The Ballon d'Or could be heading to Barcelona in both player and coach categories but to measure the magnitude of one's achievement, Óscar Tabárez is overdue official recognition.
The needless flustering over the inclusions of Eric Abidal, Nani, Cesc Fàbregas et. al on the Ballon d'Or nominations list is academic when it is as certified as the colour of the grass that Lionel Messi will retain the trophy. Barcelona’s double haul of the Primera Liga and Champions League also makes Pep Guardiola favourite out of the coaching nominees, but he doesn’t deserve it.
Rather than recognise an admittedly outstanding candidate within the insular bubble of European football, it is Uruguay head coach Óscar Tabárez who is deserving of official recognition. He has accomplished the semi-miraculous achievement of moulding a nation sparsely populated they are behind Wales and Scotland on the world inhabitants map, into one of the best sides in international football.
Following a superb World Cup, he steered the national team to its first Copa América title since 1995 in the summer, but it is his tireless work at all levels, rather than results, which signifies his uniqueness. Tabárez has transformed the infrastructure of La Celeste from youth to senior to ensure that their recent feats aren’t the exception.
Uruguay boast a mammoth 20 international trophies (including two World Cups), but they have emerged from a chastening two decades. Before their South African excursions, they had qualified for just one World Cup out of four (2002) – where they were eliminated at the group phase.
Tabárez had coached Uruguay for two years between 1988 and 1990 before management stints at Boca Juniors and AC Milan, amongst other clubs in Europe and South America. He returned in 2006 and rather than shirk responsibility, El Maestro (‘The Teacher’) insisted his contract enabled him ‘To take over not just the senior team but all of the juveniles.’ And thus began a one-man crusade.
The U17s reached the final of last year’s World Cup, knocking out Brazil en route, while the U23s have qualified for their first Olympics in 84 years. Key to such upsurges in fortune is integration. Those youngsters get to rub shoulders with Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez thanks to Tabárez, who has instilled a focused yet leisurely atmosphere within the establishment. He won’t countenance egos and he is proud to see his players loquaciously divulge journalists politely and without any inhibitions.
Forlán even said, ‘We have three balls, not just two.’
Previously synonymous with the borderline-thuggish garra charrúa style, Uruguay are now a refined nation boasting one of the most fearsome and impressive attacks in world football. The Three Musketeers – Diego Forlán, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez – are a swashbuckling and world-class triumvirate to rival any Argentinian or Brazilian front-line. Liverpool’s recent acquisition Sebástian Coates was named best young player at the Copa América and Los Charrúas also received the fair play award. Ironic, eh?
Striking that balance between artisans and aesthetes was instrumental in Argentina. They showed cojones to progress from their group with a 1-0 win over Mexico following two draws, before their nerveless knack for penalty shootouts shone through again against their Argentine hosts. Forlán, the deserved Golden Ball winner at the World Cup, was impotent during the finals yet Tabárez persevered with his talisman who, sure enough, scored a brace in an emphatic 3-0 final win over Paraguay. La Rubía even said, ‘We have three balls, not just two.’
Now a nation who purists loved to hate are the in vogue team du jour. Uruguay only has 41,800 registered footballers compared to Brazil’s 2.5 million, yet it is arguable that they rank ahead of the 2014 World Cup hosts in terms of overall quality. Tabárez’s ingenuity cannot be overestimated when he has essentially guided minnows to an extraordinary zenith whilst diligently monitoring the grass roots level. Argentina's superstars on the other hand, are beset with quarreling and individuals pulling in opposite directions.
Achieving success with the resources at his disposal in contrast to the riches Guardiola gets through in Catalonia makes it a remarkable 18 months for the 64-year-old Tabárez. And although the sycophancy which greets the Catalans makes him a dark horse, the Montevideo-born isn't getting out of the saddle just yet.
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