By Jay Mwamba
Uruguay, the last team to qualify for the 2002 finals, are one of the original superpowers of soccer. But for 12 years the South Americans have languished in the wilderness, their glory years in the World Cup that yielded championships in 1930 and 1950 a distant memory.
Off the back of a tense playoff victory over Australia, Uruguay return to the big stage in Japan/Korea for the first time since Italia ’90 with few illusions about making a splash.
Said coach Victor Pua after the first-round draw dealt him an intriguing hand in the guise of star-studded Cup holders France, an old Scandinavian nemesis named Denmark, and enigmatic African newcomers Senegal: “It will be a tough and even group. They are all tough teams.”
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Indeed, with Zinedine Zidane’s world champions expected to win Group A, the Uruguayans could be locked in a fierce dogfight with Denmark and the Senegalese for the runner-up slot.
And with the winners of England’s dreaded “Group of Death” waiting in the wings to engage the Group A runner-up in the Round of 16, whoever finishes second to France will have their work cut out to avoid a cameo-like appearance in the finals.
At any rate, Uruguay, once renowned as much for their free-flowing soccer as for their unbridled and volatile temperament, are unlikely to go down without giving it a shot.
The 14-time Copa America winners begin their campaign against Denmark in Ulsan, Korea, on June 1, in what will be a testing rematch of their Mexico ’86 first-round clash that the Danes won 6-1.
Although the previously unheralded Richard Morales emerged as the hero of Uruguay’s World Cup return with his killer brace that saw off the Socceroos in the playoffs, it is around Inter Milan’s Alvaro Recoba that Pua will build his squad.
Young and skillful, the attacking midfielder is regarded by his countrymen as the successor to Uruguay’s last great star, Enzo Francescoli, left foot and all.
Recoba, who’s 25, plays his best football behind the striking force, which, hopefully, will keep Morales and the even more prolific Dario Silva on score sheets in the finals.
The quicksilver Silva, a deadly finisher who plays his club football with Malaga in Spain, was Uruguay’s top scorer in the South American qualifiers with five goals.
He added a vital sixth, the first-half strike in Montevideo that put the former champions back on par with Australia before Morales’s second-half explosion.
A conspicuously athletic figure with his platinum bleached hair, the colorful Silva could become a crowd favorite in Asia if Recoba maintains a steady supply of balls from midfield.
At the back, Uruguay’s most outstanding player is Juventus hardman Paolo Montero. Quick, tough, uncompromising and at times cynical, Montero is cut out of the mold of such legendary Latin American stoppers as Daniel Passarella and Oscar Ruggieri.
Then there’s goalie Fabian Carini, who earned his stripes in the playoffs. For most of the second leg in Montevideo before Morales knocked off the Australians, Carini kept Uruguay in the match with one superb save after another from Australia’s strikers, led by Leeds’ Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka.
Certainly, Carini’s form in Korea will be vital to Uruguay’s efforts in Group A.
Initially led in the qualifiers by the Argentine Passarella, Uruguay struggled to reach the finals. They finished fifth in the marathon 10-nation South American qualifiers after posting seven wins, six draws and five defeats.
Earlier, Pua had replaced Passarella with the cause seemingly lost. He guided the team into a difficult two-legged playoff with Australia and had Morales to thank for pulling Uruguay through.
Uruguay hosted and lifted the first World Cup championship in 1930, and repeated their success 20 years later when they shocked Brazil 2-1 before 200,000 fans at Rio’s Maracana Stadium in the 1950 final.
In all, this will be Uruguay’s ninth appearance in the finals and they may just be happy to be there after missing the last two tournaments.
(Each week Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Denmark.)