The Uruguay coach, Diego Alonso, blamed the penalty given to Portugal in their second group game for his side’s exit from the World Cup.
A 2-0 win over Ghana on Friday was not enough to take second place in the group, South Korea’s victory over Portugal meaning they finished above Uruguay on goals scored. There was penalty controversy – again – against Ghana, with two extremely good appeals ruled out by the German official, Daniel Siebert, in the second half. Uruguay’s players furiously surrounded the referee at the end and, after André Ayew had a penalty saved for Ghana in the first half, Federico Valverde had run up to Siebert to celebrate, but Alonso was more exercised about the previous game.
José María Giménez fell in challenging Bruno Fernandes, the ball striking his hand as he did so. Ifab’s guidelines specifically state that that should not be given as a foul but the VAR official, Abdullah al-Marri, of Qatar instructed the Iranian referee, Alireza Faghani, to review the decision, after which he gave the penalty from which Portugal made it 2-0. Had that game finished 1-0, Uruguay would have gone through.
“We are out because of the penalty for Portugal and what it did to the goal difference,” Alonso said. “That was awarded but according to Fifa was not a penalty.” Exactly what communication there has been remains unclear.
“I would have liked to see this version of Uruguay before but this is what happened,” Alonso went on. “I don’t have anything to say to my players: they broke their backs and gave their best selves. Everyone can see what happened in previous match.”
He said it was too early to talk about his future, but the Ghana coach, Otto Addo, is leaving the national team. “When I started last year,” he said, “it was clear that I would stop after the World Cup. My family and I see my future in Germany. We are very happy there. I said when we qualified that I would resign after.”
He urged fans not to blame Ayew for missing the penalty. “There is nobody who hasn’t missed a penalty,” he said. “People who don’t know much about football will give that person the blame.”
Finally the tears came. For the closing few minutes he had managed to hold them back, as the news came through and his teammates continued to chase. But the final whistle came like a life sentence and suddenly he could hold back no longer. He buried his crumpled face in his jersey. The Ghana fans caught a glimpse on the big screen and let out their largest cheer of the night. For a few seconds the world was watching Luis Suárez crying. And the world was not – shall we say – overly uncomfortable with this state of affairs.
A revenge of sorts, then, even if nobody was much in the mood for celebrating. And for Uruguay, perhaps the final cruel twist of a strategy that seemed to be working perfectly, right up until the moment it didn’t.
What if they had converted some of those chances in the second half? What if they had started playing a little earlier against Portugal? What if they had started playing at all against South Korea? For now, those questions could wait. After all, there were scores to be settled, honour to be satisfied.
As the referee, Daniel Siebert, and his team strode from the pitch, furious Uruguay players stood in their way, shoved and jostled, demanded answers that would never come. José Giménez grabbed an assistant by the arm and immediately held both hands up in mock innocence, the old habits dying hard. In a way Uruguay were leaving the World Cup in the same way they had played it: gracelessly, begrudgingly, with chips on their shoulders.
The great shame was that they were capable of so much more and at times during this chaotic 2-0 victory they showed it. For most of the game they dragged Ghana all over the park, seized control of midfield, attacked with vision and purpose. The rest of the time they simply defended heroically. It took three games for Uruguay to show us what they were made of, and by the time they did it was all too late.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta deserved better. For years he has been one of Uruguay’s great lost talents: an attacking midfielder hailed as the next big thing when he first emerged but now 28 and perhaps wondering if it would ever happen for him. He has won pretty much everything there is to win with Cruzeiro and Flamengo and yet for some reason Uruguay have never quite seen his best. Óscar Tabárez never felt brave enough to give him the free role he played in Brazil. Now, under a new coach, on the biggest stage of all, he had two goals and the star billing he deserved.
The back five deserved better. Guillermo Varela, perhaps lucky to keep his place ahead of Martín Cáceres, put in a ferocious shift at right-back. Giménez, a defender who would slide tackle his own grandmother, made countless last-ditch interventions and a mighty block in the dying minutes. Fede Valverde, such a dynamic and creative player with Real Madrid, deserved better: brilliantly disruptive in a deeper role.
Did Suárez deserve better? In a way he probably did. After all, he was the key to the whole exercise. Not so much in terms of anything he did on the ball; at the age of 35, Suárez now barely looks as if he has the energy to swing his own leg. But his role against Ghana was quietly vital and it was a role ingeniously prepared for him over several days.
Everyone knows the history: Ghana, the handball, the penalty, the grudge. And in the build-up it was a grudge Uruguay were quite happy to indulge. Suárez was assigned pre-match interview duties and obviously refused to apologise for the handball, even when one Ghanaian journalist called him “the devil”. Suárez was made captain: there he was, grinning away for the cameras at kick-off. At every turn Ghana’s players and coach tried to maintain a strict focus. But at every turn Uruguay were putting Suárez in their eyeline.
How does this work in practice? Perhaps, if you’re a defender, you stick a little closer to Suárez than is wise. You pay him attention. You pay him so much attention that you take your eye off the cross and miss it completely.
You sit too narrow and allow De Arrascaeta too much space for a shot. For all that they tried not to, Ghana ended up fighting the last war, playing the man and not the game. Never watch the magician’s hands or you might miss the trick.
And so Ghana, too, leave with a cruel sense of unfinished business. They were good enough to win this, good enough to qualify. They were a slip away from earning a draw against Portugal. They missed an early penalty here. They sunk their enemy, and yet somehow he managed to take them with him.
Afterwards their crushed fans took a certain solace in Suárez’s plight but it did not feel quite as sweet as they had hoped. They were learning, perhaps, that vengeance and victory are two quite different things.
There are no winners in revenge missions. Sentiment demanded that Ghana should right the wrongs of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay and expiate the hurt of Luis Suárez’s last-minute handball on the line. But Uruguay, and Suárez in particular, have no time for such romantic notions of redemption. Ghana were again eliminated after missing a penalty but their only consolation was that, although Suárez set up two, it was South Korea who went through to the last 16 with Portugal.
It was a game haunted by the memory of events at Soccer City 12 years ago, and specifically by that one moment in the final minute of extra time. The image was always there, a perverse footballing pietà, flitting in the peripheral vision: Stephen Appiah in the foreground having had the initial blocked effort (which was probably offside, although nobody talks about that), John Mensah and the goalkeeper Fernando Muslera falling together with Andrés Scotti, Dominic Adiyah stretching having headed the loose ball goalwards, Diego Fucile with back arched and left fist thrust up having missed his attempt to handle, and Suárez, arms out, leaping to his right to claw the ball away. It is the Pisgah of African football, the moment when it saw the promised land of a World Cup semi-final, but was denied.
Billboards across Accra this week have depicted the incident with the slogan: “REVENGE!: Let’s support the Black Stars.” The fact that Ghanaians still feel the pain of that moment acutely was made clear by the pre-match press-conference. Suárez, with a characteristic sense of provocative showmanship, appeared alone and seemed entirely unfazed by a Ghanaian journalist saying that many in his country saw him as “the devil himself” (adding “el diablo”, lest there be any confusion) and wanted to “retire” him. He didn’t regret it, he said. He had been punished. He had been shown a red card and missed the semi-final as a result. It wasn’t his fault Asamoah Gyan had missed the penalty.
Was this an elaborate wind-up? Suárez had played just 81 minutes in the group stage and had been distinctly unimpressive, managing just one shot on goal (off target). But if this was one enormous mind-game Uruguay carried it to the extreme, naming Suárez as captain. Was that in the mind of André Ayew, the only Ghana player at Al Janoub to have been in the 2010 quarter-final, as he stepped up to take a penalty?
For, of course there was a penalty, and of course it was laced with controversy. How could it not be? And for added narrative value, it came for an incident in the 18th minute – 18 being the shirt number worn by Adiyah. Sergio Rochet, the Uruguay keeper, clearly tripped Mohammed Kudus but initially Ayew was ruled offside. When VAR proved he had been played fractionally onside by the heel of Matthias Olivera, the penalty award was automatic. Ayew’s kick, though, was dismal and easily saved by Rochet.
There was further VAR penalty controversy just before the hour as Darwin Núñez went down under a challenge from Daniel Amartey. The idiosyncratic German referee Daniel Siebert didn’t give it, was told to consult the screen and, unusually, decided not to overturn the decision, signalling he had seen a slight touch on the ball. It was a decision that proved vital for Uruguay’s goal difference; had that been given and converted, they would have gone through rather than South Korea.
For Ghana, the moment had been there, and the moment was missed. There was a sense of inevitability to what followed. Few sides are as good as Uruguay at sensing a game’s emotional pulse. As Ghana reeled, Uruguay surged. Mohammed Salisu had already cleared off the line from Núñez when Suárez’s shot was half-blocked by Lawrence Ati-Zigi. The ball was probably spinning in anyway but Giorgian de Arrascaeta nodded over the line from close range.
Six minutes later, he had his second, volleying crisply home after a clever Suárez flick. He may be 35, the belly starting to show beneath the shirt but, though much is taken, much abides: there is magic yet in his brain and his touch, and perhaps particularly when the boos of opposition fans get the blood going.
And the fury, so strangely lacking against South Korea, was back. He raged at the officials, getting booked shortly after the Núñez penalty had been turned down, needled away at Salisu and put his body in the way to win free-kicks before being withdrawn to predictable jeers from the Ghana fans after 65 minutes. He had beaten them again.
The devil, perhaps, is never truly done but, this time, it was not quite enough. He ended the game in tears on the bench having realised South Korea had beaten Portugal, a shot of him on the big screen allowing the Ghana fans one more burst of celebratory booing. They had gone out – but at least they had taken the devil with them.
An eagerly-awaited clash of two talented and tempestuous heavyweights failed to meet expectations but the repercussions could prove fatal for Uruguay. Portugal eased into the last 16 courtesy of two goals from Bruno Fernandes to leave the South Americans needing to beat Ghana on Friday to have a chance of joining them. Revenge will be high on the agenda for Ghana.
Fernandes scored two second half goals – though Cristiano Ronaldo continued to claim the first as his own long after the final whistle – and could have had a hat-trick during a relatively tame encounter. Uruguay are now bottom of the group and need maximum points against Ghana, who they infamously knocked out of the 2010 World Cup courtesy of Luis Suárez’s handball and Asamoah Gyan’s penalty miss, plus a favour from Portugal against South Korea to avoid an ignominious early exit.
Uruguay committed the first foul inside 25 seconds and collected the first booking after only six minutes, when Rodrigo Bentancur foolishly fouled Rúben Dias as they chased a harmless ball down the channel. But a game simmering with needle and gamesmanship this was not despite Pepe playing and the late introduction of Suárez. There was little sign of urgency from Uruguay either as they sought their first win of the tournament, with Diego Alonso’s side content to let Portugal dominate possession before shutting down their creative talents in numbers. José Maria Gimenéz, part of a three-man central defence that was tightly supported by Uruguay’s wing-backs, rarely left the side of João Félix or Bernardo Silva in the first half. Hurting Portugal on the break or from a set-piece was the clear strategy.
Portugal were sharp and positive from the first whistle but Uruguay’s disciplined defence remained compact. William Carvalho volleyed over after being teed up delightfully by a flick off Cristiano Ronaldo’s shoulder. Gimenéz threw himself in the way of a Félix shot when Pepe and Bernardo Silva combined to dissect Uruguay’s midfield and Ronaldo, falling backwards, was unable to apply a clinical second touch to João Cancelo’s pin-point cross to the back post. Otherwise, and despite Portugal’s dominating possession, Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet was untroubled throughout the first half. Silva could have changed that when found in space inside the area by Fernandes and Nuno Mendes but on both occasions his first touch was found wanting.
Alonso replaced 35-year-old Suárez with 35-year-old Edinson Cavani with the Valencia striker partnering Darwin Núñez in the Uruguayan attack. The pair were completely isolated for the opening half an hour until finally their teammates decided to venture forward in support. Bentancur was to the fore, and the Tottenham midfielder should have opened the scoring following a fine run through the heart of the Portugal defence. Collecting the ball inside his own half, Bentancur drove through midfield before weaving his way around weak challenges from Carvalho and Dias. There was one job left to complete but, as Diogo Costa advanced, he shot straight at the Portugal goalkeeper who saved with his thigh before gathering at the second attempt. The faces said everything. Bentancur looked to the sky and cursed his finish. Dias and Carvalho glared at each other over their lack of protection.
Portugal finally found holes in the Uruguay defence after the restart, but not before a lone and brave pitch invader ran onto the pitch carrying a rainbow flag in protest at Qatar’s discriminatory laws. The protestor sported a Superman t-shirt that also had ‘Save Ukraine’ printed on the front and ‘Respect for Iranian Women’ on the back. He was wrestled to the ground by two security guards before others helped escort him away.
When the game re-started, Portugal took control. Silva opened up Uruguay for the first time when releasing Félix but the Atletico Madrid forward could only find the side-netting. Moments later, the blessed relief of the breakthrough the game desperately needed.
It came from the deft right foot of Fernandes who floated a beautiful cross from the left behind Uruguay’s backline. Ronaldo read the Manchester United midfielder’s intention perfectly and, played onside by right wing-back Guillermo Varela, soared to send a glancing header into the far corner. Or so everyone would have imagined from Ronaldo’s celebrations. Replays showed he never made contact and Fernandes was rightly awarded the goal. Ronaldo stared at a giant screen with a look of amusement and amazement as his ninth World Cup goal was chalked off.
Uruguay responded well and were desperately unfortunate not to level when substitute Maxi Gómez hit a post following good work on the edge of the Portugal penalty area and with Costa well beaten. Suárez, who was arguing with the fourth official before even setting foot on the pitch, was inches away from converting Giorgian De Arrascaeta’s free-kick at the near post.
Their misfortune dragged into stoppage time when Portugal were awarded a ridiculously harsh penalty after Fernandes had nut-megged Gimenéz on the edge of the area. The ball struck the defender’s trailing hand as he dived into the challenge and, following a pitch-side review, the Iranian referee pointed to the spot amid furious and understandable Uruguay protests. Fernandes kept his cool and with a hop, skip and a jump, sent Rochet the wrong way from the spot. Fernandes was denied a hat-trick by the legs of the Uruguay keeper and a post in the closing seconds.
There appear to be three sorts of games at this World Cup. There are the games in which the stronger team batter the weaker team (Spain, England, France). There are the shocks, in which the stronger team are undone by opponents that are slightly better than anticipated (Saudi Arabia, Japan), and there are the fairly evenly matched games in which nothing much happens (the others). This was very much in the third category.
The temptation is to come up with a tenuous grand theory as to why this should be. There is barely any data but, still, let’s indulge ourselves. Could it be that all three types of game are the result of the lack of preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days?
Some sides, having played in continental competition last year and comfortable with how they intend to play, are still in rhythm from their domestic seasons and so hit their stride immediately. Others could have done with more time to fine-tune, to try to generate something approximating to the cohesive styles that now predominate at club level. Aware of their shortcomings they become naturally more risk-averse, for defensive structures are far easier to assemble than the attacking systems that can overcome them, and the result is stodginess. And this was extremely stodgy, a 0-0 in which Darwin Núñez mis-hitting an attempted clip four or five yards wide counted as incident.
One of the nicest things about World Cups is meeting old friends. Usually that means foreign journalists, or Belgium, but Uruguay have a pleasing array of familiar faces so that watching them is like idly turning on a random snooker tournament in the middle of the afternoon and finding that Jimmy White is still gamely taking on John Higgins. There was Luis Suárez, scuffling around up front, a magnificent irritant – although perhaps neither so magnificent nor so irritating as he used to be. There, coming off the bench for a 134th cap, were the flared cheekbones of Edinson Cavani. And there, at the heart of the defence, gnarled, implacable, half as old as time, was Diego Godín, winning his 160th cap. He even headed against the base of a post from a right-wing corner three minutes before half-time for old time’s sake.
There was also Martín Cáceres, on his 116th appearance for his national team, still chugging up and down with his man-bun. Of the Uruguay back four, it was he who had the most work to do, with Na Sang-ho probably South Korea’s greatest threat. It was from the FC Seoul forward’s low cross that Hwang Ui-jo fired over after 34 minutes. The right-back Kim Moon-hwan sank to his knees in despair, which given there was at least an hour still to play, seemed an overreaction – but perhaps he knew just how few chances there would be.
And Uruguay play in a pleasingly unchanging way. In a world of flux, it’s good to have constants. Football may always be developing. We may now live in a world of high lines and low blocks, of half-spaces and transitions, but Uruguay, for all the talk of the revolution in youth development wrought by Óscar Tabárez, remain steadfast, always defending – even if there was a slightly distressing moment early in the second half as Rodrigo Bentancur, a product of Tabárez’s holistic approach to youth development, performed a figure-of-eight pirouette to extricate the ball from trouble just outside his own box.
Sometimes it is beautiful, as when José Giménez dispossessed Son Heung-min with a delicious sliding tackle five minutes into the second half. But mostly it is just slightly frustrating: why, when they have such talent in the side, are they seemingly so reluctant to use it?
At the Asian Cup in 2019, the criticism of South Korea was that they dominated the ball and did little with it – and it may not be a coincidence that their coach, Paulo Bento, who has been in charge since 2018, is a veteran of the Portugal side of 20 years ago who were often guilty of much the same failing. The first half here seemed to be following that pattern, but Uruguay gradually began to assert themselves as the second half went on.
But not enough to win the match, or really to cause much of a threat, at least until Federico Valverde pinged a 25-yarder against the post in the 89th minute. Avoiding defeat, perhaps, is the most important thing in the opener in the group, but this was a game in which it felt both sides would happily have shaken hands on a draw at half-time.
Qualifying for Qatar was not plain sailing for Uruguay. Their qualifying campaign in South America began with a run of two wins from their first seven games and they were dealt a tough hand this time last year, when they faced Colombia, Brazil, Argentina (twice) and a trip to the high altitudes of La Paz in Bolivia in a two-month spell. They picked up just one point from those five games and looked in danger of missing the finals for the first time since 2006.
However, when the going got tough, Uruguay got going. They won their final four qualifying matches and finished third in the 10-team group, behind Brazil and Argentina. The two-time world champions are now many fans’ dark horses and it’s easy to see why.
In defence, they have the experience of Fernando Muslera, Diego Godín and Martín Cáceres – along with La Liga pair José María Giménez and Ronald Araújo – and, in attack, they still have their all-time top scorers Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, who have 125 goals between them for the national team. On top of that, Uruguay have a group of players in Darwin Núñez (23), Maxi Gómez (26), Rodrigo Bentancur (25), Manuel Ugarte (21) and Lucas Torreira (26) who are just entering their prime.
If Uruguay are going to be successful in Qatar, much will depend on one man: Federico Valverde. He is a central midfielder by trade, but Carlo Ancelotti has tended to use Valverde on the right flank for Real Madrid this season, and it has worked well. Ancelotti’s side is well stocked in the middle of the park, even after the departure of Casemiro to Manchester United. Aurélien Tchouaméni, a €100m signing from Monaco, is proving an astute replacement for the Brazilian, and Valverde has been superb on the right.
The 24-year-old has a bright future in the Real Madrid midfield. The mesmeric Luka Modric turned 37 in September and Toni Kroos will be 33 in January. In Tchouaméni, Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid have a central trio who could dominate midfields in Europe for years. For the coming weeks, though, Valverde’s job is to inspire Uruguay to success on the world stage.
His versatility gives Uruguay options, with coach Diego Alonso likely to play him on the right wing in a 4-4-2. If Uruguay need an additional body in central midfield, Valverde is able to tuck in and boost the numbers in the middle of the park. Alonso is essentially fielding one player to carry out two roles.
Valverde works tirelessly when out of possession, hassling opponents to win back the ball for his side so they can spring forward quickly. He has won possession the ninth-most times (12) in La Liga this season, which is impressive given that he plays for a side that enjoys an average of 58.2% possession, the third-most in La Liga. Real Madrid tend to dominate teams but, when they lose the ball, Valverde is there to provide the pressure and rapidly seize back control.
He has also added goals to his game this season. While previously thought of as primarily a ball-winner, his all-round game has developed superbly, so much so that he has scored six league goals so far this season – making him joint-sixth in La Liga’s scoring charts. In his previous five campaigns in La Liga, Valverde hit the back of the net just five times.
He is also among the fittest players in Qatar. Many a Real Madrid fan has quipped that his stamina and athleticism make it seem as though he has three lungs. He will run and run and run for the team and, in the testing Qatari climate, his work-rate will be imperative for Uruguay. He has also impressed in the Champions League this season and that experience will be crucial in the latter stages of the World Cup.
Uruguay were drawn in one of the more unpredictable groups. With four teams from different continents in their group – they face South Korea, Portugal and then Ghana – it’s difficult to predict who will progress to the last-16 stage. Yet, with Valverde in the team, they will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout phase and living up to their billing as dark horses.
The 22-year-old arrived in Europe as a teenager after spending his youth in the Right to Dream academy in his homeland. Nordsjælland put him in the first team at 18, quickly proving himself too good for the Danish league in the following two seasons. Ajax spotted his talents and paid €9m to bring him to the Eredivisie. Erik ten Hag used him mainly as a central midfielder but he can play further forward and already has five goals from 18 appearances at international level. Kudus possesses great close control, can dumbfound defenders in tight spaces and can drive his team forward thanks to his dribbling. He reads the game well and even when running at speed seems to know where his teammates will be, helping him become a prolific assister for his club. WU
Rafael Leão (Portugal)
A product of the Sporting academy, the attacker has become one of the most feared forwards in Serie A, helping Milan to their first title in 11 years last season and gaining a place in the league’s team of the year. In addition to height, the 23-year-old possesses plenty of pace and is often utilised on the flanks by Stefano Pioli. Leão is as adept at creating as he is scoring, making him a threat whether out wide or down the middle. He is yet to score at international level but comes into the tournament as the joint-14th best player in the world, according to the Ballon d’Or. With Cristiano Ronaldo’s power waning and Diogo Jota absent, Leão will be expected to help fill the void and show why Europe’s top clubs are after him. WU
Gio Reyna (USA)
His 20th birthday comes only eight days before his team’s opener, against Wales, but there is considerable World Cup weight on Reyna’s shoulders. His father, Claudio, starred in the USA’s run to the 2002 quarter-finals while he is named after his dad’s pal, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who made his last ever playing appearance in the 2010 final. Pressure indeed, exacerbated by being at Borussia Dortmund, Europe’s prime finishing school. There have been injury frustrations; last season was shortened by muscle problems that he has worked hard to recover from but his talent is undoubted. His former teammate Erling Haaland calls him “the American dream”. Among fans back home, the excitement for Reyna is higher even than that for Christian Pulisic, particularly after he recently recovered his club form and starting place. JB
Enzo Fernández (Argentina)
Making a late and persuasive run for inclusion in Lionel Scaloni’s squad, Fernández had been at River Plate since he was five years old before taking the well-worn path among young South Americans to Benfica in August. He was even named after the Uruguayan River legend – and current sporting director – Enzo Francescoli. His performances as a deep-lying central midfield playmaker – also playing box to box – in Benfica’s excellent Champions League group stage showing this season are reported to have put him on the wanted lists of Barcelona and Real Madrid among others. The 21-year-old starred in Benfica’s home-and-away defeats of Juventus, dominating their midfield with his ball-winning, ball-carrying and distribution. He seems destined to be a big part of his national team’s post-Lionel Messi landscape. JB
Dusan Vlahovic (Serbia)
The prolific striker has already shown in Italy what he can do. His 44 goals in 98 Serie A games for Fiorentina made Juventus splash €70m upfront for his services to hopefully kickstart a new era in Turin. In addition to his impressive goal tally, Vlahovic can hold up the ball and bring others into play. He will probably start alongside Aleksandar Mitrovic, with Dusan Tadic behind, ensuring no defence that comes up against Serbia in Qatar will be allowed an easy time. Although he has impressed in domestic football, the 22-year-old is yet to show his capabilities in Europe, failing to help Juventus get out of their Champions League group, and will be keen to show the rest of the world that he truly is one of the best in the business. WU
Spain’s Euro 2020 breakout star was Pedri. From the same Barcelona stable comes a midfielder who only celebrated his 18th birthday in August. The latest, brightest flower from La Masia academy, in 2021 Gavi became his country’s youngest ever player at 17 years and 62 days, and Spain’s youngest ever scorer, against the Czech Republic this June. In October he succeeded Pedri in winning the Kopa Trophy for the world’s best player under the age of 21, his skill set bringing back memories of Barcelona predecessors such as Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, the current manager at the Camp Nou. Xavi has been as sparing as he can be with such a generational talent but Luis Enrique may not be able to resist such temptation. “We’re talking about a case that’s not normal,” said Spain’s manager. JB
Federico Valverde (Uruguay)
A key, widely unsung player in Real Madrid’s 2022 Champions League-winning team, Valverde served as the lungs for older midfield colleagues such as Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. In Qatar, with energy levels that have had him compared to a younger Steven Gerrard, he may have to do likewise for his country’s veterans such as Luis Suárez, Diego Godín and Edinson Cavani. This season he has added goals to his repertoire, including in October’s 3-1 clásico win, making a typical surge to crash home. Signed as a teenager from Peñarol, Valverde made his way into the Madrid first team via the Castilla reserve side but at 24, with his development and authority ever increasing, he has become a vital performer for club and country. JB
Takefusa Kubo (Japan)
At 18 the winger already had Barcelona and Real Madrid on his CV, meaning his potential is undoubted. He did not make a first-team appearance for either but now has more than 100 appearances under his belt in La Liga, mainly out on loan at Mallorca, Villarreal and Getafe. Kubo finally has a permanent home in San Sebastián after joining Real Sociedad in the summer, scoring the winner on his debut against Cádiz. He has plenty of tournament experience; Kubo went to the Under-20 World Cup aged 15, travelled to the Copa América in 2019 and scored at the Olympics two years later. More than a million people follow the 21-year-old on Instagram, an indication of his prominence and popularity in Japan, although it also shows the pressure he is under to produce on the biggest stage this winter. WU
This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 November.
This is an exciting time to be a Uruguay fan. The team travel to Qatar with an excellent blend of youth and experience. For players such as Fernando Muslera, Diego Godín, Martín Cáceres, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani it will be their fourth World Cup but on the other hand Sergio Rochet, Mathías Olivera, Federico Valverde, Nicolás de la Cruz, Facundo Pellistri and Darwin Núñez, all set to be in the starting XI, are preparing for their first tournament.
There has not been a lot of time for the coach, Diego Alonso, to find the right balance of the team and this has caused some anxiety before the World Cup kicks off but one thing is clear: there is enough talent in this squad to shock the world.
Alonso, meanwhile, has not held back when it comes to pre-tournament predictions. “The players and I want to become world champions,” he said in May, causing great expectation among fans. “We want to go there to win. And if you want to win, you have to prepare to win. We are a team that has a lot of hope. We believe in ourselves. I believe a lot in these footballers and I believe Uruguay is going to win the World Cup.”
Can Uruguay really win the World Cup for a third time? Anything is possible and individual performances suggest that most of the squad are in good form and this allows the coach to dream big. Alonso, though, has led Uruguay for only nine games and has had one major pre-World Cup setback, the injury to Ronald Araújo. The Barcelona defender was still included in the squad though.
Diego Alonso built his reputation during five successful years in Mexican football (2014-2019) before David Beckham took him to Inter Miami for the 2020 and 2021 campaigns. In December 2021 he was given the unenviable task of replacing Óscar Tabárez, known as El Maestro, who had been the Uruguay coach for the previous 15 years. Alonso is a great motivator and knows how to convey his ideas to the players. He likes his team to be in charge of games, pressing opponents hard and wanting the lion’s share of possession. His preferred systems are 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with speed and energy on the flanks. He is not afraid to give youngsters a chance, such as Facundo Pellistri, who started mainly on the bench when at Alavés.
In the past this would have been Luis Suárez or Edinson Cavani but the fact that it is no longer the case shows how far Federico Valverde has come. His performances for Real Madrid have taken him to another level among some of the best in the world. This will be his first World Cup but the national team are already relying on him to provide energy and ball-distribution in midfield. Valverde and Alonso seem to get on like a house on fire. “He once came to my house and chatted for an hour,” Valverde said recently, “and when he left I was feeling like a tiger, ready to take on anyone.”
Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancur is the soul of this team. He is a silent leader but still has undeniable charisma. He has everything a modern footballer needs, with his passing and game intelligence standing out, but he couples that with a willingness to put his body on the line when needed and some tireless running. He can play centrally or on the wing but is often used as a one of two No 6s by Diego Alonso. He gives Uruguay a unique consistency in midfield together with Federico Valverde, the pair having played together for a long time as they are part of the same generation.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, neither the coach nor any of the players have commented on the human rights situation in Qatar and the conditions for migrant workers. The Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) has not said anything on or off the record. It is unsurprising because it is rare for Uruguayan players to comment on politics or matters such as the war in Ukraine.
Himno Nacional de Uruguay was written by the poet Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, who wrote the Paraguayan national anthem too, but the first version was not accepted straight away. His initial take was written in 1830 but was modified somewhat to tone down the language about Brazil, Portugal and Spain. The first official version was approved in 1833 but it took another 12 years before the author was completely happy with the final version. The lyrics are popular in Uruguay, expressing a strong sense of identity and the players sing it loudly and with passion before games. The first words are: “Easterners, the Fatherland or the grave! Liberty or with glory we die!”
All-time cult hero
José Nasazzi, Obdulio Varela and Luis Suárez could all lay claim to this title but maybe the former Liverpool, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid forward gets the overall nod as he is a reincarnation of the first two. Nasazzi was called “the Marshall” and part of an extraordinary generation that won two Olympic Games (1924 and 1928) and the World Cup in 1930. Varela, meanwhile, summed up everything that was good about the Uruguay team that won the 1950 World Cup, including in the final at the Maracanã. Suárez is the heir to those exceptional footballers and a perfect example of what the expression “Garra Charrúa” (“Charrúa claw”) means – to fight until the very end and, when you have nothing left, fight a little bit more.
Edinson Cavani is miles away. He has played in five countries, at some of the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues, alongside the biggest stars; he is about to represent Uruguay at his 10th international tournament; and he has racked up 785 games, scored 434 goals and won 26 trophies, but he cannot help being drawn to somewhere else entirely. Back to where it began, far from the training centre where he sits now, a necessary escape. “Name all those places, and I say: ‘No, leave me in Salto,’” he says. “Beneath a tree, in the shade, where the breeze blows, without the sound of cars.”
Cavani talks about the game as a “passion” inherited from his father, a forward who played against Luis Suárez’s dad in Salto where the two Uruguay strikers were born three weeks apart. He discusses dedication, the competitiveness running through him, and the striker’s art, dissected in detail and distilled in a line: “Football is time and space.” There is a wonder at some of the things he did but still cannot explain and he describes a month at the World Cup as a joy “where you feel totally connected to football, where you live it, every second”.
Yet there is something unusual about him; something that, it soon becomes clear as he chats in a gentle, pensive voice, does not entirely fit in football – not the way he believes the game has become. At times there is something almost philosophical, vaguely mystical about him, a lingering feeling that the world he inhabits is not really for him, much he would gladly leave behind.
“There are things I see and feel in football that – how can I say this? – I totally reject.” And asked whether he feels different, he pauses to think, which he does often, and replies softly: “Atypical, maybe.
These days, success tends to be linked to fame, high life, luxury. And honestly, I do have my good life too, opportunities football gives me. But my way of life is very simple. Why do I like nature so much? I may never find the answer, but there’s something inside that takes me there, away from this world, this routine, this dynamic that’s so overwhelming. The only thing football doesn’t allow me is to be where I like more often, out in the countryside.”
Cavani fondly recalls matches, goals he has scored – the description of his first in Europe, paper and pad in hand, takes 10 minutes alone – but also visits to Monet’s house north‑west of Paris, pheasants in the countryside there, pine trees outside Naples, the lake by his Knutsford home, the daily drive to Carrington past green fields, a moment of calm savoured each morning. “I like all that is wild. Just walk, drink mate, see the green, the water. That produces pleasure in me. I don’t know if it’s a need, but it’s a way of life, good for you.”
A kind of therapy, perhaps – and that goes deeper. “There have been moments when I’ve needed professional help,” the 35‑year‑old says. “I have friends who are professionals, and we go down a route that’s more spiritual than psychological. Just talking sustains you. I talk to the psychologist about things that aren’t football. We all hang on football and have little time to focus outside. Often a trauma begins with football but the psychologist helps you see it doesn’t come from football alone; it can be your upbringing, parents, environment, the way you think you are because from very young you thought this was the only way to live, trying to be a footballer, a superhero.
“There’s much you learn over time in football. It’s 20 years since I left home, trying to overcome. You reflect, reach conclusions. Which doesn’t mean what I say is the truth and I don’t share it assuming it’s right. But it’s my way of confronting life. If there was a little book ‘this is happiness’, we’d all go out, buy it and live that way, the same way.”
For Cavani, happiness is raising cattle, working the land, fishing, walking, getting lost. It’s not that he might have been a vet had he not been a footballer; it is that he plans to be one when he is no longer playing, studying for the day he goes back. The contrast to the industry he has been in, especially at clubs such as Paris Saint‑Germain, alongside players such as Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo, entire industries whose status goes well beyond the game, could hardly be greater. Which may be part of the reason he is ready to return.
Which may also be, he suggests, one of the reasons why Uruguay overachieve, how a country of 3.5 million arrives in Qatar – “not much green there,” Cavani says with a smile – believing the objective is to win.
“Why are we so competitive? Because they teach us to be,” Cavani says. “Because pitches exist, everywhere. In every neighbourhood, every place, however deprived. Wherever there’s space to kick a ball, there’s a game. That competitiveness demanded as a professional is already there: you’ve been doing it all your life, every day, in the rain, any surface, playing barefoot, breaking a toe, wrapping it up and carrying on. I always say that in football it’s not the same to play as to compete.
“We’ve kept that essence. Look at modern football, which is losing that essence. Maybe I come from that old school. Maybe I don’t fully fit with modern football, in terms of attitudes, what it means to players. That doesn’t mean you can’t say how you feel, does it? I see it constantly: modernism, social media, how the world is, how technology has advanced, got into football. That changes mentalities. Before, everyone in a team had the same objective. These days, in certain teams for various reasons – fame, what people and press make players feel – that’s not always the case.”
There is something in Cavani’s tone that expresses loss, a sense of disappointment, hurt. “Maybe so, yeah. True. Because I come from a school where the loveliest thing that can happen is to win as a team. For me there’s no player who makes you win a World Cup on his own. He doesn’t exist and never will. Someone can do something magical but you need teammates running, putting their life on the line. That’s too often forgotten. Instead, it’s all on the goalscorer, the famous name, the Ballon d’Or. That takes focus from what really matters, so that what a team wants to achieve becomes deformed, distorted. You feel that, you experience it. I’ve lived it.”
Learned from it, too. “Because I’ve never had any desire for fame nor to be the best but my best, I’ve analysed teammates and, look,” he says, pausing. “Because the most famous players get highlighted more and sometimes feel the need to demonstrate that …” There is another pause. “When I’ve analysed, I’ve seen negative things that helped me learn and positive things I’ve followed. Everyone has their own personality, you respect that, but there are things I don’t want to ever have in my life, that I reject completely. That’s my reflection.”
The way he tells it Uruguay, like the countryside, is a refuge; a way of reconnecting with what was left behind. “A lot is about humility. Here, the player knows you have to be humble, step down from certain pedestals. These days, everything takes us to a place where the player is egotistical, because he’s thinking about the awards, about …” Cavani pauses. “He leaves aside things that are nicer. If one day I got an individual award I’d be happy, sure, because it underlines your work, but it wouldn’t change my life because the greatest happiness is a photo of my team at home.”
How then do Uruguay avoid that trap, the arrogance, the selfishness? How does that not shift with the emergence of a new generation? “You know what it is?” Cavani replies. “It’s that in our national team, like in our country, people like that are not looked upon kindly. It could be a cultural thing. That idea, that identity, is so clear from youth level that it’s already inculcated in Uruguayan players and hopefully will never be lost. That culture of work, sacrifice, unity which has seen us beat great national teams. It’s not Suárez or Cavani or this guy or that, no. It’s Uruguay. The objective is to win. And we’re conscious that none of us will ever win anything on our own.
“All of us play at a high level but when you’re in the national team you realise that the essence of football is still there,” Cavani says, something almost wistful in his voice. “It’s well-known names, stars at big clubs, yet you feel that solidarity, what football really is. I like to sweat my team’s shirt. Sometimes you lose but I want to know my team gave itself entirely. When you win that way, you enjoy it twice as much. That’s my philosophy of life and football. Earn it. Anything that comes easy never has the same feeling; he who simply receives never appreciates it the way he would when it costs, when there’s sacrifice.
“One of the things I’ve learned about myself through football is there’s always a reason. When you work towards an objective, incredible things can happen. Coldly, sometimes, you can’t understand it, can’t grasp it, but if you pursued it, it can happen.
“The peace I need to approach football, what you see as pressure, is the knowledge that I respected my teammates, held nothing back. Fear grabs you sometimes but if you know you’re giving everything – really giving it, not just lip‑service – that lifts the pressure from you. You have nerves before a game, before a World Cup, but that shows you’re alive, ready. The day I don’t have that, I’ll leave. People confuse that, they get it wrong: a little fear is good. And then, once you step out there, it’s gone.”