Uruguay has produced many legends since winning the very first World Cup in 1930. Indeed, that line-up featured defender José Nasazzi and striker Héctor Castro, both placed highly amongst La Celeste’s greats. The team that stunned Brazil to capture the World Cup in 1950 catapulted Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia into the realms of immortality. In more recent decades, the country has produced a series of talents that have gone on to play for some of Europe’s top clubs, including Enzo Francescoli, Daniel Fonseca, Rubén Sosa, Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez.
One of the greats of Uruguayan football, however, is a former defender with a mediocre playing career who went on to become one of the best managers in the world. Óscar Tabárez, who retired from playing at the age of 32, leads Uruguay for a fourth time at a World Cup this month. In Russia, the two-time winners are hoping to go far, like they did in reaching the semi-finals in 2010, exceeding expectations by finishing fourth.
It was in Spain that Tabárez created a spirit of renewal around the national team. While this small nation of just 3.5 million people isn’t necessarily among the pre-tournament favourites, Tabárez, who at age 71 is the oldest manager in Russia, has brought both stability and a strong youth system to the national team’s budding program. He’s also reinvigorated the notion of Garra Charrúa, a unique spirit that highlights the importance of tenacity alongside skill.
“Being able to be involved with the national team at four World Cups is surprising to me,” Tabárez said. “First, it’s amazing how time flies. But in that time, I have always tried to maintain a positive attitude. When we embarked on rebuilding this team in 2006, the aim was to change our thinking. There have been lots of amazing changes in football throughout the world, especially when you compare 1990 to 2018. Football is not the same; the world is not the same.”
While stability and youth can help any national team program thrive, Garra Charrúa is Tabárez’s secret tactical weapon. Literally meaning “The Claw”, this characteristic brings to the forefront the mentality where Tabárez’s players believe they have greater fury and intensity compared to that of their opponents. The notion of Garra isn’t new. It dates back centuries and has come to mean different things in different eras.
The phrase comes from the Charrúa Indians, a group of warriors wiped out in the 19th century. Overshadowed in football terms by neighbours Brazil, Argentina and, in recent years, Chile, La Celeste have always had to fight harder to maintain par.
“We used to be known for our violent play – whether it was a legitimate accusation or not – and not being known for our fair play. We have responded to that by creating great footballers,” Tabárez said. “We have worked hard at youth level and we only have a little over three million inhabitants. When you produce one great player in Uruguay, that’s equal to 20 in Brazil and 10 in Argentina. Therefore, we have had to approach the game differently compared to everyone else.”
There have been plenty of examples of Garra under Tabárez’s leadership. This enduring quality has also brought with it some of the World Cup’s most-controversial moments. Luis Suárez’s handball on the line in the final minute of the quarter-final clash against Ghana in 2010 helped them reach the semis – their best finish at a World Cup since 1970 – courtesy of a penalty shootout. It was again Suárez, four years later, who was at the centre of the storm when his bite on the shoulder Giorgio Chiellini helped psych out Italy and send Uruguay through to the last 16.
La Garra Charrúa isn’t limited to the Barcelona striker, though. Uruguay’s reputation has been forged over the years by something that took place at the 1986 World Cup, two years before Tabárez took over the team during his first stint as manager.
It was just 56 seconds into Uruguay’s group match against Scotland when José Batista received a red card for a violent tackle on Gordon Strachan. It was there that Uruguay gained this notorious reputation. That was a Uruguay that had descended into cynical football, a disgrace to its past. In some ways, the national team reflected the country’s mood and politics of the time.
Uruguay had been enveloped by fascism – a period that began in 1973 when a military regime took charge – and it wasn’t until 1984 that democracy returned to the South American nation. Even the ascension of a player like Francescoli and the dominance of club sides Nacional and Peñarol wasn’t enough to return Uruguay to its former glory. Instead, the team imploded under coach Omar Borrás, a physical education teacher, with its brutality and rough play. Uruguay would be eliminated in the round of 16 after losing to neighbours Argentina.
Tabárez was hired in 1988 and it was at the Copa América a year later, his first major tournament in charge, where Uruguay lost to hosts Brazil in the final. The outcome was positive nonetheless as the team eliminated Argentina, led at the time by Diego Maradona, in the final group stage.
The following summer, at the World Cup in Italy, Tabárez coached the team to the round of 16, only to be eliminated by the host nation. It was largely deemed a success, but he left for a career as a club manager. His travels took him to Boca Juniors in Argentina, to Italy with AC Milan and Cagliari, Real Oviedo in Spain, and back to Argentina with Vélez Sarsfield and Boca again. In 2006, Tabárez returned to his first love – the helm of Uruguay’s national team.
Tabárez brings his own ideology into play as a manager. He’s revived their national team, especially during his second stint over the past 12 years, by rebuilding the youth system after concluding the country’s top tier wasn’t competitive enough to produce the quality needed to succeed internationally. He encouraged players to go abroad and win playing time with European clubs.
As manager of the under-20 side in 1983, where Uruguay captured the gold medal at the Pan American Games for the first time in history. he instilled the value of cultivating players from a young age. Uruguay’s under-20s have done better in recent years – thanks also to a network of scouts Tabárez put in place – giving him a larger player pool to pluck players from.
Another big breakthrough came at the 2011 Copa América in Argentina. Uruguay captured the title, soundly defeating Paraguay 3-0 in the final. That was the tournament where Uruguay also won the Fair Play Award. For Tabárez, it was another sign that his work had yielded results, and that their Garra was well-balanced.
For a man who grew up playing the game on the streets, Tabárez understood the modern world of football, where players are cultivated while still children and trained to be champions in their teenage years. Excluding Diego Godín, Maxi Pereira and Cristian Rodríguez, all the players at the 2018 World Cup earned their senior national team caps under Tabárez. As a result, he became their godfather. Revered and respected by his players, Tabárez has encouraged them to read books over playing games on their phones and had a library built in Uruguay’s national training centre just outside Montevideo.
“Age has nothing to do with being a great coach,” said Godín. “We have been together a long time. We have a connection. We have a lot of respect for El Maestro and we learn from him every day.”
Indeed, Tabárez is not only a coach. He’s an academic – a trained history teacher – and aptly nicknamed El Maestro out of both respect and for his time in the classroom. His middle name may be inspired by George Washington, the US general who went on to become the country’s first president, but Tabárez’s admiration is for Che Guevara, the communist revolutionary. Che’s motto of “one must toughen oneself without ever losing tenderness” hangs in his home in Montevideo. Tabárez even named his daughter Tania after one of Che’s girlfriends.
He runs his post-game news conferences like lectures and unleashes quotes that are more philosophical than traditional sound bites. Asked about the mood among the players after Uruguay were soundly defeated by Costa Rica 3-1 in their opening World Cup match in Brazil, Tabarez told reporters: “Motivation is an internal process and is linked to the need people feel to do certain things.”
This is just one example of how a meeting with reporters can turn into a classroom-style debate. Tabárez often quotes a statistic to journalists from his team’s semi-final run at the 2010 World Cup: in every game their opponents had more possession, but Uruguay recorded more shots on goal.
Indeed, adversity and beating the odds is nothing new for Tabárez. He wasn’t even supposed to be in Russia to coach the team and was expected to resign two years ago after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a neurological disease that weakens the immune system. He struggled to move and required a walker – and sometimes even a wheelchair – to get around. Instead, he persevered, saying nothing would keep him from doing what he loves most.
Even when it comes to explaining where Uruguay want to go in the future, Tabárez, his words measured, can’t help but answer as a history teacher would – putting the current team’s fortunes into a broader context: “Uruguay used to be a power,” he said. “We won two World Cups in played in and remained undefeated in that tournament until 1954 until it lost to Hungary in Switzerland. After 1950, it marked the end of a generation. This meant that we had to work hard in the ensuing years.”
At this World Cup, Tabárez is doing what he loves most. This is a team that values a solid defence, using a creative midfield to move the ball to Edinson Cavani and Suárez. It all seems very simple, but this mix of finesse and physicality makes it a team that is tough to defeat. Against Egypt in their World Cup opener, Uruguay dominated but struggled. They needed a 90th-minute goal from José Giménez to grab a 1-0 victory. Garra Charrúa was once again on display for the world to see.
Giménez, a centre back, is also a great example of how Tabárez’s focus on young players had helped feed the senior team. The Atlético Madrid man played at the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, helping Uruguay finish as runners-up to France. He debuted for the senior team that year and hasn’t looked back, now playing in his second World Cup finals.
“The key is to play in three straight World Cups. It is difficult to do that, but not impossible. We have done that,” said Tabárez. “Getting to where we are now is very important. Now that we are here, we want to take advantage of this opportunity. We want to do important things. I am certain that with the group we have, we can do well.”
With Óscar Tabárez at the helm, anything is possible.
By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi