Player exodus makes life hard for Uruguay coach
Few national team coaches face such an apparently thankless task as Uruguay's Oscar Washington Tabarez, whose country is the smallest to have won the World Cup.
Life is tough enough for most South American coaches, who see their players for only a few days a year and watch their most promising talents whisked off to Europe before they are out of their teens.
Those problems are exacerbated in Tabarez's case by Uruguay's tiny internal market and the unrealistically high expectations caused by two World Cup wins and two Olympic gold medals - all more than 50 years ago.
"People often say that in other times we had more chance of success. But the world has changed since then," Tabarez said. "The ordinary fan just wants us to win and they often link it to 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1950 but you can't explain to everyone the way things are.
"People who are connected with football understand. But the ordinary fan is moved more by passion than by reason."
Uruguay played a major role in turning soccer into an international sport, winning the 1924 and 1928 Olympic tournaments with a short-passing game which had never been seen before in Europe.
They were also at the forefront as the World Cup became a reality, hosting and winning the first tournament in 1930 at the Centenario stadium which is still used for their home games.
After they won again in 1950, larger nations began to equal their technical ability and they lost their edge.
Nowadays, Tabarez sees his players only three or four times a year when they come over for World Cup qualifiers.
The routine is fairly familiar: the players arrive from Europe on the Tuesday, need time to recover, play on the Saturday, travel across South America, play again the following Tuesday or Wednesday and return to Europe.
"I can't really say that I like or don't like this system when I know that it's a consequence of globalisation, of the migration of players from the third world to the big leagues," said Tabarez. "You can't train in five days, you have to find out what state the players are in. It's complicated."
Tabarez, who has coached clubs such as Boca Juniors, AC Milan and Cagliari, is in his second stint with Uruguay, having led them at the 1990 World Cup.
When he began his career with Bella Vista in 1980, the exodus of players was just beginning.
"It had started but this tendency is growing stronger and involves younger and younger players. Now, they take 14-year-olds," he said. "It has happened to us recently. We played in an under-15 championship in Brazil and we were runners-up on goal difference. We lost three players who went to Italy and they want to take others.
"There is a growing difference between the standard of the local game and the demands of international game, so we have no choice but to support the players who go abroad because they are in contact with players of international standards."
Tabarez said Uruguay, which has a population of 3.3 million, was too small to support a high-level domestic game.
"We noticed when we do the preliminary selections for the under 15s and the under 13s that they play very good football in this country," he said. "What we don't have is the possibility to develop them, of having a significant domestic game."
As a result, he said, he was against the idea of forcing players to stay at home until a certain age.
"If the chance opens up for the player, for his progress, for his family, you have to think of the rights of the person. Why don't we say anything when a doctor goes abroad, or an architect, or an engineer? The solution to this does not lie in our hands.
"Our idea is to reduce the effects of all this by organising activities for the national youth teams, preparing the way for them to get to the national team, organising international activities. For us as a country it takes a lot of doing but if we didn't do it we could be worse off than we are."
Uruguay can still give larger neighbours Brazil and Argentina a run for their money and have a good chance of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
"We have difficulties, demographic problems, we have only three-and-a-half million inhabitants but we forget this when we have to compete with the 50 million of Argentina and 150 million plus of Brazil."
Tabarez says Uruguay have made great efforts to shed their reputation for rough play and was hurt by accusations that his side had used violence in last month's 2-1 defeat by Argentina.
"It seemed exaggerated to me," he said of the allegations from Argentine players and media. "It was a tough game, there were incidents but it was part of football.
"There's an image which, regrettably, the world has had of us. We have struggled hard to change this, to play a clean game, to change our way of playing, so it hurts us a lot when, against the smallest offence by a Uruguayan player, they say we are kickers, that we are animals."