12-man Chile (and CONMEBOL) 1-0 9-man Uruguay

Football has never, ever been about justice. If you want justice, go to the law courts. The reason for its extraordinary, enduring, ever-growing appeal all over the world is that it’s about stories, controversy… and above all, drama. Well, we got ourselves plenty of drama in Santiago last night. Where Uruguay defended admirably, missed a glorious chance to take a shock lead… only to be undone by that other key factor in so many major tournaments. The referee.

After Edinson Cavani’s ridiculous sending off – being sexually assaulted on a football pitch is now, apparently, a bookable offence, at least when it’s the hosts doing it – still La Celeste fought on; still they resisted. Alas, the otherwise rock-solid Fernando Muslera erred, the unlikely figure of Mauricio Isla pounced, and Uruguay were doomed.

There was still time for Sandro Ricci – an inept official, who had lost control long earlier with a series of needless bookings, and displayed a complete lack of common sense throughout – to add to his never-to-be-forgotten night by harshly (but in this case, understandably) giving Jorge Fucile a second booking for a tackle which took both ball and man. At which point, after exactly 12 months (almost to the hour) of being battered from pillar to post, Oscar Washington Tabarez’ troops had finally taken more than they could bear.

A team whose immense, single-minded unity has been key to everything they’ve achieved over the past 9 years exploded in fury as their cherished Copa America was wrenched from their grasp. Even Tabarez, enraged by what he’d just seen, more animated than in years, was in the thick of it, and also expelled for his pains. The game proceeded to its shabby conclusion: and Uruguay, beaten but unbowed, were out.

Over the past 3 years, this Blog has repeatedly highlighted Tabarez’ failure to renovate his team, or its style. Last night, there he was: still depending on the likes of Fucile or Cebolla Rodriguez despite both having barely played all season; still refusing to give Giorgian de Arrascaeta his head. La Celeste defended superbly, but did very little else; and however much, as I again reiterate, to turn Uruguay into an attacking side is to go against the very instinct and nature of the people, El Maestro is culpable for his side’s pathological poverty of creativity and ideas.

Surprise, surprise: guess who didn’t play against Chile?

But this is a nation of 3.4 million. That it achieves as much as it so often does in football is without parallel; and in such a world, small countries almost always close ranks, defend what they have and fight their corner. Uruguay do so extraordinarily well: neutrals deride their style, but this isn’t Chelsea, replete with hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of talent. This is a little nation in the South Atlantic which despite its myriad accomplishments, the world just doesn’t care about. At all.

And because so few care, few non-Uruguayans will dwell even for a moment on what happened last night. “Victory for football!”, some will even hail. Victory for a country which failed to suspend a player charged with drink driving; whose centre back sexually assaulted a man with the immense courage to play only a day after his father was arrested for causing a fatality in – the cruellest of ironies – his own case of driving when under the influence; and whose cheating and playacting made the decisive difference in the outcome.

The record books will say Chile 1-0 Uruguay: but the hosts didn’t win that match. The officials did. 11 v 11, La Celeste were fine. 12 v 9, naturally, they weren’t. What will the (entirely justified) beef of almost all Uruguayans be? Why is it that when their star man, Luis Suarez, does something wrong, the world goes into an orbit of apoplexy… yet when Gonzalo Jara does something just as bad (arguably, worse); and Arturo Vidal does something infinitely worse, it looks the other way? What do you have against us? Why always us?

Those players and their coach didn’t erupt at the end last night just because of the officiating. What happened was the icing on the cake: the crowning turd in the waterpipe of something which started in the 79th minute between Uruguay and Italy in Natal exactly one year beforehand. Check the date. 24 June. We should really have seen it coming.

24 June 2014. The day Uruguay’s annus horribilis began.

In the aftermath of that notorious incident between Suarez and Giorgio Chiellini, this Blog fulminated against the response of 99% of the Uruguayan media and public: so prone to believing in conspiracies, so reluctant to get their own house in order. Suarez did wrong and deserved to be punished… but for nine games? This man is their national hero. Coupled with him being banished from Brazil like a dog, this looked horribly vindictive; and in a world in which a man is arrested and charged with drink driving, yet suffers no footballing punishment whatsoever, it now looks utterly ridiculous

Just to rub more salt into especially deep wounds, Suarez, continuing a vein of form so rich he must be regarded as indubitably one of the three finest footballers on the planet, just inspired Barcelona to the Champions League title; yet his country was denied his services, as it will continue to be for four matches more in the eliminatorias. Uruguay, infinitely more than Suarez, have been punished… and they’re still being so.

Against such a backdrop, Tabarez’ job was to ensure his depleted forces got on with it – and however much many of us will question his overall approach, they did. In their usual “no football please, we’re Uruguayan” style, sure: no frills, no fantasy, little to get the pulse racing. Yet strong enough, still, to pose a mighty threat to the much hyped host nation last night. Uruguay without Suarez, Martin Caceres or Alvaro Pereira? Chile couldn’t beat them.

The game looked like it was heading towards penalties: until the referee handicapped La Celeste even further. Now, it was Uruguay without Suarez, Caceres, Pereira or Cavani: and at length, with only 8 minutes left, Chile finally found a way through. What country anywhere could possibly have resisted all that?

Not, mind you, that Ricci and his team were solely responsible. The behaviour of footballers routinely leaves a sour taste in the mouth – but for Jara to provoke his fellow professional in such a way, poking his finger between Cavani’s buttocks, then going down as if he’d been shot after the Paris Saint-Germain forward barely brushed him, at a time when Cavani’s mind must be in absolute turmoil given what’s happening with his father, was disgusting. No respect for a colleague: instead, the very real family tragedy which Cavani is enduring made him a target. And the referee bought it completely.

Again, around the world, many will say: “So Uruguay got a taste of their own medicine for a change. They deserve it. Good riddance”. But by and large, they don’t deserve that reputation. Uruguay play hard – very hard – but almost always, fair. Other than that notorious incident in Natal, that is: for which, they were punished.

Football being what it is nowadays, it is incredibly difficult to do that: to defend as well as La Celeste almost always do, and ensure what happens almost always remains within the laws. Yet Tabarez’ side does. Very often, it’s more sinned against than sinners.

The problem, though, is that very approach – defend, defend, defend, pinch something on the break if at all possible – is to invite last night’s kind of contest. It makes it inevitable. And against quality, offensive opponents – Argentina 1986, Italy 1990, Colombia 2014, Chile 2015, and many other examples down the years – those games will be lost at least as often as (in fact, considerably more often than) they’re won. Just a bounce of the ball or bad decision, and you’re going home.

We also shouldn’t forget that four years ago in Santa Fe, Uruguay benefited from a very harsh second booking against Javier Mascherano, suckered by clever (but illegal) play by that man Suarez; that at the World Cup, first Diego Godin should’ve been dismissed early on against England, then La Celeste visibly profited from the teeth of Suarez as Italy were fatally distracted in the moments afterwards… and that maybe none of the glory run of 2010-11 would ever have happened if it hadn’t been for a ridiculous, near 10-minute long delay orchestrated by the hosts against Costa Rica in November 2009: designed to take the steam right out of Los Ticos’ sails, just when they’d got on top and Uruguay were visibly panicking.

La Celeste aren’t always robbed. They frequently get just as much rub of the green as anyone else: unlike last night’s opponents, who were the width of a crossbar from eliminating the World Cup hosts only a year ago, and whose constant run of failure has, we should acknowledge, sometimes owed to rank bad luck. Perhaps Chile were simply due a stroke of good fortune last night?

Yet there’s something particularly ugly about host nations being so incorrigibly favoured by the officials. I say that as an Englishman all too aware of what the Three Lions’ solitary World Cup triumph looked like to the rest of the world, or how Spain were robbed by disgraceful officiating in the Euro 96 quarter-finals. It was appalling: albeit, unlike what happened to Portugal, Italy and Spain again in Korea in 2002, not flat out corrupt.

Was last night corrupt? Many Uruguayans will insist that yes, of course it was. After what happened to Suarez, and we’ve all learned about CONMEBOL in recent weeks, what more evidence does anyone need? All it was, though, was a desperately weak official making a rod for his own back early on, succumbing to the same psychological pressure which favours home teams all over the world every single weekend, and being fooled by some utterly grotesque cheating.

This is football. Cheats usually prosper. The only real offence (as with Suarez on multiple occasions, or Neymar against Colombia), is to break the Eleventh Commandment, and get caught. Bad refereeing is so much more likely against host nations in major tournaments: meaning Uruguay are also at fault for playing so conservatively, they left themselves facing Chile in the first place.

As the dust settles on this exit, there will, I’ve no doubt, at last be a proper debate on both the team’s style and Tabarez’ future. Football aficionados, as opposed to the broader public, have been fed up with both for a long while now. A good number will plaintively inquire why their country can’t play football in the same way as Argentina, Colombia or indeed, Chile. Uruguayans aren’t blind to their team’s many flaws, nor those of their veteran coach: who isn’t at all guaranteed to remain. There’s a significant feeling abroad that he might well not.

If he stays, little will change. He’ll still be scared of introducing younger players, and the reason for that fear lies in his desire to play so defensively in the first place. Players like De Arrascaeta or Jonathan Rodriguez just don’t fit into such a rigid plan: which for 5 years now, has had Cavani hurtling here, there and everywhere: popping up at centre back or defensive midfielder, clearing chances off the line and breaking up the opponents’ play, yet denied the chance to do what he does best. Score goals.

Yet if El Maestro does take his leave of us, there are dangers there too. Nobody should underestimate what he’s done for this team: he’s put Uruguay back on the map, given the people their pride back, and made La Celeste extraordinarily durable in ties such as this. A new, more positive coach might well achieve a whole lot less; and to be sure, there won’t be much patience for any setbacks which might occur along the way. Ahead of the eliminatorias, Uruguay are at a crossroads: but we can hope, at least, that the annus horribilis of 24 June 2014-24 June 2015 has now passed.

While our favourites lick their wounds and ponder the future, Chile already have one and a half feet in the final, and will never have a greater opportunity to break their historic trophy drought than this… but even with 12 men, a voice in my head still says they won’t: that whoever emerges from a crowded bottom half of the draw (even Paraguay) will feed off frantic local expectation and make off with the spoils.

After what happened last night, every Uruguayan everywhere will fervently hope for that. Their pride and joy still have 15 Copas America and 19 major tournaments to their name; Chile still have a big fat goose egg. The host nation, Champions for the moment only of sexual assault and turning a blind eye to drink driving, still have it all to do.

How many Copas America have Chile won, Arturo?

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