Uruguay have what it takes to mount another charge deep into the latter stages of the World Cup like the one they made to the semifinals in 2010. They still have one of the very best defensive fronts in the game. They still have a steely midfield capable of swatting away incoming attacks, and have bolstered it with a youth and creativity that’s been absent in the recent past. They still have a fearsome attacking line that on a good day can put four goals past any defense. The lingering question, the one thing that could mean the difference between a resounding triumph or humiliating debacle in Russia, is whether crazy-ass Luis Suárez will use his craziness for the benefit or detriment of his team.
In the last World Cup, one of the most iconic images of that tournament—behind only the sight of Brazilian fans and players openly sobbing as their team was minced into tiny slices of samba sadness by Germany in the semifinal and a defeated Lionel Messi gazing forlornly at the World Cup trophy he didn’t win— was Luis Suárez intentionally sinking his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. In the World Cup before that, Suárez deliberately handled a goal-bound shot that was about to knock his team out of the tournament and subsequently screamed his head off in joy after Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan’s penalty kick rattled off the crossbar and sail harmlessly into the sky.
Both of those instantly iconic scenes were examples of Luis Suárez’s well-established on-pitch insanity. However, one of those moments was a great help to his teammates while the other only hastened Uruguay’s exit. If Suárez continues his pattern of wildly controversial behavior in Russia this summer, fans of La Celeste will be praying it’s of the beneficial kind.
Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Martín Campaña (Independiente), Martín Silva (Vasco da Gama)
Defenders: José María Giménez (Atlético Madrid), Diego Godín (Atlético Madrid), Guillermo Varela (Peñarol), Gastón Silva (Independiente), Maxi Pereira (Porto), Sebastián Coates (Sporting Lisbon), Martín Cáceres (Lazio)
Midfielders: Carlos Sánchez (Monterrey), Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), Cristian Rodríguez (Peñarol), Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors), Giorgian De Arrascaeta (Cruzeiro), Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria), Matías Vecino (Inter), Diego Laxalt (Genoa)
Forwards: Luis Suárez (Barcelona), Cristhian Stuani (Girona), Maxi Gómez (Celta Vigo), Jonathan Urretaviscaya (Monterrey), Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain)
La Celeste (The Sky Blue)
So can Suárez do it? Can he keep his head long enough to secure Uruguay’s passage into the knockout rounds and beyond, resisting his natural urge to do something crazy until the precise moment when he can do something crazy to help his team win? One thing’s for certain: The Suárez of today is much different than the supervillainous superstar of before.
Suárez is definitely more chill today than he was in the past—which doesn’t make him all that chill, of course. He’s less prone to get himself mired in a biting scandal or a racism scandal or a diving scandal and instead is just a run-of-the-mill, ref-belittling, sneakily elbowing, trash-talking shithead, the kind that can be found on pretty much any team. This newfound self-control—no doubt honed during his long suspension from play in the aftermath of last World Cup’s hijinks—bodes well for Uruguay’s chances.
Suárez is also less talented today than he was back when. Despite maintaining great stats with Barcelona over the past couple seasons, the 31-year-old forward has lost some of the explosive athleticism as well as the passing and dribbling skills that once made him the player he was during his last couple years at Liverpool and his first couple at Barcelona. Suárez is still an elite striker who can score boatloads of goals, but he’s not nearly as dangerous outside the penalty area with and without the ball as he once was.
Fortunately, Uruguay don’t need Suárez to play like his 2015 self in order to make a good run in Russia. He just needs to play within himself, to run around with the passion and intensity he always brings to the field, and to play with the confidence necessary for him to clear his mind of everything except doing his job, which is to score goals. Well, all that plus Suárez’s assurances that he won’t sprint into a red card-worthy studs-up tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo in the Round of 16 and get his team knocked out for no good reason.
Uruguay are the same tenacious, beefed-up, counterattacking outfit they’ve been for a generation now. More than anything else, their style of play is defined by team-wide hard work.
Fronting that amazing defense of theirs are Atlético Madrid’s pair of brick walls, Diego Godín and José María Giménez. The Atlético defense has probably been the toughest defense in the club game over the past half decade or so, due largely to the skills of the two Uruguayans. Importing the starting center back duo from the best club defense is a gift every other international team in the world would kill to have. And because of the abilities of Godín and Giménez, coupled with their perfect understanding of each other thanks to all those hours playing together during the league season, Uruguay’s central defense arguably beats out Spain’s world-class tandem of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué as the best in the world.
In midfield, Uruguay have the best of both attacking and defensive worlds. In likely starters Matías Vecino, Cristian Rodríguez, and Nahitan Nández, they have three guys who love to relentlessly harry opposing players. Coupled with that defensive commitment is Vecino’s and probable midfield partner Rodrigo Betancur’s passing abilities. Usually, Uruguay midfields have been little more than extensions of their defense, focusing more on the destructive side of the game and leaving the creative duties to the attacking stars in front of them. This time, they’ll be able to assist their strikers by orchestrating attacks in more sophisticated fashion than by just pumping the ball forward and letting Suárez and Edinson Cavani go to work.
In attack, this team is just about as dangerous as ever. Suárez is a little worse than he used to be but not worryingly so, and Cavani is as big, strong, and deadly in front of goal as ever. Those two guys are some of the most selfless strikers in the game, and that will only make it easier for the team as a whole to keep out goals on one end of the pitch while scoring them on the other. Look out for Maxi Gómez on the bench, too. He had a sensational debut season at Celta Vigo and could be a decisive game-changer as a late sub or if he’s forced into a starting position in place of Suárez should the Barcelona man succumb to temptation and gnaw on a Saudi defender’s elbow or something.
All times Eastern
June 15, 8 a.m.: Egypt vs. Uruguay at Ekaterinburg Arena
June 20, 11 a.m.: Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia at Rostov Arena
June 25, 10 a.m.: Uruguay vs. Russia at Samara Arena