Oscar Tabarez’s Inspirational Story Coaching Uruguay, From Zero Back to Zero

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“What are the chances of Uruguay penetrating Qatar.”

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NBCNEWS – Oscar Tabarez began coaching Uruguay from 1988-1990. But, then had time to stop until he returned to coach the Uruguayan national team for a second period in 2006.

Tabarez managed to bring Uruguay to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, and donated the Copa America title a year later.

The former AC Milan and Cagliari coach dared to coach Uruguay from scratch, especially the country is famous for its football instability. But, under the tutelage of Tabarez, Uruguay emerged as one of the countries that appeared in the World Cup competition.

During his 17 years as Celeste boss in two spells, El Maestro led the country to four World Cups by recording a total of 10 final wins – the only victory recorded by a Uruguay coach since the 1970 tournament.

More than 200 games in charge of the tiny South American giants, in fact he achieved something no coach of any other national team has achieved in the history of a single country.

Seeing the process leading up to that achievement earned him the respect and admiration of his players, rivals and peers around the world.

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“I have grown as a player and as a person thanks to El Maestro,” Luis Suarez said on one occasion.

“He is one of the best coaches in the world, because of his personality and how he helps his players,” Suarez added.

Vicente del Bosque also paid tribute to Tabarez, precisely when interviewed by Radio Oriental in 2020. “He was an honorable man in every way. An extraordinary man,” said the former Spain coach.

However, a string of incredible success and consistency ended in dismal circumstances which did not do justice to the much-admired veteran.

Four World Cup qualifying defeats in as many games in October and November finally sealed the coach’s fate, as well as leaving Uruguay on the brink of missing out on the final for the first time since 2006.

In fairness to Tabarez, the series of matches proved to be a formidable obstacle: Argentina home and away, the trip to Brazil in sweltering Manaus, and the final challenge against the decidedly dizzying walls of La Paz in Bolivia.

However, the writing had been pasted on the wall for the former school teacher. While the 74-year-old will be sorely missed, it is hard to deny that Uruguay desperately need a change due to failed results.

Tabarez did bring Uruguay to a fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup and triumph in the Copa America a year later. It was like a perfect mix of sledgehammer and scalpel, symbolized in the four Diego who became the backbone of the team.

The duo of centre-back between Diego Lugano and Diego Godin was very slick, while up front with Diego Perez’s ferocity seen in every battle, the Uruguay squad dared to risk everything for their beloved country.

Further up the line, Tabarez relied on Diego Forlan’s extraordinary talent. The player is blessed with the ability to change the game with the flick of his boot.

Coupled with the attacking power of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in the team, as well as solid and committed supporters all over the pitch. That makes Celeste so respected every opponent in the international arena.

The Copa Uruguay victory in 2011, the first since 1995 and achieved after the elimination of hosts Argentina in the quarter-finals, was the highlight of Tabarez’s coaching time in Uruguay.

But, perhaps his greatest legacy was the implementation of the first day of ‘The process of institutionalizing the national team and player growth’.

Under that rather heavy-handed nickname, every level of Uruguayan football, from the Under-15s to the senior level, is under his jurisdiction. They are obliged to play the same style of football and prioritize the education and development of players and football skills.

El Maestro is here to instill a collective spirit and solidarity. “The sacred word in my coaching team is respect,” he said on one occasion.

“The first thing we teach 13-year-olds when they come to us is say hello when they walk through a place where there are people, even if they don’t know them, and then say thank you: to people who do, ” he said.

Every member of today’s Uruguay squad grows in the process, ensuring a continuity of talent and team unity that is often impossible to cultivate in the world of international football.

Meanwhile, at the senior level, the cracks after those golden years began to slowly appear, as the vital old guard aged or stepped aside.

Coach Celeste is also struggling on her own, battling the debilitating Guillain-Barre syndrome, which became more acute in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup and severely affected her mobility.

While Uruguay remained capable of fighting their way to victory against even toughest rivals, beating hosts Russia and Portugal in the final before losing to reigning champions France, serious contradictions have emerged in the new-looking squad.

The fire and muscle of players like Lugano, Perez and Egidio Arevalo Rios were replaced by more elegant cerebral talent in midfield, ball-playing midfielders like Lucas Torreira, Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde who didn’t fit the typical Celeste mold.

Even so, Tabarez continued to struggle to adapt his conservative tactics into the squad, and in the modern era has changed drastically during his time in charge of Uruguay.

Indeed, he was never comfortable with talented players: Cristian Rodriguez, Gaston Ramirez and, more recently, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, came in and out of his team without ever managing to make much of an impact in El Maestro’s rigid game plan.

At the same time, the press back in Uruguay denounced both the light touch of the new generation and by extension their coach.

The biggest scandal of the 3-0 loss to Argentina in October was not the score, but the fact that the visitors had committed ‘only’ five fouls at Monumental and not been shown a single yellow card – an unforgivable lack of aggression in a country where fierce tackles are preferred.

Celeste did her best to restore that scrutiny in November when Lionel Messi came to visit and committed 20 fouls, but the result was the same: defeat and further slump from the qualifying table.

A disastrous first half at La Paz and other disjointed performances proved a coup, and now only four games remain for Tabarez’s successors to reverse the team’s fortunes and book their place in Qatar.

It’s far from a hopeless situation, with Uruguay just one point behind Colombia and the last automatic qualifying spot.

Compared to the poor qualifiers that preceded Tabarez’s death, the new, as-yet-unknown defender will start with matches against Paraguay and Venezuela before finishing qualifiers with clashes against Chile and Peru.

Apart from the old players, young stars like Ronald Araujo, Brian Rodriguez, Facundo Torres and Agustin Alvarez Martinez have already started to make their mark at senior level. While Uruguay still boasts one of the world’s premier defenders in Jose Maria Gimenez and when used in carefully regulated doses, goals have come from veteran attacking pair Suarez and Cavani.

Uruguay’s enigma is thus one of identity rather than ability somewhat masked in recent years by a respectable figure on the bench.

Will Uruguay embrace the latest developments in tactics and coaching or continue to use their tradition of commitment and uncompromising resistance on the pitch. All will depend on who is chosen to replace El Maestro.

Meanwhile, the dynamic and highly successful Marcelo Gallardo has been touted as a potential heir. The chances of landing the River Plate boss seemed very slim. The more likely candidate is the current Internacional coach, Diego Aguirre, a student of Tabarez who did score the winning goal for Penarol in the 1987 Copa Libertadores.

Aguirre is as pragmatic as his mentor and will likely continue the same vein tactically, albeit with a slightly fresher outlook as a new face on the bench.

However, all was not lost for Celeste. Qatar is still within reach, and despite recent disappointing results, the structure Tabarez left behind is still intact to enjoy for years to come.

While El Maestro, the 74-year-old coach may have to be willing to kill his dream, as he admitted in 2020, of the “last dance” in Qatar ultimately frustrated, but of course he will not be easily forgotten.

His reputation as one of the best and most honest football coaches. And, the legend of the South American game has been secured for years to come.

(atmaja wijaya/yul)

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