Along with Uruguay’s run to the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals there was much talk of ‘la garra charrua’, the spirit supposedly underpinning the national team at all times. Some would even argue that it is this spirit that has allowed them to succeed consistently against the odds – of all the teams to compete at the finals in Russia, only Iceland have a lower population than Uruguay.
Andreas Campomar, who quite literally wrote the book on Latin American football, Golazo (2014), describes it as: “That spirit of the Uruguayan national team…which allows it to snatch victory in the face of imminent defeat.” He also, however, wrote that he had never believed in the idea, that it is more perceived than actual. But, at least on the evidence of Uruguay’s latest World Cup showing, the perception – if that is indeed what it is – is a strong one.
Drawn in Group A with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia, Oscar Tabarez’s side started the World Cup poorly. First, they meandered to a dull 1-0 victory over a Mohamed Salah-less Egypt, playing without urgency or purpose. Then they won by the same scoreline against a Saudi Arabian side that had been hammered by five goals to nil in their opener versus Russia. They looked sluggish, even disinterested. Then, in the biggest game of their tournament up to that point, they thrashed the hosts 3-0 to secure top spot in the group. That gave them a second round tie with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, which they won 2-1.
These performances, both the bad and the good, only served to underline the idea of garra charrua as core to the Uruguayan national team. When they were expected to win, against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they played as if defeat was no problem, but when the odds and/or the crowd stood against them, they played some of the best defensive football seen in the international game.
Uruguay’s identity is visible throughout their team, from the aerially supreme Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the back to the relentless running of star forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front. However, it is perhaps best exemplified by their new midfield.
At the 2014 World Cup, Tabarez’s midfield selection included at least two of Egidio Arevalo Rios, Diego Perez and Walter Gargano. The former was a human wall; the latter two were uncompromising and unapologetically physical defensive battlers. All three have since retired and been replaced by the fresher, younger and more technically adept trident of Lucas Torreira, Nahitan Nandez and Rodrigo Bentancur. Despite the facelift, however, Uruguay’s midfield retains and cherishes its tenacity.
Torreira has established himself as one of the finest defensive midfielders in Europe over the last two seasons. He is a ceaseless haranguer of opposition playmakers, running, covering, tackling, intercepting and driving forward with unrivalled ferocity. Few footballers enjoy tussling as much as the Sampdoria man appears to.
Nandez, who is the only one of the three still plying his trade in South America – with Boca Juniors in Argentina – gained worldwide attention via social media thanks to his rather ridiculous header-tackle in the win over Russia. On the floor, with his opponent about to go past him, the shuttling midfielder attempted to head the ball away. This was not necessarily a genuine attempt to play the ball, but it was undoubtedly a statement of intent, a confirmation that no-one would show more willing than he or his team.
Tabarez switched systems for the Russia game, moving from a flat 4-4-2 to a 4-1-2-1-2 with a diamond midfield. This allowed Torreira to come in at the base, while Bentancur was shifted to the tip, behind the Suarez/Cavani strike partnership. However, despite operating in the same areas as a classic No.10, the Juventus player is anything but. Indeed, at this World Cup he has averaged more tackles and interceptions than dribbles and key passes. His class on the ball is, quite evidently, matched by a sound work ethic off it.
Garra charrua is so ingrained in Uruguay’s football that it is present in each member of their new midfield trident, all of whom are under the age of 23. Torreira, Nandez and Bentancur combine their passing, vision and dribbling skills with the traditional qualities of positional nous, abundant energy and a willingness to sacrifice the self in order for the collective to succeed. While they may be the new face of their national team, they perfectly embody the old.
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