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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Chile v Uruguay: Here come the party poopers

Football is, and has always been, a very, very strange game. No other sport gives the impression of being so, for want of a better term, ‘democratic’: on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. David can beat Goliath. Dreams can come true: even if the opponent has 20 chances, and you only have one. Wigan Athletic can win the FA Cup; Greece or Denmark can win the European Championship; and tiny countries with 3 million people can make off with the greatest prize of all after facing down a nation of 200 million (OK, just over 50 million back then) in their own backyard.

Well, sure. But these are exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that in club football, the richest monopolise the prizes; and in the international game, more than 95% of the time, the same teams always win… and the same teams always lose.

Not only that: but the huge bulk of the time, the same teams always play in more or less the same easily identifiable way. Germany, the greatest supposed lie to this given the revolution in their football after Euro 2000, still play like a machine: gliding effortlessly like a Mercedes, the players displaying veins of ice come crunch time. France and Holland always have huge talent, but can almost always be expected to implode like a blancmange when it matters, often amid internal recriminations and acrimony. The former did so five times out of six between 2002 and 2012; the latter, who collapsed completely at Euro 2012, have practically outdone themselves in Euro 2016 qualifying.

In South America, while Argentina invariably look less than the sum of their parts – because the cult of the individual, so intrinsic to Argentinian culture, just doesn’t work in international football – Paraguay or Uruguay are their opposite. Both paintdryingly tedious to watch; both drawing on a colossal sense of national pride to achieve a lot from a little, while Argentina deliver a little from a lot.

But some countries are fated, perhaps for all eternity, to always lose. England, full of passion and heart, so often resemble a drunken tourist taking the wrong direction after dark: proud, stupid, ambushed, never learning a single thing from the experience. Mexico, always so good in the World Cup first round, eliminated on six straight occasions in the World Cup second round… and doomed never to improve in knock-out play until they get over themselves, lose their obsession with hammering a bunch of nations Uncle Sam runs as his own personal banana plantations, grow a backbone and a pair of cojones, and join CONMEBOL.

And then, there’s Chile. The ‘team to watch’ in South America over recent years, with a model built by the great latter day philosopher, Marcelo Bielsa… yet who in their entire history, which stretches back to 1895 and includes being among the four founding members of CONMEBOL, have never won a single thing. Not a sausage. Nada.

Paraguay have won two Copas America. Peru have won two Copas America. Colombia and even Bolivia have won it once; but Chile? Never. Not only that, but they’ve never been beyond the last 16 of a World Cup not staged in their own country either.

Growing up, I had a particular soft spot for their 1998 side which walloped England 2-0 at Wembley, gave Italy a major fright in France; and for whom Marcelo Salas, El Matador, was terrifyingly effective. Yet that team was lucky to reach the knock-out stages, and swamped by Brazil once there.

Under Bielsa a decade or so later, a new side emerged. Football hipsters raved about them: but personally, I could never see what the big deal was. International football’s answer to Arsenal played in pretty little circles, and made much of their attitude of taking the game to the opposition… but had no final touch, no killer instinct: not to mention the arrogance to take Spain on at their own game (they lost), and make no changes to their approach for Brazil. Who promptly thrashed them 3-0. Gracias y buenas noches, amigos.

We don’t play football as we’d like to, but as we must. Winning the philosophical argument is no victory at all unless the game and the trophy – the only things that are actually important – are won. Bielsa, bless him, has never understood this; but under his successor-but-one, Jorge Sampaoli, do Chile?

To Sampaoli’s credit, his charges have often appeared more multi-dimensional, and certainly more direct at times, than under his predecessor. And by choosing to retain Arturo Vidal in his squad following the Juventus midfielder’s much publicised car crash while intoxicated earlier this week, Sampaoli sent out an unambiguous message. Victory is all that’s important. Higher ideals of morality and role models are for the birds.

Not, mind you, that this decision met with the satisfaction of many Chileans. Whose disgust and apoplexy was best encapsulated by the response of Eduardo Bonvallet, long time television and radio pundit, for so long a thorn in the side of administrators, players and managers. Bonvallet has such a following because, rather like Eamon Dunphy in Ireland, he calls it as it is; but also because, fully aware that football is nothing if not a pantomime, he overstates his case to provoke an equal and opposite reaction.

Eagle-eyed readers may recall that, on the eve of the World Cup, Bonvallet tipped Uruguay to win the tournament. Now, he excoriated both Vidal and his supporters: the latter as “Communists” and “thieves”; the former, in the colloquial expression, as a “flaite”. That is to say, a chav: a thug of low socio-economic background.

No doubt, South American football and society is plagued by horrible examples of the latter group. Anyone who witnessed the farcical ending to Uruguay’s Championship Final last weekend – ambulance stopped contest, all hail Nacional – would acknowledge that. But Bonvallet’s comments, however accurate, divided his country… and that division could shortly bring Vidal y compadres down.

Before Argentina met Italy in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals in Naples, Diego Maradona reminded locals of their continual mistreatment and neglect by the government and north of the country:

The Italians are asking Neapolitans to be Italian for a day, yet for the other 364 days of the year, they forget all about Naples. The people do not forget this.

The result? A very strange atmosphere: Neapolitans torn between the Azzurri and their idol. Argentina fed off this, the contest degenerated… and the Albiceleste won on penalties, El Diego’s spot kick especially plunging a dagger into the country’s heart.

With Vidal’s retention having split Chile down the middle, what happens if La Roja get into a tight, nervy, niggly, physical battle against opponents who choke off space and give them no room to breathe? How do the locals react if the game stays locked at 0-0? Forget Friday night: an exhibition game against laughably inadequate opposition, who’ve already over-achieved just to reach the last 8. The Bolivia game told us nothing. But the quarter-final? It will tell us everything, about both protagonists.

From the moment the draw was made, I haven’t just expected a Chile-Uruguay quarter-final. I’ve regarded it as an absolute, cast iron inevitability. So much so that while others have moaned about Oscar Washington Tabarez’ endemic conservatism, pointed towards his failure to rejig the side in Luis Suarez’ absence, obsessed over the team’s shape, its lack of creativity, uncustomary defensive lapses from Jose Maria Gimenez, or the misfiring Edinson Cavani, I’ve sat back disinterestedly, waited for the tournament proper to start and the inevitable to happen.

8 teams qualify from 12 at the Copa America. Of those 12, one is renowned footballing superpower, Jamaica; another is a reserve team; another hadn’t won a single competitive game on the road in 20 years until their shock ambush of Ecuador. Good grief: the first round is such a total waste of time, qualifying for the quarter-finals such a complete non-achievement, even Bolivia have managed it. The tournament hasn’t actually started yet.

Not only that: but anyone who knows anything about Uruguay knew how the first round would pan out. What are the Golden Rules where La Celeste are concerned?

1. If 5th place in the World Cup qualifiers means a play-off and likely victory, Uruguay will always finish 5th. True in 2014, 2010, 2006 and 2002.

2. If 16 teams qualify from 24 at the World Cup Finals – there are four lucky third-placed sides, in other words – Uruguay will qualify number 16. True in 1986 and 1990: the only 24-team finals La Celeste ever played in.

3. If two third-placed sides out of 3 qualify for the Copa America quarter-finals, Uruguay will finish 3rd in their group and be one of those sides the vast amount of the time. True in 2007, 2004, 2001, 1999… and now in 2015 as well. Only when either hosting the tournament (as in 1995), or boasting their most exceptional side since the 1950s (as in 2011), do Uruguay ever not finish 3rd in their Copa America group: yet on all four of those occasions above, they reached the semi-finals. In 1999, they even made the final – with a youth team – beating guess who in the semis?

We’ll come to Golden Rule number 4 in a moment. But if you don’t know why this is – why Uruguay always slouch around in the first round, looking anything but contenders, only to crank up through the gears when they need to – you’ve obviously not been paying attention. The way the team plays is the perfect embodiment of how this country is: in the Land of the Last Minute, everything is exactly as it says on the tin. In a country with an old population, where many wouldn’t change the day of the week if they could get away with it, the team will always play conservatively. Gentle (very gentle) evolution, not revolution, will always be the watchword.

There’s no point carping about it. Nothing to be gained from demanding more expansive football or more convincing performances. This is Uruguay: it will always be this way. Quite why anyone expects any different is increasingly beyond me: suffer, during the first round of a tournament in which La Celeste were always going to play badly, always going to finish 3rd in the group, and always going to qualify to face the hosts? Not me.

But here’s the thing. Remember what I said above about the same teams always winning, and the same teams always losing? Here comes our final Golden Rule:

4. If Uruguay face the host nation in a major tournament, they will almost always win. True in 2011, 2010 (when with Ghana installed as de facto hosts by a sycophantic, patronising beyond belief world – which ignores and exploits Africa in geopolitics, only to damn it with faint praise in football – they effectively did it twice), 2007, 1999, 1987… and most famously of all, in 1950. For good measure, they were even the only opponent to avoid defeat against England in 1966.

If we include Ghana, most of those victories have come in the quarter-finals: three on penalties. And even more alarmingly for Chile, in the last five editions of the Copa America, the hosts have been knocked out in the last 8 on four separate occasions. Since 1997, the only time this didn’t happen was in 2001: when the event was gutted by fears of terrorism, absentees and reserve teams.

The first round of this tournament is such a walk in the park, host nations (so often, as again this year, gifted joke group stage draws by the always incorruptible CONMEBOL) become peculiarly vulnerable when it’s suddenly win, or go home. But in Uruguay’s case? From the moment they’re born (arguably, the moment they’re conceived), Uruguayan footballers and the broader public live for these occasions like absolutely no other.

Those parents screaming on the touchline at their kids, opponents, referees or coaches? That incessant desire of otherwise placid Uruguayans to win at anything at all: even tiddlywinks? The pressure which children in this country face from a very early point in life: especially in football, where the message is to win, or else? Sure, it stifles creative play or anything resembling the exotic – but it also serves a purpose.

It means that, when they grow up, Uruguayan footballers routinely display preternatural levels of calm in the tightest of corners. If there are tiny fractions of advantage to be gained through clever play or gamesmanship, they’ll do so: because they’ve been conditioned in this from birth. If their opponents are too emotional, too over-excited, too liable to attack and lose control, Uruguay – just as passionate, but who control and channel this force in a completely different way – will pounce. And if the home fans give them abuse, or try to intimidate them, La Celeste feed off this disrespect (though really, this fear) like no other side anywhere.

Since the draw was made, who will Uruguay have most fancied playing in the quarter-finals? Chile, of course. It’s in the blood. And who will Chile have least fancied? Uruguay, of course. It’s also in the blood, and in history. The same teams always win; the same teams always lose.

We’ve remarked on this Blog many times that ever since the quarter-final against Argentina in 2011, Uruguay have spent the entire time trying to recreate that match: which embodied all the virtues of La Garra Charrua like perhaps no other game since 1950. Well, even without Suarez and the suspended Palito Pereira, now’s their chance. Again they face a host nation which fancies itself, plays attacking football, looks brilliant on its day… but has alarming defensive flaws, and too often lacks balance in how it plays.

Those Keystone Kops-sized flaws (as Tim Vickery put it, the Chilean defence are like Ken Dodd and the Diddymen) and that lack of balance mean that even if, which I absolutely do not expect, Chile get through on Wednesday night, they cannot possibly win this tournament. Someone streetwise and defensively solid will put them out of this thing. In international football, Chile’s way – like Mexico’s way or England’s way – does not work.

Uruguay’s way? Even if we consider how easy qualification for the latter stages of this tournament is, or how 5 sides usually reaching the World Cup Finals from 10 in South America allows for a continual backdoor route and enables a respectable finish at the mundial, the point is this: it does work. Goodness knows, this Blog has done little other than attack El Maestro over the past 3 years, with good reason: but to repeat a point I’ve made before, Oscar Tabarez is Uruguay. His personality is Uruguay’s personality; his calmness is their calmness; his caution is their caution; his emphasis on defence is their emphasis on defence; his false modesty is their false modesty.

And his record? Despite winning only one qualifying group at a major tournament in seven previous attempts (eight now), or overseeing only one win in Uruguay’s opening match in those eight tournaments (against Jamaica, so it barely even counts), Tabarez won the 2011 Copa America; was runner-up in 1989; finished 4th in the world in 2010, 4th in America in 2007, and 4th at the Confederations Cup in 2013. Five top 4 finishes in seven attempts. Who could possibly doubt that on Wednesday, Tabarez’ way (because it’s Uruguay’s way) will turn this figure into six from eight?

Before the game, La Celeste will play everything down, emphasise the qualities of their opponents, and speak (as Tabarez already has) of transition ahead of the eliminatorias. Take the pressure off and transfer it to the hosts. The Uruguayan public will fret about Cavani’s lack of goals, the team’s lack of creativity, and Palito’s suspension. Chileans will speak of their ‘respect’ for Uruguay: but deep down, high as 17.6m kites on their 5-0 win on Friday night, fully expect to win. Uruguay without Suarez, playing their customary style of shit on a stick? Come on: how can they fail?

Chile fans before the match

But fail, they almost certainly will. Once the game begins, Uruguay will move into their seemingly God-given role as international party poopers; their defensive system will frustrate, stifle and suffocate… and Chile, snakebitten by the torment of history, will begin to panic. Indiscipline will set in, chances will be missed, the public will turn on Vidal if he’s one of the culprits… and their opponents will remain infuriatingly calm, compact, and well organised. In these situations, it’s what Uruguay do.

All La Celeste have to do is hold on for 90 minutes, and penalties will arrive. They’re 2 from 2 in live shoot-outs in recent years; Chile are 0 from 1. The same teams always win; the same teams always lose.

Can Uruguay win this tournament? Not without Suarez, no. But with El Maestro at the helm, and an experienced, cussed side, they are possible finalists. As if to show that some teams can break the curse of history, but not others, I actually have a sneaking fancy for Paraguay for the title (stop laughing, I’m serious) in what is certainly a wide open field, reminiscent of that which Greece came through on the blind side to win Euro 2004.

But Chile? Not this year. Not this century either. By the end of proceedings on Wednesday, Jota Erre and all of Uruguay will be laughing; Arturo Vidal and all of Chile will be crying. The same teams always win. The same teams always lose.

Chile players after the match