The South American qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup™ have become something of a déjà-vu experience for Uruguay in recent years. For the third time running La Celeste have been obliged to take the play-off route, one that has brought them equal measures of joy and pain in the last two qualifying competitions.

In 2001 the men in sky blue saw off Australia in a two-legged decider to reach the finals, but suffered elimination at the hands of the same opponents four years later. Though Costa Rica provide the opposition for Uruguay this time around, the objective remains the same: to secure their place in the finals of a competition that helped shape their proud history.

The first leg of the play-off takes place on Saturday at the intimidating Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. On the eve of the game caught up with Richard Morales, one of the few players to take part in both those deciders against the Australians. Who better, then, than the man they call El Chengue to assess Uruguay’s chances and their status as favourites against Los Ticos?

“It’s the press that likes to talk about favourites,” he says rejecting the tag applied to his compatriots. “There’s no such thing as favourites in football. You have go out and play the game. One minute you can be in complete control and the next you’re down to ten men, you concede a goal and it’s all over. That said, I can’t see Uruguay watching the next World Cup on TV.” 

The hero of 2001
For the 34-year-old striker, who now plays for Fenix in his home country, the double meeting with Australia in 2001 represented the high point of his international career. After going down 1-0 in the first leg, Uruguay came back in the return at the Estadio Centenario and were 1-0 up when Morales came off the bench with 25 minutes remaining. By the final whistle he had scored a brace to give Los Charrúas a 3-1 aggregate win and a place at Korea/Japan 2002.

“I just can’t put into words how I felt about doing my bit to help Uruguay reach the World Cup,” says the two-goal hero. “I hope the boys can experience that same feeling because it’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

So what was the key to success on that occasion? “The togetherness of the team,” replies Morales, a veteran of 12 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and two games in the finals. “Let me give you an example. We didn’t have the starting XI warming up on one side and the subs on the other, as we usually did. No, we all warmed up together. We all tried to help each other and take care of the little details. That gave us a very special strength and I think that’s why things worked out so well. I can see similar things in the team now and that gives me cause for optimism.”

Just as they were then, Uruguay will be at home for the second leg, which could be a double-edged sword according to Morales. “It’s an advantage if you get a good result away because that let’s you be more relaxed at home. But if you don’t, then the fans start to get nervous and players pick up on that. Fortunately for us, we got an early goal and that made things easier although I only scored the second with 20 minutes remaining. That’s why I’m saying Uruguay need to be intelligent over there and score at least one goal. And if they can’t win, then, they should at least try to avoid defeat.”

A different story in 2005
Even though Morales was on the losing side against the Australians four years later, he still believes some positive things came out of that experience. “We won 1-0 in Montevideo and we flew to Australia in tourist class, while they travelled with exercise machines and slept in seats you could convert into beds. Preparations have been different this time, though. The boys have been training for the last few days in Guatemala on a pitch similar to the one they’ll find on the day of the game. Nothing’s been left to chance.”

Strangely, El Chengue does not rate that penalty-shootout defeat as the saddest memory of his career. “No, because we gave our all,” he explains. “We were disappointed, of course, but you knew in the dressing room that everyone had worked their hardest. And I’m sure these players will do the same. After all, they even won in Colombia.”

Nor does the former Nacional, Gremio and Liga de Quito player have any doubts as to the current squad’s ability to handle pressure. “Uruguayan players see games like this as a big responsibility, not as pressure. Qualifying for the World Cup is almost an obligation because of our footballing history, and it’s up to the players and the coaching staff to prevent that from affecting their game. But it wasn’t easy before and it won’t be now.”

As for Costa Rica, Morales is wary of the threat they pose. “I think they are slightly more beatable than those Australian teams but that doesn’t mean to say it will be easy. Technically they are better, though the Australians were very physical and they spent a long time preparing just for those games against us. The difference is is that Costa Rica is a football country and they also feel they should be at the World Cup. That motivation could be dangerous for us.”

Yet having sounded a note of caution, Morales ends his summary with a confident prediction. “If Uruguay play as well as we know we can, we should go through no problem.”