Uruguay have an illustrious history being the first ever World Cup winners in 1930 and lifting the trophy once again in 1950, countless Copa America wins litter their national trophy cabinet but their fortunes took a turn for the worse failing to qualify for 3 out of 4 World Cups between 1990 and 2006. That’s when Tabarez was brought in, and La Celeste have never looked back. Oscar Tabarez is the man behind the rejuvenation of the Uruguayan national team, El Maestro, as he is known, had a brief career as a centre-back in Uruguay but never excelled nor ventured abroad. Shortly after ending his on pitch career, Tabarez roamed into teaching which was sure to sculpt his outlook on youth development for the foreseeable future.
His career outside of South America has not been glamorous, but within his home continent it would be difficult to argue he has been anything but successful. In his earlier years he was at the helm of Penarol where, in 1987, he lifted the Copa Libertadores, the final time Penarol were to do so. Soon after he took his first stint in charge of Uruguay in 1988 but this only lasted 2 years, in his first major tournament, the 1989 Copa America, Tabarez took his team past Diego Maradona’s Argentina, but fell in the final to a strong Brazilian side. He left a year later and took charge of Boca Juniors where he won the 1992 Primera Division for the first time in 11 years. Various forays into Europe taking control of the likes of Milan and Real Oviedo proved unfruitful, and, on the back of national disappointment in their failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, Tabarez once again took charge of his beloved Uruguay.
This would be the job that really showed what El Maestro was all about. “El Proceso”, as it has been dubbed, was, and still is, Tabarez’s major project which has transformed the Uruguayan national setup from the bottom to the top. Prior to his appointment in 2006, Uruguay had failed to qualify for the World Cup in 3 out of 4 of the previous tournaments, since, they have qualified for all 3, over-performing to reach the semi-finals in 2010, Uruguay’s highest finish since 1970, and their fans have seen them lift the Copa America in 2011. The success doesn’t stop with the senior squad, since the beginning of El Proceso, their U20 side has qualified for every World Cup, with both the U20s and U17s reaching their respective World Cup finals in 2013 and 2011. There is no doubting the success of Tabarez’s revolution, especially considering the lack of resources a country with a population of only 3.4 million has, the achievement and transformation is unfounded. So how did he do it?
When Tabarez took over, there was a negative culture surrounding the national team, Uruguayans felt disconnected and other nations saw the teams style as brute force over talent. El Maestro had always loved his country and believed that playing for the national team was one of the proudest achievements for every player, but there had been a lack of commitment with young players travelling abroad to develop and losing their identity as a result. Therefore, he desired to re-instill garra charrua throughout the national set up, this belief derived from the indigenous people of Uruguay and embodied the passion and commitment to the nation, and the football shirt, a unified team of players following the same ideal were guaranteed to achieve more success than those merely playing because they had been selected, not because they had the desire to do so. This is where Tabarez’s experience as a teacher was influential, he saw football as a “conduit to social change in the country”, football coupled with education was the best way to develop the nation’s young talent. He reintroduced double schedules whereby young players would study with books alongside football and was insistent on teaching the youth the history of La Celeste, he was fully aware that developing the individuals as people was just as important as developing their footballing ability, he knew that not all those in the youth setup would make it and some may even find unlikely success stating amusingly that “the fat boy who was in goal, can end up surprising the world”. If players followed the process from a young age, Tabarez believed that they would have a greater passion and love for the shirt that they pulled on and the fans that they played for. Family was always important to Tabarez, and to transfer this to the national setup he introduced a regime whereby the U15s, U17s and U20s all shared facilities with the senior squad so they could learn from each other and create a more unified feeling. This is far from revolutionary on the global scale, but for Uruguay, this was unheard of, but the success cannot be debated. When he took over in 2006 Uruguay, in Tabarez’s own words, “found it very tough to even find opposition”, and now, no team wants to come up against them in a tournament.
Integrating youth into the process has been a key element in Uruguay’s rejuvenation, it followed his family beliefs and the garra charrua spirit, if players were part of the youth setup from a young age and progressed through, they would learn what it meant to play for Uruguay and help generate a family feeling rather than rivalries. Previous managers had made their selections based solely on the form of players, which, on the face of it would appear to be sensible, but if these players didn’t have the same passion as the fans then they would never perform as they should. Tabarez’s project has been embodied by the 2018 qualifying squads, Tabarez has given debuts to no fewer than 24 players, 21 of whom were in the national youth sides at the time of their selection. Rodrgio Bentancur, Gaston Pereiro, Maxi Gomez and Federico Valverde, to name but a few, are all genuine products of El Proceso and represent the vision that Tabarez had upon his appointment. Of the 48 players used, 43 had either already been called up previously or were in the youth teams, the reliance on the process and system implemented by Tabarez is key in the unification of the team, and of the nation. “Uruguayans now identify with the national team” where they had previously felt disconnected, the players now have the same passion as the fans and that can only be positive for the team’s chances on the pitch. The prestige of the shirt has returned and is something that more nations need to feel. This garra charrua spirit can be best seen in their 2010 World Cup campaign, in almost every game they averaged lower possession than their opponent, yet registered a greater amount of shots and found themselves reaching the semi-finals much to the delight of their supporters.
You only have to look at the caliber of players gifted their debuts under Tabarez to see El Proceso in action, Luis Suarez was given his debut at 20 years of age in early 2007 when he was widely unknown to the footballing world. It was a similar story with Edison Cavani who performed exceptionally at the 2007 South American Youth Championship and less than a year later, found himself debuting for the senior squad. Both players developing in Uruguay, following the national setup, excelling in the national youth teams, then making it to the senior squad and becoming global stars is the epitome of El Proceso and Tabarez’s vision.
Tabarez’s influence on the development of Uruguayan football will go down in the country’s history, he has returned the fight, love and identity of the national team and brought success in the process. Russia 2018 marks yet another new chapter in Uruguay’s illustrious history, a disappointing 2014 was put largely down to Tabarez’s clinging onto of the old guard, but the 2018 qualifiers have, once again, shown El Maestro’s willingness to adapt and evolve. As their stars come towards the end of their international careers, and Tabarez similarly, if Uruguay can maintain El Proceso then they surely won’t be far away from major international success.
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