“The perfect result?” said Cristian Rodriguez, looking ahead to Uruguay’s upcoming FIFA World Cup™ play-off with Jordan. “That would be us winning 3-0 over there, with me scoring a hat-trick, and then winning 2-0 at home in the return, with me scoring both goals as well. No, seriously. It would be perfect to make it to the World Cup. That would do.”
As those tongue-in-cheek comments show, the crafty Uruguayan wide man is something of a joker. Yet when comes to the crunch, El Cebolla (The Onion – a nickname he inherited from his father) can always be relied upon to give his all, a quality that could well come in useful in the make-or-break tie against the Jordanians.
“You have to suffer in football a lot of the time but we’re used to that and we can make sacrifices if need be,” he said. “If we have to run ourselves into the ground, then that’s what we’ll do.”
La Celeste find themselves in the play-offs yet again after finishing fifth in the South American qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. The first leg of their crucial tie against Jordan takes place in Amman on 13 November, a match that Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez will be preparing for by taking his team to a training camp in Turkey.
Granting an interview to FIFA.com before he set off with the rest of the Charrúa squad, Rodriguez spoke about the tightrope that the Uruguayans will have to walk in the next few days, one that they know all too well: “There must be something a little bit masochistic about us because this is the fourth time in a row that we’ve had to go through a play-off.”
Given the amount of talent in their ranks and their world-class strike trio of Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan, it has come as a surprise to many to see the Uruguayan treading the same path again. Putting their fifth place into context, however, El Cebolla said:
“We’ve got some great players and we really want to make it to the World Cup, but the South American qualifiers are very hard, probably the hardest there are.
“I think Uruguay played the same standard of football throughout the competition, and we had our ups and downs, but it also comes down to the condition the players are in when they arrive from their clubs. We all have to be in good shape, but there are one or two who maybe feel tired or are carrying an injury. In the end, that holds you back a little.”
Nevertheless, morale is high in the Celeste camp following their defeat of neighbours and rivals Argentina in the last round of qualifying matches.
“It’s always important to win, but even more so when it’s the River Plate clásico,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a derby and one those games you go out to win, no matter whether the second string’s playing or the best or the worst players in the world,” he added, in reference to the weakened line-up Argentina fielded in last month’s game, with the injured Lionel Messi among the notable absentees.
El Cebolla capped a fine performance in his side’s 3-2 win by getting on the scoresheet, going some way to atone for his dismissal in the same fixture four years earlier. On that occasion he was handed a four-match ban, which ruled him out of Uruguay’s subsequent play-off with Costa Rica and ultimately cost him a place at South Africa 2010, where he would have had to sit out the opening two games.
“We’re human beings. We make mistakes and we’re not perfect,” he said, looking back on that costly red card. “I messed up and paid dearly for it. Like I say though, you always get a chance for payback and I’m getting mine now.”
Having missed out on the play-off and what would have been his first World Cup four years ago, Rodriguez is determined to cash in this time: “What with everything that happened, I’m looking on these games against Jordan as more of a bonus than the rest of the team. World Cups don’t come round every year. You don’t always get to go either and you get fewer opportunities as the years go by. Things are going well for me right now, so I hope we can win and make it to Brazil.”
Like all Uruguayans, Rodriguez’s eyes light up at the mere mention of the word “Brazil”, with La Celeste’s shock defeat of the host nation at the Maracana in the final game of the 1950 World Cup still very much a part of the national consciousness.
Smiling broadly, he contemplated what it would mean to repeat the feat 54 years on: “Obviously we really want to go to Brazil. People here are always talking about that World Cup. It was a piece of history and it will always be there. The fans are really behind us, telling us we have to go there and win.”
First up come Jordan, however. “We know the play-off won’t be easy,” said the Atletico Madrid man, aware of the need for Uruguay to keep their feet on the ground. “We’ve got a lot of players on yellow cards and there might be injuries too. Anything could happen and both games will be like finals.”
He then had a warning for the fans: “People point to the record books and speak about Uruguay being favourites. But while we’ve won World Cups, Copas America and the like, we have to remember that if Jordan have come this far, then it’s for a reason. We have to respect them. After all, there haven’t been any favourites in football for a long time now.”
Favourites or not, Uruguay and the man they call the Onion will be giving it everything they have got to slice through Jordan’s defence and head for Brazil.