Uruguay’s proud footballing heritage has long had a single, defining characteristic: the garra, or gritty determination that helped them secure two FIFA World Cup™ wins. Though those triumphs belong to a now-distant past, La Celeste’s legendary fighting spirit lives on today, and is perhaps best embodied in the current side by midfielder Diego Perez.
He and his team-mates showed plenty of garra in Friday’s 0-0 draw against Germany 2006 runners-up France, a stalemate that represented a solid start to their Group A bid. Blocking Les Bleus’ path to Fernando Muslera’s goal with their trademark tenacity, the Uruguayans ensured that the creative efforts of Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff and Nicolas Anelka would go unrewarded.
As Perez explained in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com after the final whistle in Cape Town, Los Charrúas executed their gameplan to perfection, with the 30-year-old Monaco man orchestrating operations effectively. “Overall we managed to control the midfield and keep the French strikers in check,” he said, before evaluating his own performance on the night: “I love a challenge. It’s my job to win as many balls as possible in midfield but I don’t take any real pleasure from it unless we win.”
That mindset is an indication that for the current crop of Charrúas, there is more to the game than just denying the opposition. “Let me make it clear, the only matches that make me happy are the ones we win, and that’s something that goes for the whole team,” he explained.
“People are always talking about our commitment, about the garra charrúa, and obviously that’s a characteristic of ours and our footballing culture. The thing is, that image goes before us and no matter what we do that’s all people remember us for, the garra charrúa.”
Brains as well as brawn
Expanding on the subject, Perez explains that while perspiration was an important factor in Uruguay’s qualification for their 11th FIFA World Cup finals, they would not have achieved their goal without a little inspiration as well.
“We’ve got the likes of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez, Ignacio Gonzalez and two quality full-backs and I don’t see how we can be much more technical,” said the former Defensor Sporting player. “Yet despite it all, we still keep hearing about our battling spirit.”
Perez then broke off for a few moments to offer a consoling hug to team-mate Nicolas Lodeiro, still tearful after receiving his marching orders for a late tackle on Bacary Sagna. Telling him to stay strong, Perez looked the youngster in the eye and urged him to come back and prove his worth.
“That was proof of our inexperience,” he said, resuming his appraisal of last Friday’s events. “An opening match at the World Cup is always a stiff test, especially when you’re up against a team that has so much more experience. Only two of our players had ever played a World Cup match before, but even so we still managed to control them. They didn’t outplay us.”
So is the hardest part over for the Uruguayans? “From a psychological point of view, yes,” he replied. “But I don’t think France are the strongest team of the four. We knew when the draw was made that this would be an evenly matched and difficult group and that’s still the case. We only got a point but the other game ended in a draw too, so we’re all starting from scratch.”
With games against hosts South Africa and Mexico to come, the Uruguayans still have plenty of work to do to secure their passage to the Round of 16, as Perez acknowledged: “There’s no team that stands out above the rest in this group but they are all tough sides to beat.
"We often come up against Mexico in the South American tournaments and we know all about their high-tempo game and how motivated they are. Then there’s South Africa. They press hard and with the fans behind them they will definitely give us an extremely tough game.”
That may be the case, though it will take a lot to unsettle La Celeste and the combative Perez. And while he might not like people to say so, there is no doubt they will drawing on their fabled garra in their remaining engagements.