Oscar Tabarez: Battling an ailment but still serving the nation
- The legend of Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay's wartime general.
Uruguay, a small nation, located in the periphery of the South American continent. The eastern side of the nation engulfed by the chill of the Atlantic Ocean and the north under the shade of the Andes Mountains. The country is known for its Tango dance, its famous artists and sculptors and its high consumption of tobacco. But amongst the chill of the ocean, the silence of the Andes, the silvery grey shade of the smoke, the country has utmost passion for football.
The nation won the inaugural edition of the World Cup on their home soil, in 1930. They caused the biggest upset in World Cup history in 1950. A visiting La Celeste at the perennial home of football, across the border in Brazil, were less than favourites. The Brazilian press already labelled their team as the champions, the people in Rio hailed them as the conquerors. But a spirited La Celeste stunned the world and silenced the Maracana, 11 minutes from time, winning their second and incidentally last World Cup title.
Always being considered as the second fiddle in the Latin American ranks, after the obvious Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay definitely had to fight to earn a reputation. The Uruguayan team after the 1970s though was just another country which was ranked in FIFA. They dropped to a record low of 76th in FIFA rankings at one point and had failed to qualify for World Cup 5 times in the last 9 competitions. La Celeste was no longer an intimidating team, no longer a footballing superpower. Before 2010, their best performance in the World Cup, only reaching as far as the group stages.
One man and one man only changed the scenario of the sport in the country. Their current coach, Oscar Tabarez. The customary sight of the elderly man, with a stick, struggling to walk yet celebrating the goals, on the benches of Uruguay will never be forgotten. Every single person has wondered about the decision of Uruguay Football Association. A 71-year-old man, who could barely stand, is not ousted as the coach. Is the Uruguayan Football Association out of its mind?
Never. Uruguay was just showing its gratitude, to all that the man has done in resurrecting his nation. He is the one who uplifted Uruguay from their depressing performances. Oscar Tabarez had an average career. He played for 12 years as a defender. Tabarez was never going to leave behind a legacy on the pitch. After all, for a former primary school teacher, a footballing legacy was just asking too much off him.
But Oscar Tabarez didn’t live on his meagre career as a player. A year after his retirement, he took up a new job, as a coach in Bella Vista. He managed the U20 side of his nation, guiding them to a Pan American Games Gold in 1983. Tabarez didn’t seem to have any problem in handling the modest clubs in Uruguay. In 1988, Tabarez was appointed the national team coach. He took the moderate squad to the World Cup but only as far as the Round of 16. The Uruguay National Football Association decided to part ways with Tabarez.
The team didn’t have any resounding success though. Uruguay qualified for the World Cup, only once afterwards. In 2006, even after having the talented Diego Forlan in their squad, they failed to qualify for the event.
At a time when the nation wailed for help, when they were in desperate need of a saviour, Uruguay Football Association announced a change in coaching staff. Uruguay approached Oscar Tabarez again. Why? One cannot tell. Tabarez didn’t win anything historic in the decade and a half, after he parted ways with the team. Maybe these things make history beautiful. A decision which was cryptic to say the least but still turned out to be the best.
Prior to Tabarez's second stint as the coach, the situation had only worsened in Uruguay. The team and the system was in desperate need of a rehabilitation. The nation was desperate. Once superpowers were now a shadow of their history. The situation in the team was comparable to the war time scenarios. During the hour of crisis, Uruguay's war time general, Oscar Tabarez, brought about a revolution.
In one of the most famous coaching strategies, Oscar Tabarez presented his project, “Process of National Teams’ Institutionalization and Players’ Growth”, the Celeste call this El Proceso. This helped Tabarez overlook the national teams in all age groups, starting from U15 to the top tier. Tabarez was a pinnacle in introducing a disciplinary standard in the Uruguayan team. He was clear on his stand. Respect always comes first. He revamped the team and helped them cope with their disciplinary issues. The effect could be experienced in the team as, the number of cards received came down drastically for Uruguay.
Tabarez has emphasised discipline as his agenda in a lot of his interviews. He has always stood by the idea of '11 walk in and 11 walk out'. Diego Godin is the perfect specimen of a well disciplined player. Being a center back and a part of El Proceso, Godin has never indulged in fights and acted aggressively, a common characteristic among those playing in his position. Still, Godin is among the best in his position.
Oscar Tabarez also demanded that kids are nurtured from the grassroot level. He said in one of his interviews, "At our academy, we teach how to say hello first, football comes next". Uruguay although disciplined weren’t pushovers thereafter. The Proceso brought to light some of the brightest talents in today’s football, including Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Fernando Muslera and Diego Godin.
Tabarez handled perhaps the toughest transition period in Uruguayan Football. He held together the team and with his teaching skills and football knowledge, brought about a smooth transition. Tabarez deservedly earned the nickname, “The Teacher”. Uruguay finished World Cup 2010 at 4th place, Suarez was hailed as a top class striker, even broke the record for the most number of goals for the nation. The Proceso was vital, it earned Uruguay its first Copa America since 1995. It brought to the spotlight, an amazing pool of players.
Oscar Tabarez is the real wartime general of Uruguayan Football. Many labelled his coaching a matter of luck, as he got the talent of Godin, Suarez and Cavani. Luck was never the case for Tabarez. He didn’t 'luckily' manage for over 30 years, with almost 16 different teams. He didn’t 'luckily' support his nation when it was in crisis. These players were moulded into who they are, by no one else but Oscar Tabarez.
And now, if Uruguay decides to oust him as the coach, just because of his ailment, will that be right? Tabarez gifted Uruguay a first semifinal berth in World Cup since 1970, a first Olympic appearance since 1928, and a first trophy since 1995. What more can the nation demand?
Fate wasn’t kind to Tabarez. He was diagnosed with Gullain-Barre syndrome in 2013. He might have been forced to resign at that point. But he had his nation behind him, the nation that he lifted from the crisis. Nobody in Uruguay questioned the legitimacy of his coaching style. He has a muscle weakness due to immune system damaging the nervous system. No person in Uruguay, has questioned his ability to continue with the ailment.
And for that very reason, “The Teacher” continues to enlighten his students. He has been on crutches but still, he has managed to smile. His team has been criticised but he has uplifted them. Luis Suarez’s biting incident was so infamous, still, the teacher protected his student during the press conferences. And now, Suarez’s talent oozes more than the incident itself.
He cannot walk unaided but he aided his nation when they were in need. He deserves all the respect for continuously serving his nation, despite his age and his ailment. He is not a liability, he is only an immunity. If there are still doubts over his ability, look at Lucas Torreira. Who brought him to the fore? Where is Torreira more confident, at Uruguay with Tabarez or at Arsenal with Emery?
Uruguay Football Association demanded the services of Tabarez till the global spectacle in Qatar and “The Teacher” agreed to terms. Come next year at Copa America and 4 years from now, I will support the team that is coached by the shrewd disabled man, the only exception being his faceoff with Lionel Messi.
“The Teacher” as he is called will always be an epitome in Uruguayan Football.Published 23 Sep 2018, 09:40 IST