguay fans would have fancied their side’s chances of reaching the world finals, let alone going all the way to the semis.
Yet that is exactly what Oscar Tabarez’s side went on to achieve, pulling off an unlikely turnaround thanks in part to a man called Gustavo Zerbino. Though that name is not instantly recognisable to people outside Uruguay, the story that made him a public figure is legendary. On 13 October 1972 Zerbino boarded a flight bound for Chile with his team-mates at the Old Christians rugby club. They never reached their destination.
After suffering mechanical problems, the plane came down in the Andes, and though Zerbino survived the crash along with several other passengers, they had to withstand temperatures of –30ºC and an avalanche before learning on the plane’s radio that the search to find them had been called off.
Withstanding extreme hardship for 72 days, salvation finally came when two of the 16 remaining survivors crossed the mountains on foot and alerted the Chilean authorities that they were still alive, the title of the 1993 film that immortalised their battle against the odds.
Last September, some 37 years on from that heart-rending ordeal, Zerbino received an invitation to speak to the players of Uruguay’s national football team. His brief was to raise their morale in the wake of an unexpected defeat to Peru that had left their chances of reaching South Africa 2010 hanging in the balance. It was a cry for help that he was proud to respond to.
“I’ve been a close friend of Diego Forlan’s father Pablo for many years, and I was more than happy to accept the players’ invitation and speak to them at a difficult time,” Zerbino, the President of the Uruguayan Rugby Football Union, told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
“I drew on my story when I sat down to talk with the players for the first time,” he continues. “The mood in the camp wasn’t that good so I just gave it to them straight. I said to them that when I told my friends and family I was going to speak to the team they said I was crazy. I said to the players: ‘They told me you were sons of b*****s, that you were finished, that you had no chance’.
“That was more or less what I’d been told when I was up in the Andes: that I was dead and that they’d come and collect my corpse in a few months. If I’d believed that, then I would have died. I had to make a promise to myself and convince myself that it was up to me to get out of that situation. I had to change my mindset.”
Zerbino’s message hit home. Just a few hours later the players he had addressed beat Colombia 3-1 in an emotional encounter and went on the following month to snatch a last-minute 2-1 win over Ecuador in the rarefied atmosphere of Quito. Though defeat to Argentina in their final game would consign them to a play-off against Costa Rica, the Uruguayans held their nerve to clinch an unlikely place in the world finals.
“They did what they had to,” adds Zerbino. “They tapped into their surroundings and connected with their inner selves. That’s what helped them overcome adversity. They finally understood that the only people who could save them were themselves. I remember collecting the letters and personal belongings of my team-mates who died on the mountain so I could return them to their families. Whenever I felt myself slipping away I’d think of that to keep myself going.”
Zerbino’s words proved so inspirational he gave the squad another talk on the eve of their departure for South Africa. “We also agreed we’d do another one for good luck before the Final," he said. "It almost came about too.”
In praise of Forlan
Despite his role in raising the team’s spirits, the father of six is at pains to deflect the plaudits elsewhere: “The reason Uruguay did so well is all down to El Maestro Tabarez, who’s a hard-working and down-to-earth man, and the players. They understood what it means to represent your country and they got on with the job. Forlan symbolised everything the team did for the jersey. He played on despite being injured, was voted player of the tournament and led the way by example.”
That spirit of sacrifice was a feature of the hard-fought win over Korea Republic in the Round of 16, the dramatic quarter-final comeback against Ghana and the gutsy displays against the Netherlands and Germany. “They were a different team,” comments Zerbino appreciatively. “They were receptive and they never complained or let their heads drop. They did the opposite, in fact. They gave everything they had physically, mentally and spiritually. That’s why they were treated like world champions when they came home.”
Having also given motivational talks to the U-20 and U-17 Uruguay teams that qualified for Egypt 2009 and Nigeria 2009 respectively, Zerbino is not ruling out the possibility of helping out other national sides in the future. “Other teams have called me but I’ve always had something else on at the time. I’m Uruguayan till the day I die, and though I’m a Nacional fan, I’ve done some work for Penarol. I’ve got a system that works and I know how to implement it.”
As the last team to qualify for South Africa 2010 and the last South American side to return home, Uruguay can certainly vouch for that.