Did Australia’s 2005 moment lead to Uruguay’s stunning rise?

Here’s an unexpected and slightly disconcerting thought. The long-term winner from that night at ANZ Stadium in November 2005 was Uruguay.

Uruguay Australia

Source: Getty Images

Ok, so that’s being a touch facetious. But if we are to look at the before-and-after from there, you can just about narrow the turning point of Uruguayan football down to that moment.  

In hindsight, while that night was a victory for the true believers in Australia, it wasn’t a catalyst for the overhaul of the sport. The A-League had begun months before. Australia had already agreed to join Asia. It was an amazing night – maybe the best of my life – but it didn’t trigger us into being a world power for decades to come.

What it did trigger, quite arguably, was Uruguay’s amazing rise. Enter the law of unexpected consequences.

Uruguay did not qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They also failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup. They only made it in 2002 because the Socceroos choked in Montevideo. And when Australia nobbled them in a penalty shootout, they missed out again in 2006.

Three out of four absences is about right for where Uruguayan football was during that time. Usurped by Chile and Colombia in the 1990s, well below Brazil and Argentina, they were battling it out with Paraguay and Ecuador for mid-table recognition. 

The only caveat was their remarkable Copa America form (including a home victory in 1995), although the strength of the tournament – for an exhaustive list of reasons – wavered from edition to edition.

The fact is they just weren’t what they used to be. They certainly weren’t a team with a “divine right” to a World Cup place, as Alvaro Recoba said in 2005, at least in terms of quality. 

Still, missing out to Australia was a source of shame in Uruguay. They’d humiliated the Socceroos in 2001 and failure to beat a team from Oceania really was a rock bottom moment.

Remember, this is a nation with four stars on their shirt. Two for the World Cups of 1930 and 1950 and two for the Olympic Games – which they consider to be the de facto world championship before the World Cups – of 1924 and 1928.

After November 2005, they would have to go back to the well and figure out a way to extract more quality players from their incredibly small population of 3.4 million. A daunting ask? Not for La Celeste.

Intensive efforts were made to find and bring on the next generation of players to make sure such a disaster would never happen again.

Luis Suarez made his international debut in 2007, aged 20. Edinson Cavani made his debut at 21 a year later. A young Diego Godin was prepared to take over from Diego Lugano. Maxi Pereira was trusted to be the right back, Martín Cáceres became defensive stalwart. Cristian Rodríguez was backed in to make the left wing his own. And so it went from there.

This all happened with two years; all the players were either teenagers or in their very early 20's when they were first picked. Given big tournament exposure, at both Copa Americas and the Olympics, it was a generation that learned to deal with major events quickly and as a group.

Now they are coming to the end of this incredible cycle but their blueprint is well worn. It has delivered them a World Cup semi-final in 2010, success in a group featuring Italy and England in 2014 and four wins out of four so far here in Russia.

Uruguay did not dwell on that night in 2005. They accepted that they simply had to get better at spotting talent, developing it, cultivating it and giving them a platform to work and grow together

Almost 13 years on, they now face France for a place in the semi-finals in 2018.

In Les Blues' opening game here, they were troubled by Australia, briefly, but could easily have put the game to sleep by half-time. The class gulf was enormous. 

Not so with Uruguay. They arrived into Nizhny Novgorod earlier this week full of confidence, believing they are absolutely capable of mixing it with a team considered among the very best in the world.

Had they not bottomed out in 2005, perhaps they wouldn’t be here. Either way, since that night, it’s hard to argue which nation has scaled greater heights.

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4 min read
Published 6 July 2018 at 4:19am
By Sebastian Hassett in Moscow