Oscar Tabarez's vision for Uruguay must now begin to bear fruit
Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is not with the team as they travel to the Far East to take on Japan and then South Korea. He is recovering from a spinal problem, and also his permanence in charge of the national team, though very close to being defined, is still not 100 percent confirmed.
But he has selected the squad, and, in one sense, the real value of his work with Uruguay might be judged from now on.
That might seem an extraordinary statement given the success Uruguay have enjoyed since Tabarez took over for his second spell in charge back in 2006. Since then, Uruguay have reached the semifinals of the 2007 Copa America, the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and won the Copa America in 2011. And if Brazil 2014 ended relatively early for them -- with a tame, round of 16 elimination against Colombia -- the Uruguayans at least had the satisfaction of beating European opponents in a World Cup (and former champions at that -- England and Italy) for the first time since 1970.
This has clearly been a remarkable achievement, but the real test comes now because Tabarez never made any secret of the fact that his sights were set on the long term.
This is the moment when the team has to be rebuilt. Many of this year's World Cup squad had been together since the 2007 Copa America -- stalwarts such as centre-back Diego Lugano, central midfielder Diego Perez and striker Diego Forlan have been important members of the Tabarez group throughout all eight years of his reign.
Time has moved on -- none of them have been named in the group to take on Japan and South Korea, and it is not likely that they will return in the future. The torch is passing to a new generation, and it is here that Tabarez has given himself special responsibilities.
He took over back in 2006 after musing for some time on the effects of globalisation on the Uruguayan game, on how clubs in a country with such a restricted local market (the population is little more than three million) these days have no chance of holding onto their best players. Talent would quickly be lured abroad. Tabarez came to the conclusion that the national youth ranks had a key role to play in safeguarding the future of the senior Uruguay side.
Two things were necessary; first, Uruguay had to identify youngsters with the ability to hold their own at a global level. This, Tabarez decided, meant they had to have speed -- of movement, of course, but also of thought, of execution.
Secondly, players with such characteristics had to be groomed in the youth ranks in such a way that they grew up with an understanding of Uruguayan football tradition and culture -- and an identification with the famous sky-blue shirt.
Indeed, Uruguay's recent record in World under-17 and under-20 Cups is impressive, but results and titles should never be the principal objective of football at this level. The overriding aim is to produce players who are good enough for the senior side, and it is exactly this aspect of Uruguay's work which now comes under the microscope.
There are some promising signs here. Last year Uruguay reached the final of the Under-20 World Cup, at which they lost only to France on penalties. One of the best graduates from that side is centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez, who found himself thrust into World Cup action in Brazil after Lugano was injured in the opening game. Gimenez came out of the tournament with great credit -- Uruguay have clearly revealed a highly promising defender who could give service to the senior side for a decade at least.
But there is a more interesting example. Called up for the first time for the trip to the Far East is attacking midfielder Giorgian De Arrascaeta, another member of last year's under-20 side. He has since played some fine football for Defensor in Uruguay and was one of the best players in this year's version of the Copa Libertadores -- South America's Champions League -- in which his club were unlucky not to make the final.
De Arrascaeta is full of silky skills -- his ability to receive and pass the ball on the turn, opening up interesting angles, recalls Barcelona's magnificent Andres Iniesta.
Indeed, many in Uruguay were calling for his inclusion in the World Cup squad. Such thinking might have been premature -- with the classic inconsistency of youth, De Arrascaeta has been left on the bench by Defensor in their past two matches. But there is no doubt the youngster has plenty of potential and could well go on to be an important player for Uruguay at the senior level.
The debate around this player touches on an important point -- Uruguay's style of play. Tabarez has become an increasingly pragmatic figure, arguing that the only course of action open to his team is to operate within their limitations. Before the World Cup, he repeatedly stated his main objective was to ensure that Uruguay were difficult to play against.
One of his predecessors as national team coach was the much more swashbuckling figure of Juan Ramon Carrasco. "There are good and bad points about the national team," he said recently.
"The positive side of the work of el maestro (the nickname of Tabarez, who is a qualified schoolteacher) is that he manages to make the players feel an identification with the national team. But I can't agree with the style of play. We have two of the best strikers in the world [Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani], but we don't generate any football for them. Instead, people are applauding if Cavani is clearing balls away in our own penalty area."
De Arrascaeta has the talent to enable Uruguay to think along more ambitious lines. There are two fascinating questions to be posed about the Uruguay side over the next few months: Can De Arrascaeta and other youth products step up successfully to the senior side, and do they have what it takes to enable Tabarez to experiment with a more expansive style of play?
In the long term, this is how the success or failure of the long-term Tabarez project will be judged -- and the first hints will emerge from Japan this Friday.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.