As Germany make their way home and some of the other favourites stumble through the World Cup’s opening skirmishes, several smaller nations will have started to believe this could be their year.
Of course, it seems a bit impertinent to call Uruguay a smaller nation; after all, they have won the World Cup twice, even though their current population is only 3.4 million.
However, at this World Cup a series of commanding performances have seen Uruguay emerge as one of the teams most likely to triumph and become world champions for a third time.
Managed by the experienced and wily Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay finished top of group A with three out of three wins, and, probably most impressive of all, did it without conceding a goal.
“Let’s put the brakes on” Tabarez cautioned after they had finished top of their group with a perfect record, but when you boast both an unbreached defence and an attack as lethal as Uruguay’s, then deep down he must know he has a team capable of pulling off a shock.
And while Uruguay did impress in the group stages, it was also clear they have been playing within themselves, doing what was necessary against modest opposition. There is more to come.
In winning their first opening game at a World Cup since 1970, Uruguay had to be patient against a spirited Egyptian side before a late goal from Jose Maria Gimenez delivered a 1-0 win.
In their next match against Saudi Arabia, Uruguay were solid if unspectacular, securing another 1-0 win. Their final group game, against a resurgent Russia who’d won their opening two games with eight unanswered goals, saw them clinically dissect the hosts in a 3-0 win. There is a momentum building behind Tabarez’s side.
All three of their wins were achieved with a clean sheet, and they now stand alone as the only side not to have conceded at this World Cup.
This side is built on the partnership between the formidable Atletico Madrid pair of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, the old master and the young gun, who have combined to shut out all opposition, and best represent the side’s ‘Garra Charrua’ spirit of grit and fighting character.
The concern for Uruguay has always been whether they had a midfield that could bridge the gap between their stellar defence and forward line, and so far at this tournament the youthful energy and passing ability of players like Rodrigo Bentancur and Matias Vecino has comfortably protected the back four, retained possession, and provided enough support to the strikers.
Luis Suarez is a proud man, who does not want to be remembered on the world stage for a handball against Ghana that earned him a red card at the 2010 World Cup, and of course that infamous bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini which saw him ejected from the 2014 World Cup or, as his team-mate Godin has said with barely disguised resentment, “kicked out like a dog.”
He also has seven goals in his World Cup career, including two so far in Russia, and wants to score more to burnish his status in the game for the right reasons. The former Liverpool man has the guile and pace to trouble any defence, and appears to be in good form in Russia.
Completing the best strike partnership at the World Cup is Edison Cavani, scorer of 43 international goals, and fresh from scoring 89 goals in his last two seasons with Paris Saint-Germain.
It means that Uruguay are in the enviable position of having not one, but two match winners at their peak in Russia, which could prove vital for Tabarez’s side.
Next up is Portugal in the round of sixteen, which provides us with a couple of delicious La Liga sub-plots; Barcelona’s Suarez will be desperate to triumph over Ronaldo, while Atletico’s Godin and Gimenez will be confident they more than anyone can keep Portugal’s Real Madrid striker quiet. The prize is a place in the quarter-finals and a step closer to the World Cup final.
The longest serving international manager at this World Cup, Tabarez has been in charge of Uruguay for the last 12 years and a total of 137 games. There is something special happening with his team at the moment, and no reason why he can’t preside over another four games in the next two weeks.