Óscar Tabárez is kicking time in the teeth. He’s spitting in its eye, elbowing it in the stomach and telling it to go to hell. At an age where no one would blame him for hanging everything up and walking away, at a time in his life where he has accomplished so much that you wouldn’t begrudge him for one second for wanting to kick back and inhale a breath of serenity in the monotonous days of retirement, he’s doing just the opposite. And it might just define his career.
Tabárez has been planning Uruguay’s future without him since he retook the job of national team manager in 2006. In between making the semi-finals of the 2007 Copa América, the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup, winning the Copa América in 2011, as well as getting past England and Italy in the group stage of 2014’s World Cup, Tabárez has been working on a legacy beyond those accomplishments: revamping the Uruguayan youth system.
This, of course, is to be expected. National team managers spend most of their time contemplating the imminent, and how to best be prepared for it. That includes keeping a watchful eye on what new talent is coming up next in the pipeline and what ways it can be improved.
For Tabárez, however, it has been more akin to a CEO making sure all of his company’s affairs are in order before he finally walks away. Tabárez doesn’t just want the national team to be running smoothly for the next four years, he wants it to be churning out world-class talent for the next forty.
To accomplish this, Tabárez and Uruguay have to face the stark realities modern football is imposing on the country and continent at large. With a small population – only about 3.4 million inhabitants according to the World Bank in 2013 – and a domestic league that, like most all South American leagues is struggling financially, any player that shows potential is quickly snapped up and whisked away to Europe or the higher-paying leagues of Brazil or Argentina.
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This is a problem for Uruguay that Tabárez knows and understands better than any one. What Uruguay has lacked in size and economic might, they have always made up for in an unrelenting and ruthless commitment to their country’s pride and the collective identity of the team. The sky-blue of the Uruguayan shirt becomes the war paint of a nation that has made conquering the improbable a routine affair. This attitude of never backing down in the face of insurmountable odds, the thing the world has come to know as garra charrua, has always been Uruguay’s biggest strength, and globalization now offers a unique and difficult challenge to this tradition.
How do you create this same feeling of unyielding loyalty and love for one’s nation when your best players could be leaving the country before they even hit puberty? Simple, you put them through a formalized youth development program that focuses as much on national identity as it does on the best way to receive a pass under pressure or how to lead a teammate into space. This way, even if a player leaves in his teenage years he will have not only received an education in technical and tactical schooling, but an education on what it means to be a part of one of the best footballing traditions in the world. It’s a crash course on what it means to be a Uruguayan football player, and it’s an education Tabárez and Uruguay hope will pay for itself in the long run.
You can already see the seeds Tabárez planted years ago starting to sprout and bare fruit. The national team has gotten more and more pragmatic in recent years as the old guard of Tabárez ’s reign has gotten, well, old, and he is now spending the twilight years of his coaching career trying to successfully bridge the gap between the outgoing and incoming generations of Uruguayan football. They don’t call him El Maestro for nothing.
Uruguay finished second in the 2013 under-20 World Cup, with three of the standout players from that team already graduating to the senior squad. José Giménez, the 22-year-old centre-back for Atlético Madrid has been learning from fellow countryman and team-mate Diego Godín on how to be a dominant defender, something Giménez seems naturally predisposed to. He has shown a remarkable maturity and composure for someone so young in such a mentally demanding position and there were even calls for him to start in the World Cup after he impressed in qualifiers. Tabárez refused that temptation over the summer, but with him and Godín getting a lot of games together at Atleti, the future is bright.
Another one of Tabárez’s crown jewels is the striker-cum-wide forward Diego Rolán. The 21-year-old is a product of little Montevideo club Defensor Sporting, who are known around the continent for being excellent developers of youthful talent. He moved to Bordeaux after impressing for Uruguay’s under-20’s and after initial struggles with homesickness, he’s finally showing the prodigious talents at his disposal.
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In the absence of Luis Suárez and the continuing struggles of Edison Cavani to regain the form that made him one of the best strikers in the world while at Napoli, Rolán has sunk his teeth into his chances for the senior squad.
The last of the major standouts of that under-20 team is Giorgian De Arrascaeta. To tread lightly into the dangerous world of hyperbole for a moment, De Arrascaeta is something of a Uruguayan Iniesta; he has an uncanny ability to be able to receive a pass, turn, and blow past a defender all in one swift motion and the ball never seems to want to be too far from his delicate touch. He’s a natural at running at defenders and opening up defences with one flick of his boot, and true to the Uruguayan spirit, works hard defensively.
De Arrascaeta is important, not just because of his talent or potential. Uruguay have had an embarrassment of riches at the forward position for the last several years, but have been missing the link between the holding midfielders and attack to truly complete the team. De Arrascaeta, another product of Defensor Sporting and Tabárez’s planning of the future, could be that missing link.
Tabárez was in the stands to watch his country’s under-20 team put six past a hapless Chile in the Sudamericano sub-20, watching with the intentness and severity of a proud grandfather. It is always dangerous to try and leave behind a legacy, lest you become known as the man who tried and failed to leave a legacy. But Tabárez was seeing more than the seductive and silky skills of Gastón Pereiro, who has been compared to the great Enzo Francescoli, or the determined and tidy work of Mauro Arambarri that day – he was seeing time, and how he could defeat it.
There is a Greek proverb that states: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Tabárez has taken the same approach with football in Uruguay. At 70-years-old, and in the twilight of his career, it would have been easy for him to focus on the short-term, to let someone else worry about where the national team would be after he left. He has more than earned it. But that’s just not who Óscar Tabárez is. Óscar Tabárez is the kind of man who can see into the past and into the future, understand what his role is in all of it, and know that he can’t ignore the calling.
Tabárez’s vision is one of eternity; where his influence echoes through Uruguay’s footballing history long after he is gone. If he succeeds, he will have set Uruguay up for continued international success for years to come. El Maestro, indeed.
By Ian Walker. Follow @ForgottenLibero