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May 27, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Uruguay

Group D | England | Costa Rica | Italy


Team DNA

Uruguay have always proved themselves on what they call garra charrua -- literally, their native "claw," but, more naturally, their fighting spirit. This side will be no different.

Manager Oscar Washington Tabarez may be able to call on two of the most sought-after attacking players in football, but he will send his side out to defend, battle, defy and, when possible, catch their opponents on the counterattack.

It is an approach that is rooted in the nation's size (Uruguay's population is 3 million people), which means, as Tabarez says, they rarely have a team "to take the game to bigger countries." It has worked wonderfully in the past, and has brought this generation some considerable success, most notably in the 2010 World Cup and the Copa America the following year.

This group is still very much that team: a back line marshaled by Diego Godin and Diego Lugano, and a bank of three fiercely tenacious defensive midfielders, with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez up front. The only question mark -- apart from whether Suarez will be fit -- is whether Cristian Rodriguez can be as creative as Diego Forlan behind that front pairing.

Starting scenario

History

Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and again the next time they entered the tournament in 1950. They reached the semifinals three additional times, most recently in 2010 in South Africa.

How they reached Brazil

Uruguay entered the arduous South American qualification process as 2010 World Cup semifinalists and reigning champions of their continent. They looked to be safe bets to secure one of the four automatic spots for a trip to Brazil; but after a bright start, their form did not so much as falter as vanish.

They were hammered in Colombia and Argentina and dropped points at home against Ecuador and Venezuela. Then, with five games to go, Uruguay looked like they would not even manage to squeeze into fifth, which would be enough to guarantee a playoff.

Tabarez turned to his stars for deliverance. Cavani's goal secured a win in Venezuela and set Uruguay on their way to another victory against Colombia in Montevideo. Suarez scored two as they beat Peru in Lima, and he and Cavani each struck again in Uruguay's crucial win against archrivals Argentina in their final game. That 3-2 win meant a place in a playoff against Jordan, a tie they won easily after a 5-0 victory in Amman and a goalless draw in Montevideo.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Argentina, of course, are the old rivals, dating all the way back to the first World Cup final, where Uruguay's victory in Montevideo led to riots on the other side of the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires.

History also makes the prospect of meeting their other looming neighbour an enticing one. It was in 1950 when Alcides Ghiggia & Co. won Uruguay their second World Cup, beating Brazil in the final game of the competition's second group stage in the Maracana to deliver what became known as the Maracanazo.

This generation of Uruguayan players would relish the chance to deliver another upset of the hosts in Brazil. Their chance is more likely to come in Fortaleza in the quarterfinals than Rio in the final.

Long before that, the group clash against England should provide at least one Uruguayan, Suarez, with a game that he would dearly love to win.

Most important player

The two stars are Cavani and Suarez, but with the latter potentially being injured for at least a portion of the group stage (he is recovering from knee surgery) and the former frequently not as effective at the international level as he is for his club, Uruguay are likely to rely heavily on their defence if they are to make the knockout rounds.

That means Godin, fresh off a remarkable campaign for Atletico Madrid, will have to keep up the extraordinarily high standards he set in helping Diego Simeone's side win the La Liga title and reach the Champions League final.

Godin is not especially quick, he is not toweringly tall and not freakishly strong. He is, though, one of the most robust, committed and intelligent defenders in football, as his performance for the first 110 minutes of the Champions League final proved. At his best, he represents an almost insurmountable barrier; the threat he poses from set pieces also gives Tabarez's side another valuable weapon as they seek to find alternative attacking options in Suarez's possible absence.

Definition of success

The distant and recent past both serve to increase the pressure on Uruguay. It is a country intensely conscious of its status as world football's "little nation that could," a team that has a long and proud history of punching above their weight.

It is probably a stretch to say that Uruguayans expect to win the World Cup; they know, though, thanks to the exploits of 1930 and 1950, that it is definitely possible.

- Video: Uruguay odds in World Cup (Australia only)

That sense has only been heightened after their heroics in 2010; they might have gone further, too, had Suarez not been suspended for that game against Netherlands. Throw in the fact that they are the reigning South American champions and the pressure is on Tabarez to deliver another adventure into the latter stages. There is a danger that anything less than the quarterfinals will be considered a disappointment.

But that may be a little harsh, especially given the group draw and Uruguay's difficulties in qualifying. Reaching the round of 16 should be considered a par finish; anything after that would be a bonus.

How far will Uruguay go?

A tough Group D makes a repeat of 2010 unlikely. If they get past the group, they may have enough for a quarterfinal spot.

ESPN FC Analyst's take: Mario Kempes

Uruguay has played the same way since winning it all in 1930: relentlessly, with lots of aggressiveness. This side has always had great defenders, so it's hard to score against them. But now they have added strength in the strikers they have.

You get the best and the worst from Uruguay. They have a very hard time getting started, especially in a tournament like this. You saw it in qualification. In the World Cup, if they reach the round of 16, they'll start transforming themselves into a contender.

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