Known in the game as El Maestro, Oscar Tabarez agreed to a second stint as Uruguay coach in 2006 after a four-year sabbatical. His brief was to restore La Celeste's fortunes after their failure to qualify for Germany 2006 and steer them to South Africa.
Three years on from picking up the gauntlet and putting his reputation to the test, Tabarez has taken Uruguay to sixth in the South American qualifying group, four points behind Argentina in fourth and two adrift from current play-off-slot occupants Ecuador in fifth. As his side prepare for the final four games of the campaign, the plain-talking 62-year-old gave FIFA.com an exclusive interview in Montevideo.
FIFA.com: Twenty years ago you took Uruguay to Italy 1990. How much have you changed as a coach since then?
Oscar Tabarez: I'm bigger for a start (laughs). I've had a few coaching jobs in Argentina, Italy and Spain and I've done a few things for FIFA. I've tried to make the most of those experiences and I feel more mature as a result. What I'm trying to do now is draw on that experience and maturity in a project that encompasses all the country's national teams.
How much has football changed in Uruguay in that time?
Just as much as the game of football itself. To my mind there are two things that have brought about that change. Firstly there's television. You can see everything that goes on in a game now, and we didn't have that before. Secondly, there's the question of economic relationships. We now have a footballing elite in Europe and third-world footballing economies that are dependent on that elite, which has led to footballers of increasingly young ages moving abroad. Because of that these countries don't have any quality players playing domestic football during their peak years (between 25 and 30). That lack of stability has a direct impact on the national teams.
Is that why qualifying campaigns are such a traumatic experience for Uruguay?
Absolutely. Organisation and investment are also key factors. We might be committed but our football culture definitely lacks a sense of organisation. And the world of today is very different to when Uruguayan football enjoyed its greatest triumphs.
Even so Uruguay made a good start in the qualifiers. Do you think the road to the FIFA World Cup™ finals will be a little easier this time?
You can't say that a competition as important as this is easy. We've made a commitment to a necessary process of renewal and we now have a young squad with the ability to reach this World Cup and the next. We've identified a specific type of player with specific physical, footballing and professional characteristics and in doing so we haven't tried to copy anyone. We're just aiming to close the gap on the leading teams.
Have you done that?
We've taken some positive steps and we now have a definite style for playing at home and away. The results haven't come yet, though. In Brazil we created more chances than they did but we still lost, and a similar thing happened when we drew with Chile and Venezuela. If you add that to the games we lost to Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil in Montevideo, you can see why we're in a difficult position. We absolutely have to win games now.
Peru are out of the running after losing five matches in a row. Does that make them easier opponents?
Anyone who thinks that is walking a fine line and that could affect the concentration levels we need to have going into this game. I can't see Peru playing with youngsters because this is a World Cup qualifier and they've got a whole nation behind them. It would also impact on the other teams so we'll just be putting all the rumours to one side and preparing to play a strong Peru side. That bad run they've had is also a dangerous thing because nothing lasts forever. If we're going to beat them, we need to respect them.
You then play Colombia in Montevideo. What is your assessment of a team that is still in the race despite scoring only seven goals in 14 games?
They are very well drilled at the back and it's not easy to score against them. They're organised and they've got good players. What's more they'll go into the game needing a result, no matter what they do against Ecuador.
Why have Uruguay not won more games at home? Is it a state of mind?
We need to step away from the hype that surrounds every game and leave all that to the media people. What we're bothered about is creating chances and taking them. We've made mistakes in Montevideo and paid dearly for them but if we go into the Colombia match thinking about the problems we've had, we'll be making a big mistake. We can't put any more pressure on ourselves. We need be as relaxed as possible for that game.
In the first round of matches you took seven points from your last four games. If you can repeat that form will you be in South Africa?
I don't like to make calculations. We've got what amounts to a four-match tournament and we're starting from scratch. I can't say we need "x number of points' because, if we don't get the points I think we should in the first game, that's going to affect my thinking later on. We need to keep our mouths shut, cover our ears and go and get the results we need.
Are you keeping an eye on events in the CONCACAF Zone?
We've got some information that could be vital because there's no room for improvisation if we finish fifth. Given our recent record and our progress in the group so far, fifth is a possibility right now, but nothing more than that. We have to wait and see.
Are you feeling the pressure on Uruguay to qualify?
In any qualifying campaign you've always got the nation saying their prayers and the coach can feel that. What defines a coach is how they deal with overconfidence and insecurity. I try and combat the former and overcome the latter and make the right decisions. You need to react at times like these, not listen to what others are saying. You need to block out your fear of losing. It's still in our hands and I have to that through to my players.
Caution aside, do you dream about qualifying for the finals?
Of course. We're doing all this because we believe we can reach the World Cup. The team is mentally ready to go out and win the last four games. We'll just have to wait and see. I can assure the Uruguay fans, though, that we've got just the right attitude.