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Go on, admit it: one of the first things you thought of when the draw put Portugal and Uruguay together was the kind of thing nobody wants to see but everybody wants to see really. OK, maybe not everybody, and maybe you didn’t. Plenty, though, did. Just try typing Portugal, Uruguay and “shithousery” into Google.
On Friday though, Uruguay’s manager, Óscar Tabárez preferred to recall a different story and a whole different set of values, going back to the 1954 World Cup to tell a parable and question the “myths”, as he put it. Alongside, Luis Suárez sat captivated, silently gazing at him.
“There is not so much history between us so far, so history will be marked by tomorrow’s game,” Suárez had said. What awaits in Sochi is spectacular. European champions in 2016 v South American champions in 2011; three of the world’s great strikers, men who scored 344 league goals over the last four years; the winner of four of the last five Ballon d’Ors, and probably a fifth this year too, voted the planet’s best player again – “not just a great player, their leader,” as Tabárez said; and the defender Diego Maradona calls a “superstar”. Then there is the other stuff this clash brings – and clash is the word. That, at least, is the assumption.
The Madrid derby and the clásico recreated. Pepe
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Godín v Ronaldo. There is plenty of previous. There’s Ronaldo and Godín battling in the area, Ronaldo punching Godín in the back of the head. There’s Suárez catching Pepe with a hand across the face one time and a boot across the shin another, the defender rolling round the turf with hand in the air, calling for the priest to deliver his last rites after both of them.
And then there is that Camp Nou meeting where Suárez pushes the centre-back, who bumps into the back of him, treading on his foot. Suárez turns and shouts something about his “mother’s shell”, which probably doesn’t really require a proper translation, to which the defender responds: “You pushed me first.” At which point Suárez swears at him again and warns him that he’s “saving one” for him.
But here’s the thing: the defender
he clashed with on that occasion was not an opponent
on Saturday, it was a teammate, José María Giménez. Just as the defender he gave a black eye was not Pepe, it was Godín.
All of which says something about the competitiveness that has helped make Uruguay football’s great overachievers; it certainly says something about Suárez – a superb footballer who plays as if he was no good at all, who talks about a nation who may not have the talent that others do but who will not be beaten for courage, fight, that garra charua of legend. As Godín puts it: “Luis has got where he is because of the way he is: you see he gets angry, wound up, he fights, he protests.”
He might not for much longer. There was a moment here on the eve of meeting Portugal when the Uruguay striker was asked about the impact of VAR: yellow cards are down, red cards are down and penalties are up. “The players talk about it,” Suárez said. “Players are protesting less.” And with that he grinned and raised his hand: players like me. He also said that, having worked with a fitness coach before the tournament, he felt better now than in the opening game, adding with a smile: “Which isn’t hard.”
Still, the anticipation is that this will be tough indeed, a confrontation between some of the best, most competitive, most uncompromising strikers and defenders there are. Yet that version of events was challenged here; there was something deeper. Uruguay have collected only one yellow card at this tournament; while their central defenders are tough there is a nobility about them; and, when it came to their final group game, they were in a similar situation to England but there was no doubt: they defeated Russia. “We don’t play with the results: our objective is to win every game, that’s our mentality,” Suárez said. It has also, Tabárez suggested, too often been their obligation, a “heavy load to carry in your backpack” – one that conditioned their characteristics.
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