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Jun 18, 2014

Despite setbacks, Uruguay focus on England

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- It's not only on the field where things haven't gone to plan so far for Uruguay during the World Cup. The 3-1 opening Group D defeat to Costa Rica stunned a team that, an injury to Luis Suarez aside, had been satisfied with their preparation.

It hadn't all been plain sailing, though. When the team arrived in Fortaleza on Friday, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera entered his room to find what he thought were ants in his bed. Lots of them. One ant was hardly going to trouble him, was it?

Police were called and a report was given to FIFA that said they were dealing with sabotage. Plus, the insects were termites, not ants.

Meanwhile, last week at a different hotel, a remote ranch 70 kilometres north of Belo Horizonte, a 39-kilogram consignment of dulce de leche -- a sweet spread popular with Uruguayans -- wasn't cleared by customs.

More than one player in the Uruguay camp claimed that some Brazilians are still bitter about what is known as Maracanazo, the final match of the 1950 World Cup, when Uruguay defeated the host nation 2-1 in front of a world-record crowd of 173,850 (although many claim more were present) in the Maracana.

UruguayUruguay
EnglandEngland
2
1
FT
Match 23
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At least the mate got through, the drink that is to Uruguayans what tea is to England, their opponents on Thursday. They've been sharing a brew under the giant Uruguay flag, which hangs above the reception in their hotel.

"We'll hold BBQs and take mate together," explains Diego Forlan. "We'll play cards, swim, talk and listen to Uruguayan music like 'La Vela Puerca.'

"I'm also reading books to relax. I'm studying Japanese [Forlan has played for J. League side Cerezo Osaka since March] and also read books on economics or history. I have a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel too. He was one of my favourites and South America mourned when he died [in April], so I'm reading his books again."

Forlan turned 35 last month and knows this is almost certainly his last World Cup. Father Time is catching up with him, but he can look back on a wondrous career. He won the Golden Ball at the 2010 tournament, where he was joint top scorer too.

- Vickery: Can Uruguay defy the odds?
- 50-50 Challenge: Uruguay vs. England

Further back, he was also a mentor to Suarez when Uruguay's current talisman was coming through the ranks.

"I first played against him in a warm-up game when he was in Uruguay's under-20s as they prepared for their World Cup in Canada," says Forlan. "We gave them a tough practice match, our strongest first team. He was already aguerrido -- a warrior, a soldier who has been through war, a fighter for every ball. He still is. We were impressed. Luis was polite and keen to learn. He was always asking me questions and for advice. He's never stopped. He's a very nice guy."

Suarez turned to Forlan when Liverpool approached his then-club, Ajax, in 2011.

"He called and asked me," Forlan says. "I was a Manchester United man but spoke well of Liverpool and their history. I told him how, after I'd scored to knock them out of the Europa League at Anfield [with Atletico Madrid], their fans applauded me."

Forlan and Suarez combined to score eight goals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Suarez, the Premier League's best player -- and, with 31 goals, top scorer last season -- has risen to become one of the main men in world football. He has also pronounced himself fit after completing three full training sessions and is expected to play versus England after recovering from keyhole surgery last month to treat a knee injury. His teams need him. As captain Diego Lugano said from their hotel on Monday: "We dream of him playing."

Lugano, who himself will miss the game through injury, was the only player allowed to speak to the international media, and even then no questions were allowed in English, with the 33-year-old, who played in England with West Bromwich Albion last season, saying that he couldn't speak the language.

The rest of the squad were silenced, though Suarez was allowed to speak to trusted Uruguayan media. Uruguay have gone into lockdown since the shock in Fortaleza, their mood not helped by suspicions of spying. Coach Oscar Tabarez, while complimenting the England team, was understood to be furious after details of their behind-closed-door tactical sessions were leaked to the media.

Players don't know who to trust, nor who is responsible. Uruguayans have often created an "us against the world" siege mentality, which suits their status as a tiny nation of 3 million people. The world wanted Ghana to beat them in South Africa four years ago, but they triumphed to reach the semifinals. In Brazil, they once again feel like their backs are against the wall, that they're cornered.

Not all is negative for Uruguay. They're used to their fans being outnumbered wherever they play, and while England will be well supported in Sao Paulo, an expected 20,000 Uruguayans are expected to be inside the 62,000-capacity Corinthians arena.

"Everyone has been calling for tickets," says Forlan. "Brother, sister, friends. It's impossible for me to arrange for everyone."

Can you blame them for wanting to watch one of the most intriguing games of the World Cup so far?