Few, if any, football fans would have predicted Uruguay being the last South American team standing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, and much of the credit must go to low-key coach Oscar Tabarez.
While heavyweights Brazil and Argentina are already back home, Tabarez is preparing his team for the fight of their lives on Tuesday against a rampant Netherlands side that is yet to lose in South Africa or in their qualifying campaign. Uruguay's run to their first World Cup last four spot in 40 years underlines just how significant a figure coach Tabarez is to the past and present of the national football team. Known as El Maestro, he previously guided them to the round of 16 in his first stint as coach in the 1990 finals in Italy.
Now, echoes of their glory years, when Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, are returning but Tabarez is not keen on comparisons to the teams of old. "The thing is, because of our history, there's always a lot expected of Uruguay," he recently told FIFA.com. "And given that at previous tournaments we've not lived up to those expectations, a performance like this year's stands out even more. We'd prefer not to be compared to the teams from 1930 and 1950, but we're still in with a chance of matching their feats. So, of course, I understand why back home people see this as our most important game in decades, but I don't see that as added pressure."
But the task ahead is formidable against a Dutch team flying high on confidence and with Uruguay the clear underdog. They go into the match at a big disadvantage with influential striker Luis Suarez missing the game after being red-carded for a goal-line handball that denied Ghana a famous quarter-final victory. Defender Jorge Ciro Fucile is also suspended while skipper Diego Lugano and midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro are injury doubts, heaping even more pressure on the shoulders of key man Diego Forlan.
Tabarez, who has coached 10 club sides in his career, including AC Milan and Boca Juniors, believes they face a tough task ahead. "Holland will be very difficult - but not impossible," said the 64-year-old. "This generation is a little different to the traditional Holland - they are a very balanced side. At the back they give nothing away, they link well. That's an aspect that other Dutch sides, while they didn't neglect that side of things, they didn't ascribe it such importance."
Despite the loss of Suarez and the task facing them, Tabarez said the squad had enough depth to fill the hole. "We have enough footballers in our pack to send out a side which deserve my confidence. I think we have shown sufficient evidence of our capabilities. Of the 23 in the squad 20 have already had some playing time," he said.