Let’s not get caught up now. Edinson Cavani’s two magnificent goals against Portugal in the last-16 may have amplified his importance to Uruguay. But he’s not what Ronaldo and Messi are to Portugal and Argentina.The PSG striker will likely miss Friday’s quarterfinal against France in Nizhny Novgorod. But despite his world-class talent, he remains a replaceable cog in the exceptional machine built by manager Oscar Tabarez.The 71-year-old – currently fighting his own battle with chronic neuropathy – has spent the past 12 years preaching collectivism to his squad. Tired sporting cliches like ‘one in all in’ or ‘take one for the team’ are in fact the lifeblood of what makes Uruguay a formidable, yet underestimated opponent.
“I think there is often a mistaken assumption that possession leads to goal-scoring opportunities,” said the former AC Milan manager after the win over Portugal.
“I learned that in Italy when I worked there. In Italy, ball possession isn’t sanctified as it is elsewhere. Even if you don’t have a lot of possession, you can inflict pain on your opponent.”
Integral to Tabarez’s tactics are Atletico Madrid centre-backs Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. The past four years spent developing their relationship at club level has spilled over fantastically for Uruguay. Just as Italy benefited from Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini’s partnership at AC Milan, Godin and Gimenez have helped La Celeste transform into a world-class defensive unit, that before Pepe’s goal for Portugal last Saturday, hadn’t conceded in nine hours of football.Arguably the best centre-back in the world, Godin has rejected overtures from almost every club in Europe, once stating that he’d die before leaving Atleti. The 32-year-old is an old-fashioned defender, relying on guile and determination rather than sheer athleticism. It is his selflessness, leadership and football nous that epitomises Tabarez’s collectivist ethos.
“Football’s changed,” Godín told The Guardian. “Everyone wants to play nicely now: they want to bring the ball out, the goalkeeper, players, lots of touches.
“It’s worked for many teams – it’s been good for Spain – but some forget the other side of the game. To use the ball, you have to win it back. And you don’t get it back with everyone doing their own thing. You need to know how to do that, and it’s not so easy.
“You can’t turn your back on your collective DNA. We’ve always been very good defensively, direct, balls in to the forwards quickly, speed on the outside, but I think we’ve improved inside: we keep the ball better, the younger players have come in and given us that.
“But Uruguay hasn’t lost that commitment, that fight, the sacrifice and solidarity, the determination to overcome adversity.”
Remarkably, the smallest of the ten nations who compete in CONCEMBOL qualifying, with a population of just 3.4 million people, continue to produce players that espouse the same characteristics as veterans such as Godin, Suarez and Cavani.At just 23, one can only imagine how Gimenez will develop working alongside Godin every day. Inter Milan’s Matias Vecino is the oldest starting midfielder at 26, and is reportedly wanted by Chelsea. Lucas Torreira and Nahitan Nández are just 22, with the former expected to complete a move to Arsenal after the World Cup, and 21-year-old attacking midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur is one of the brightest talents in the world.While quality in defence and midfield might not supplant the loss of Cavani, the presence of Luis Suarez certainly does. This could be a chance for the Barcelona star to exorcise any lingering demons from a horrible 2014 campaign, which saw him sent home for biting Giorgio Chiellini prior to the loss to Colombia in the last-16.
“I have to be one of the calm ones, because there are a lot of youngsters here now in the squad, some for the first time. I must lead by example,” Suarez told reporters this week.
“With so many games in the national squad, I’ve learnt a lot about how to handle this situation.”
France are brimming with confidence after their emphatic victory over Argentina. What remains unclear is how they will break down a more competent, tactically astute defence.
Kylian Mbappe may have run wild against Jorge Sampaoli’s floundering back-four, but France’s ability to penetrate deep-lying defences looked suspect in group stage matches against Australia and Peru, where they scored a combined three goals, two of which came from a penalty and deflection.
In a footballing world that covets flashiness and bravado, Russia and Sweden have shown at this World Cup that discipline and organisation can topple class. Unfortunately for France, Uruguay possess all three of those qualities in abundance, even without Cavani.