MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – La Celeste will be covered in gold.
That’s the consensus among Uruguayans for the men’s soccer team at the Olympics after many of its players had key roles on squads that won the 2011 Copa América and finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup.
Uruguay will compete in men’s soccer for the first time since winning gold in 1928 with a 2-1 win over Argentina in the Netherlands.
Eighty-four years later, Uruguay will open its Olympic campaign on July 26 in a Group A game against the United Arab Emirates at iconic Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester before facing Senegal in London on July 29 and concluding pool play against Great Britain on Aug. 1 in Clifford.
The top two teams from each of the four pools advance to the quarterfinals.
“[Pool play] is difficult because you have Great Britain but after pool play we would play a team from the group that has Mexico in it, which in my view isn’t as good,” said Carlos Barraza, a 40-year-old La Celeste fan.
Brazil, Honduras, and Mexico are the other Western Hemisphere teams competing in the 16-team field in London. Argentina and Nigeria, who won the gold and the silver medals respectively in Beijing, did not qualify for the London Games. Brazil, which won bronze in 2008, is seeking its first gold medal in the sport.
Uruguayans are expecting a very strong showing from their squad in a tournament in which teams are allowed just three players older than 23. The Uruguayan Olympic Committee said it expects to submit its 18-man roster to Olympic officials on July 2.
“At the World Cup nobody thought we stood a chance, yet we came in fourth,” said Rodrigo Manrique, a 25 year-old La Celeste fan. “We have under-23 players who have worked with [coach Oscar Washington Tabárez] and know his style. If they grasp what Tabárez is teaching, they have a great chance to bring home a medal.”
However, Tabárez, who goes by the nickname “El Maestro” (The Teacher), is playing down expectations.
“We don’t have that collective memory – the experience of having trained together, living as a group, playing games and sharing experiences with each other,” he said recently to the Diario La República newspaper. “Rather, this will have been the case for Brazil, Spain and Mexico, which are my favorites because of their great training of young players. These players have performed really well.”
So far, the biggest news out of Uruguay is that Diego Forlán, the 33-year-old forward who powered the team to its showings at the World Cup and Copa América, is expected to be left off the team. Tabárez is looking at the following four players who are older than 23: Galatasaray (Turkey) goalie Fernando Muslera, Tijuana (Mexico) midfielder Egidio Arévalo Ríos, Liverpool (England) forward Luis Suárez and Napoli (Italy) forward Édinson Cavani.
Edward Piñón, sports editor of the Uruguayan daily El País, said Uruguay’s superior talent should fuel a run to the medal rounds.
“It would be crazy to imagine Uruguay not making the semifinals,” he said. “They will be a highly competitive team, with great individual talent and strong potential as a group.”
Piñón said Suárez and Cavani are “the best forwards in Europe and are playing at a very high level.”
“Bologna [attacking midfielder] Gastón Ramírez ranks high and Abel Hernández [Italy’s Palermo] is the team’s best player who comes off the bench, and [Liverpool’s defender] Sebastián Coates is looking like the next captain of the team,” Piñón said when assessing the team’s under-23 talent.
Other prominent under-23 players are defenders Leandro Cabrera (Spain’s Numancia), Diego Polenta (Italy’s Bari), and Matías Aguirregaray (Italy’s Palermo) and winger Jonathan Urretaviscaya (Portugal’s Vitoria).
Piñón expects Tabárez to take a good look at five local professional players who are having terrific seasons: Nacional wingers Tabaré Viudez and Gonzalo Bueno and defender Alexis Rolín, Defensor Sporting attacking midfielder Diego Rodríguez and Fénix midfielder Alejandro Silva.
“Because of the short time we have to work with, Tabárez will be looking for multifunctional players,” Piñón added.
Barraza said the team’s biggest weakness is it has yet to form an identity and it’s integral the team’s younger players mesh with older players quickly.
“On top of that, we still need to see what condition the under-23 players arrive in, and the older players who are coming in from abroad may not be in the best shape because they’ve played in a lot of games,” he said. “But if we overcome this and win the bronze, it would be reason to celebrate.”