Uruguay’s Copa América Centenario campaign was nothing short of disastrous and when failures occur, causes have to be found. The obvious and simple one is the injury of Luis Suárez. The real reason, though, seems to be something that’s going on ever since the victorious Copa América of 2011.

I. Oscar Tabárez, the saviour.

Back then, Oscar Tabárez reached his ultimate goal, which was to make Uruguay an elite footballing country again. After the early years of the beautiful game, wherein the sky blue of Uruguay was a real force, La Celeste had fallen behind and couldn’t compete with world’s finest anymore. The darkest times for the ‘land of 3 million’ came when they failed to qualify for the World Cup on three occasions between 1994 and 2006. It gave the two-time (actually four-time) world champions one conclusion; change is needed. That’s where Oscar Tabárez took over.

After a long career in club football and a brief spell as Uruguay manager (1988-1990), he had to guide this ship, called Uruguay, out of the most roughest of seas. It was the beginning of the resurrection of Uruguayan football which Tabárez called El Proceso. Tabárez’ philosophy was to revolutionize the way football was played and lived in Uruguay. From the youth teams right up to the senior squad, El Maestro drastically implemented his beliefs in order to get his home nation back to the top.

 

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Did you know – Tabárez is called El Maestro because he actually was a school teacher in the past.

 

The first real measuring point was the World Cup of 2010, considering the Copa América of 2007 was too early to draw conclusions. Uruguay qualified as 5th and last CONMEBOL country but were the only remaining South American nation in the last four. Unfortunately for La Celeste, the Dutch were too strong in the semi-finals. However, after overcoming the deception, Uruguay were proud of what they had achieved. It was the best World Cup campaign since 1970. Tabárez was highly praised as he had raised the national pride, which the national football team is, out of the shit (if I may say so).

For Uruguay to prove the World Cup in South Africa wasn’t just a one-off, they had to perform in the Copa América of 2011. After a tough group stage run, wherein they collected five points (two draws and one win), La Celeste came up against hosts Argentina for a spot in the last four. A nail-biting encounter between the eternal rivals was eventually decided by a penalty shootout. Tabárez’ men came out on top and progressed to the semi-finals. Uncharacteristically, Uruguay then eased on to claim their 15th Copa América title as they respectively brushed aside Peru (2-0) and Paraguay (3-0).

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The Uruguay squad celebrating after they just won the Copa América final.

II. Oscar Tabárez, the man in denial.

Next to Tabárez’ success with the senior squad, El Proceso was also in full flow at the youth teams as Uruguay reached the final in both U20 (2013) and U17 (2011) World Cups. The obvious task for Tabárez was to now combine these talented youngsters with Uruguay’s main senior players. However, El Maestro chose to hang onto his successful, yet aging, squad. The lack of renewal committed by Oscar Tabárez and his staff was clear as Uruguay took the field at the World Cup of 2014 with an average squad age of 28.54, leaving only Argentina and Honduras with an older team.

Uruguay’s World Cup story, as we all know, went up in flames vs. Colombia after some highs and real lows in the group stage. Not a great campaign, but to overcome an in-form Colombia with all the controversy surrounding Luis Suárez was never going to be easy. Still, the World Cup was considered as disappointing by the La Celeste fans as their country made it as far as the semi-finals only four years ago. Surely now, Tabárez should provide the national team with some emerging talent to renew the squad.

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Here you see some members of the Uruguay U20 team celebrating a goal vs. Nigeria in the 2013 World Cup.

Today, two years later, barely a thing has changed and the same problem is still there to be solved. Arguably the three biggest Uruguayan talents in Gastón Pereiro, Nico Lopéz and Giorgian De Arrascaeta have been overlooked as the first two have yet to receive a call-up and De Arrascaeta’s last minutes for Uruguay date back to September 2015. Tabárez still prefers most of his ‘old guard’ and the consequences are clear.

Uruguay went from best team in South America to being bullied by Venezuela in five years time. The World Cup qualification table may not suggest the decline of the national team, but for two Copa’s in a row the problems have been widely revealed. The only one yet to take notice is, unfortunately, the man in charge, Oscar Tabárez.

Written by David Kraakman