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?
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