Future bright for Copa kings Uruguay
The record 15th Copa America triumph came with a fair dose of suffering - the only way Uruguay know how.
They drew both their first two games. Then they mounted a heroic rearguard action in the quarter final against hosts Argentina, where they had a man sent off in the first half.
But in the end it was conclusive. And so was the message from Buenos Aires after the 3-0 win over Paraguay in the final - last year's run to the World Cup semi finals was no fluke. Uruguay are back.
Much of the credit must clearly go to coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, the thoughtful veteran who has masterminded the resurgence of Uruguayan football. But as I watched his team run down the clock in the second half against Paraguay, I was reflecting on how his entire project could have been derailed right at the start.
Before starting his second spell in charge of Uruguay in 2006, Tabarez spent time ruminating on the consequences of globalisation on his country's football - on how, with a population little more than 3 million, it was impossible for the domestic game to keep hold of its talents, and how it was difficult to maintain a footballing identity in a globalised context. One of his conclusions was that Uruguay's national teams, at all levels, should play the 4-3-3 formation.
This hardline philosophy lasted exactly one competitive game. In their debut in the 2007 Copa in Venezuela, Uruguay were taken apart on the road to a 3-0 defeat by Peru. "Reality was too strong for us," commented the coach afterwards. Time for a rethink. Tabarez understood that Uruguay had to acknowledge their limitations. They had to change their gameplan in accordance with the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.
Uruguay are celebrating their first Copa America since 1995. Photo: Getty.
Uruguay regrouped in that 2007 Copa, when only a penalty shoot-out defeat stopped them from making the final.
It gave a boost to the prestige of the Tabarez project, which became increasingly important as his team struggled through World Cup qualification, needing a play-off with Costa Rica to secure their place in South Africa.
And instead of an inflexible 4-3-3, Tabarez has kept tinkering away, making little adjustments here and there. The idea of the front three has always been there, though, as the coach sought to take advantage of the firepower of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
In-form and a rising force, Cavani was injured during the course of this tournament - which bizarrely turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Cavani's work rate and spirit of sacrifice make the front three feasible. There is no like-for-like replacement. Take him out and Uruguay were obliged to do something more cautious - which has fitted perfectly with the tone of this Copa America, where in general defences have been on top.
Before the semi-final with Peru Tabarez commented that in this particular Copa those sides which had looked to take the initiative in the game had not succeeded. And then, even though his side were strong favourites, he backed up his words by selecting a midfield of runners and markers, with no creative force.
He stuck with this strategy until Cavani re-emerged for the last half hour of the final with Uruguay two goals up. And these two games - the semi against Peru and the final with Paraguay - were matches where the favourite did not lose, indeed where Uruguay did not concede.
But they would not have won either without Forlan and Suarez. Of course, Tabarez could only get away with such a limited midfield because he can count on such a magnificent strike partnership, made up of two individual talents who put their skill at the service of the collective.
Suarez was the undoubted player of the tournament, and highlighted it with an exceptional early goal that paved the way to victory. To score the goal he ingeniously made space, moving inside Dario Veron to fire left footed low into the far corner - a cameo of the threat he offers, two footed, quick thinking, quick to execute and unpredictable. In short, a defender's nightmare.
But I was especially delighted to see Forlan grab the other two. He has not had an easy time of late, both on and off the pitch. The goals had dried up - he contributed some astonishing misses to this campaign. But the vision and intelligence of his play is truly astounding. He picks options as if he is watching the game from the stands, and I always find him a joy to watch.
A little incident towards the end of the game sums up his commitment to the cause, and the spirit in the Uruguay team. Just inside the last 15 minutes and leading 2-0, Uruguay had a corner, which Paraguay were able to clear. They began to launch a counter-attack, with quick little right back Ivan Piris scuttling forward. Forlan, who had taken the corner, chased back to put the ball into touch. That moment sums up the current Uruguay side.
Forlan deserved his post-match celebrations because there is no guarantee that he will play another major tournament. By the time the next World Cup comes around he will be 35. Some other, too, may have said their tournament farewells. Central midfielder Diego Perez, the symbol of the side, will be 34. Even the captain and centre back Diego Lugano might be struggling at 33.
The good news is that the Tabarez project is kicking in. Uruguay's Under-17 and Under-20 teams are doing well, and a conveyor belt of youngsters are moving through to the senior side - such as centre back Sebastian Coates, playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro and striker Abel Hernandez from the Copa squad.
Uruguay, then, should be able to make serene progress, gently renewing the team during the next set of World Cup qualifiers. A talent like that of Forlan, though, will not be easy to replace. When the time comes, Tabarez will need all his wisdom to find an able substitute.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
Q) Over the past year or so there has been a lot of speculation surrounding the future of 18-year-old Juan Manuel Iturbe, although he is now officially a Porto player is there any truth to suggestions linking him with a future sell-on to Manchester United? Also I wanted to get your thoughts on how good he could potentially become as I think he is a very exciting player who if given the chance could grow into a sensation in the Premier League.
A) I've no idea if there's any future deal lined up with Man U, though Porto often buy players with a view to selling them on later. But 'the Paraguayan Messi' is clearly a very exciting prospect. He was born in Argentina of Paraguayan parents, and grew up in Paraguay. He doesn't have the ball tied to his foot in true Messi style, but his slalom dribbling is very exciting. He's a big one to look out for in the World Youth Cup, which kicks off in Colombia later this week. 'The Paraguayan Messi' plays for Argentina!
Q) I was watching Real Madrid playing on their US tour, and Kaka was having a great game - looking very sharp, making those traditional runs from midfield. Do you think Mano Menezes will have a spot for Kaka in the Brazil team given that by the next World Cup he will be 32 or will the emergence of Ganso work against him? Brazil could have sure used him against Paraguay to unlock that defence.
A) He's a player who is dependent on his physical condition - take away that burst of acceleration and he's not the same. I would be surprised if Menezes is counting on him for 2014, given his age and injury problems. It's up to Kaka to change his mind.