RIO DE JANEIRO—There are 3,510,386 Uruguayans living in Uruguay. As with 21 of the 23 players on the Uruguayan roster, some three million more Uruguayans live and work outside of the República Oriental del Uruguay. Uruguay is nestled snugly between Brazil and Argentina. Uruguay is lovely. It is fun to repeat “Uruguay.” The Asociación Uruguaya de Fútbol (AUF) is bidding for the 2030 World Cup, which would mark the Cup’s centennial in the Estadio Centenário, originally named for the 100th anniversary of Uruguayan independence.
In 1930, when Uruguay had 1,734,000 residents, they beat Argentina in the World Cup final. The Argentines burned Uruguayan businesses in Buenos Aires. In 1950, when Uruguay had wildly grown to 2,194,000, they beat Brazil in front of 200,000 suddenly silent Cariocas. In 2010, Uruguay is the team with the second smallest national population in the tournament (Slovenia is the smallest) and is one game away from the final.
There has been much vilification of Luis Suarez, for denying Ghana a birth in the semifinals by swatting the net-bound Jabulani with two hands. It was a crazy moment but tactically the right thing to do. Guarding the line, Suarez chose expulsion and an 80 percent chance of a goal to a 100 percent chance of a goal. If he hadn’t done that Uruguay were out. He did it and only he was out, and will get to play at least one more game.
I’m not sure why his tactical decision makes him a cheater to some observers—or at least a violator of the spirit of the game, as Thad Williamson wrote here at Triangle Offense. The rules were clear and correctly applied. Gyan had the chance to win the game in a way that almost never happens in soccer—a game ending spot-kick, in a historically laden situation—sending the only remaining African team to the first African semifinal in the first African World Cup. The pressure was too much and he missed, and Suarez’ gamble paid off (Gyan’s bravery in taking the second penalty was as stirring as his initial miss).
Here’s the question as put by Luis Fernando Verissimo in today’s O Globo, “Should a moral goal [Gyan’s] count more than a grave infraction that causes the perpetrator to be expelled?” That is to say, Suarez’ handball counted as much as a legal goal, as conditioned by the rules. Fair play, indeed. Maybe that’s what people don’t like about it.
For today, the most Uruguayan-looking coach in Uruguayan history, Oscar Tabárez, will have some thinking to do as he fills out his team sheet. Captain Diego Lugano is doubtful, Suarez is suspended, and defenders Fucile and Godin are suspended and injured respectively. But there’s Diego Forlán, putting on a show as CR9, Rooney, Kaká and Messi couldn’t (one goal between the four of them).
The key to Uruguayan success against the dour Dutch will be in absorbing pressure while remaining organized (a 3-5-2 that turns to 5-3-1-1 on defense) and then hope that Forlán will be able to counter at pace, creating opportunities for others, and getting a few free kicks around the box to try his Jabulani luck. Two goals from Uruguay would be a miracle, but they’re here, have a hell of a footballing tradition, and anything is possible.
On the other side of the planet, 17 million Dutch will be biking to their bars dressed in Oranje, hoping to see Die Oranje actually show up and play some voetbal. Unlike 16th-century Indonesians, most people expected the Dutch to get this far. They have some of the best technical players in the world and cruised through qualifying.
Yet in their five games they have scored nine goals, well below the tournament average (2.6). They have hit more long balls than any other team. They have not convinced. Against Brazil, they were TERRIBLE, unbearably predictable, monochromatic and violent. It was an absolute disgrace what Marc Van Bommel was getting away with in midfield during the second half.
(To reinforce my conspiracy theory No. 1 about the Brazil loss, I again quote Verissimo in O Globo, “Julio César and Felipe Melo’s errors do not explain everything: Where did the team that left us completely radiant at halftime disappear to? In what parallel world did they disappear to, what vague mystery swallowed them?”)
Holland will likely stick to their 4-3-2-1 formation, which allows them relative flexibility in attack and defense. Even though Holland is a very technical team, their midfielders (other than Sneider, No. 6 in the Castrol Ranking) have not looked comfortable under pressure. In a system designed for ball circulation and player interchange, passing accuracy is key, so look for Uruguay to pressure and hassle in midfield as much as possible. Surprisingly, Holland (and Spain) have hit more long balls than any other teams in the Cup, so the idea of them being a short passing, technical team may be more imagination than reality.
Arjen Robben (aka Flopping Ninny) found that Brazil was able to check his slicing and dicing from the right wing with a few good kicks to the back of the leg and with solid collective defending, which are both Uruguayan specialties. Van Persie was doubtful, but looks like he will play up top where he has been isolated and disappointing. Kuyt looks slower in Oranje than in Liverpudlian red but he manages to cover about 10 km a game which contributes to overall flow. Van Bommel will be trying to stop Forlán from getting the ball but will have much more time and space on the ball than he did against Brazil. Wesley Sneijder is in form and tricky. Uruguay will need to shut off his service and not let him operate between the fullback and midfield lines.
In summary, Uruguay need some luck to get to their third World Cup final. The injuries and suspensions may be too much for the garra charrua and Loco Abreu to overcome. Perhaps if there were more people to choose from they would have a chance. Holland will also be trying for their third final and they will need to put on a convincing display if we are to believe they have a chance against Spain or Germany.
Prediction: Holland 3 Uruguay 1. The Flopping Ninny wins a penalty in the second half.
This post was originally published on Chris Gaffney’s blog, Geostadia.