Friday, October 9, 2009

Uruguay face tactical dilemma

It's South America's newest force against the oldest when Ecuador meet Uruguay this Saturday in a crunch World Cup qualifier.

It is a match with much to teach about the geography of the continent and the history of the game in this part of the world.

Introduced mainly by the British, football first caught on in the South Cone, in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo - a region that was going through large scale immigration and rapid urbanisation.

Football provided the new city population with a common language, and before long the game had been re-interpreted by the locals. A sinuous, balletic style replaced the muscular Christianity straight line running of the English.

Uruguay were first out of the blocks. Pioneers of the welfare state, the country had a mentality of social inclusion that helped the game quickly spread downwards to all the classes. The Sky Blues were selecting black players long before Brazil, and effectively began the modern era in football with their Olympic gold medal win in 1924.Uruguay and Ecuador drew 0-0 when they met in Montevideo in September 2008

As the 20th century wore on South American football spread north, often carried by Argentines and Uruguayans. Colombia had a golden moment with the launch of its professional league in the late 40s. Ecuador went professional a decade later - but it was not until the Copa America of 1989, when the national team beat Uruguay, that Ecuador gave the first sign that they were not merely making up the numbers.

Now, of course, they have made it to the last two World Cups, reaching the last 16 in 2006, and in 2008 LDU, or Liga of Quito, became the first club from the country to win South America's Champions League, the Copa Libertadores.

This process has included the geographical spread of the game within Ecuador; from the port of Guayaquil, where it first caught on, up the Andes to the mountain capital of Quito where, at the altitude of 2,800 metres, Saturday's match will take place in the Atuahalpa stadium.

As well as its historical and geographical resonance, Ecuador v Uruguay in World Cup qualification is a clash that has a significance for me. I saw my first one on TV in Rio in February 1997. I knew very little about Ecuador at kick off - but a lot more 90 minutes later and was amazed as they powered to a 4-0 win.

With Aguinaga looking like a prince in midfield and Delgado razor sharp up front, they would have been too strong for many teams that day.

Some five months later that game was fresh in my mind when I made my BBC debut with a piece for World Service radio. It was all about Ecuador. They may fall short of place in France 98, I argued, but they are a rising force who should be qualifying for World Cups before long. If only all my predictions were half as accurate!

Just over four years later I was in Quito for the meeting of Ecuador and Uruguay. The whole country was a-quiver, with the hosts needing just a point to book their first ever World Cup place. For some reason I was given photographer's accreditation, and so I was on the pitch, standing behind the goal Ecuador were attacking and close enough to see the nerves and the strain on the faces of the players.

Uruguay went ahead with a penalty. Standing next to me was an official, I think from the local FA. He was becoming increasingly upset at the performance of Ivan Kaviedes, the gifted but wayward striker who later had a brief spell with Crystal Palace.

'Take him off," the man was shouting. "He's done nothing." I had to agree. Kaviedes was having a nightmare - but never bet against talent. Inside the last 20 minutes Kaviedes headed home the goal that took Ecuador to the World Cup. The official and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.Uruguay were smiling as well. The point they picked up was vital as they just held off Colombia to finish fifth in the table and grab the play-off spot.

Four years ago the situation was exactly the same. Ecuador needed a draw to qualify and a point would help Uruguay in their battle to finish fifth - 0-0 was the result.

The fascinating thing about Saturday's match is that things are slightly different, although not for Uruguay.

Bearing in mind the difficulties of playing at altitude, a draw would be a good result for them. It would give them the chance to snatch fifth by winning at home to Argentina on Wednesday (unless Colombia or Venezuela win both their last two matches). But if they lose and (a fair assumption) Argentina win at home to Peru, it will be over for Uruguay.

The difference this time is that Ecuador need to win. They have done extremely well to haul themselves back into contention, but are still suffering from a disastrous start to the campaign. A draw would leave them having to win away to Chile on Wednesday - and even that result might only guarantee fifth spot, and the play-off against rivals from the Concacaf region.

A gentlemanly draw does not suit Ecuador this time. They will seek to make the most of home advantage and put the pressure on a Uruguay side with a poor away record.

So what do Uruguay do? Sit back and try to hold on? It's a risky strategy. True, Ecuador have failed to replace big Delgado up front. But little Cristian Benitez is dangerous, and there is plenty of firepower in midfield with the long range shooting of Mendez, Valencia and Ayovi.

Unacclimatised goalkeepers suffer at altitude and Uruguay have had goalkeeping problems all through this campaign, so allowing Ecuador within shooting range is asking for trouble.

Do Uruguay go for it? Spearheaded by Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez they carry plenty of attacking threat, and Ecuador's defensive unit (Cevallos or Elizaga in goal, Hurtado and Espinoza at centre back) is ageing together and starting to creak.

Uruguay's approach will be fascinating - and looks like the key variable in this latest version of South America's newest force against its oldest.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag:

Q) I'm a growing fan of Pato, at AC Milan. And i believe he is a regular starter for them, yet he isn't getting a look in at national level, he seems a young skilful dedicated player, who has an immense future ahead of him if he keeps improving, yet players like Adriano, get into the team ahead of him, I believe Pato was in the Confederation cup squad, but got little or no time in the tournament, what are your thoughts on him and the national team, does he deserve a chance ahead of others?
Adam Welsh

A) Alexandre Pato really is an immense talent, a potential genius, but I wonder if he might be suffering from the modern day phenomenon of everything coming so quickly. He's living the life, has married a soap opera star, lots of distractions - at Milan last year Carlo Ancelotti said that his attitude had slipped a bit.

Dunga carried him around for a while, but, truth be told, others have taken their opportunities better - Luis Fabiano is full of goals, Nilmar got a hat trick last time out, Adriano is back on top form. I would interpret Dunga leaving Pato out of the squad as a way of giving him a kick up the backside. I'm sure the door is not closed to him in terms of next year's World Cup squad.

Q) Argentine born Nestor Ortigoza of Argentinos Juniors just became a citizen of Paraguay. I understand his move, since he has much better chances of playing the World Cup with Paraguay than he does with Argentina. Now, this issue raises two questions: first, will the Albirroja will benefit from having him around? and second, are these kind of moves as big a concern to their national identity as the Paraguayan media claims?
Dario Prieto

A) He's a spiky central midfielder who I can imagine fitting into Paraguay's style. I saw a newspaper poll showing a majority opposed to his call up. But he's perfectly eligible - he has a Paraguayan father.

It's interesting that these players - midfielder Santana is another one, Argentine born with Paraguayan mother, or left back Morel Rodriguez, son of a famous Paraguayan player who grew up in Argentina - they seem to get more opportunities when Paraguay's coach comes from Argentina.

It can be hard for the players if they don't speak any Guarani, but I think this is something the Paraguayans are going to have to get used to. There will be more and more of these cases, because so many Paraguayans moved to Argentina in search of work. If the children of the diaspora are eligible, they're good enough and they want to play, then Paraguay gain nothing by shunning them.