Enzo Francescoli is currently serving as River Plate's sporting director, but to only describe him in these terms would be to do this footballing genius a grave injustice. The 54-year-old, nicknamed El Príncipe (The Prince), is one of the biggest legends in the history of the Buenos Aires club and the Uruguayan national team.
"The only things that strike a chord with me in football these days are La Celeste and River," he told FIFA.com in his office at the Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti – better known as El Monumental – in the lead-up to his country's game away to Brazil in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying. This is one of the classic fixtures of the South American game, with the first meeting dating back to 1916, and it is one in which Francescoli made a big mark over the years.
FIFA.com: You tend to watch important matches alone or just with your kids, with no friends about. How anxious are you about this Brazil-Uruguay game?
Enzo Francescoli: I'm relaxed about it because I have a lot of faith in the team. This Uruguay side can match anyone because, not only do they have the famous grit that is part of the Charrúa DNA but, just like all the great Uruguayan teams that won things, they have great players. And the best No9 in the world, who is back in the fold.
What makes Luis Suarez the best?
He's kept developing constantly. Today he's a much-improved player compared to when he started out at Liverpool, at Nacional, in the Netherlands and even at Barcelona. He was on fire at Liverpool, but today he's a much more complete player. True, playing alongside colossuses helps, but even so. Leaving aside how many goals he scores, these days he's a guy who goes out there and makes the difference and he is the first one to put pressure on the opponents. He's the complete package.
Considering the shape Brazil are in, do you feel Uruguay have a better chance than ever even though they're away from home?
Brazil are coming off a pretty critical period. They're suffering a hangover from the issue of hosting a World Cup and not winning it, for a second time. They're having a tough time finding their way again, but they have some quality players. Games at this level are always evenly matched. It's like a derby – a lot depends on your state of mind, on how you get up in the morning.
I told him to his face that he's the best Uruguayan No9 I've ever seen. I have no problem saying that, even though I played as a No9 for Uruguay.
You enjoyed some very memorable moments against Brazil during your playing days. What were your experiences of that rivalry as a child, though?
In Uruguay you grow up knowing that Brazil and Argentina are your rivals. I remember sitting in front of the television in the dining room at home, with my dad and my older brother, to watch the 1970 World Cup semi-final that we lost to Brazil. It was a 'technical rivalry'. We were seen as a battling, pumped-up team which, as I said before, was mistaken because every time Uruguay have won things, like in 1950, it's been because they had really great players, not just grit.
It was and remains a very different rivalry to the one with Argentina...
Yes, that rivalry is all about the banter that flies around with the lot from Buenos Aires. It's like beating your older brother; it's much more of a battle between neighbours. The rivalry with Brazil was always one of style, of saying: 'I'm here and you can play beautiful football all you want, but you're not going to beat me.' In fact, historically Uruguay have done much better than Brazil in the crunch meetings.
Does the rivalry with Brazil stretch to mutual hatred in sporting terms?
No, it's always been based on respect and admiration. And exploits, because we won the 1983 Copa America by overcoming the great Brazil team from the '82 World Cup. We produced a great performance to run out 2-0 winners in Uruguay and then drew 1-1 in Bahia, in front of a crowd of 95,000. It was a massive achievement in my first campaign with the senior national team. I was also fortunate enough that the last time I won the tournament, in '95, was also against Brazil, albeit at the [Estadio] Centenario, against the '94 world champions. As a team we had grit and character, but also some very good players.
Have you ever heard a louder celebratory roar than the one that greeted your free-kick goal at the Centenario in the first leg of the '83 final?
That's one of the loudest reactions I've ever heard to a goal but, truth be told, the loudest was for one Brazil scored against us, when they beat us 1-0 in the '89 Copa America final at the Maracana, in front of 150,000 people. We could barely hear the referee's whistle. It was utter bedlam, as if we were inside a television set. The batucada drums were beating throughout, there wasn't a minute of silence. It was awe-inspiring. When they scored their goal, it was like an explosion. I'd never experienced anything like it.
You retired 16 years ago. In his book Fever Pitch¸ Nick Hornby relates how, as a fan, he would find himself thinking back to Arsenal matches from several years earlier while, for instance, lying in bed with a woman. Has anything like that happened to you as a former player?
It happens to me when I go to a big match or watch one on television, especially if it's at a place where I played. If River or Uruguay play in Seattle, that doesn't impact me as much as if they play at the Centenario, the Monumental, the Maracana or in Bahia. Those are places that I have a strong connection with from my career.
Do these things stir your emotions or do you suppress them?
I don't have a sad sense of nostalgia any more; that went away after a couple of years. Nowadays I still wish I were young again so I could keep playing, but I don't feel sadness. I have fond memories of having been there and enjoyed it.
Every time Uruguay play in Brazil, the Maracanazo [when Uruguay shocked Brazil on home turf to claim the FIFA World Cup title in 1950] gets brought up. Is that just press and fan talk?
No, when you go to the Maracana or any other stadium [as a player] you know that you're wearing a shirt with important history. The Maracanazo should be a badge of pride. It never weighed on me, although it has on some people.
In 2010 you said that Diego Forlan would surpass you and in 2011 you said that Suarez would be the country's standard-bearer. Has Luis eclipsed you both or does he still have something to prove for Uruguay?
Being crowned a champion or scoring more goals than someone else doesn't define a player. There are different moments and circumstances. Uruguay had [Pedro] Rocha and many others before, then I came along, then Forlan and now it's Suarez. Suarez is the standard-bearer for the national team and Uruguayan football because he plays for a side who are watched all over the world. In Japan [at the FIFA Club World Cup] I told him to his face that he's the best Uruguayan No9 I've ever seen. I have no problem saying that, even though I played as a No9 for Uruguay. Now he's back to face Brazil. It won't be easy, but Uruguay have what it takes to support him and he has plenty to draw on.