La Celeste’s captain says that everyone in Uruguay believes it is written in the stars that their team will triumph again this summer
Diego Lugano remembers the lowest point, the moment at which Uruguay’s descent from the leading team in South America to one that looked likely to miss the World Cup finals in Brazil appeared to be complete. La Celeste had lost 2-0 to Chile in Santiago on 26 March 2013 and the qualification table was an illustration of their fears and frustration.
It showed Uruguay in sixth place, two points below Chile and Venezuela with Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador further ahead and seemingly too far away. Lugano’s team would plunge to seventh on 7 June, when Peru won their game in hand against Ecuador.
Only the top four advance automatically, with the nation in fifth entering a play-off. The Chile result meant that Uruguay had four defeats and two draws in six ties and, as alarmingly, the run-in was daunting: visits to Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador, plus home fixtures against Colombia and Argentina.
“At the beginning everyone thought we’d qualify directly but, at that point, all of the South American press, even the Uruguayan press, thought that we were not going to Brazil,” Lugano, the Uruguay captain, says. “But this is historically how Uruguay proceeds. The more people think we are out of it, the more that we show we can rebel against that. It is a characteristic of Uruguayan football that we rise from the ashes. In the toughest moment, we became even more united.”
Uruguay promptly won in Venezuela and Peru, they beat Colombia and, although they lost in Ecuador, they beat Argentina to confirm fifth place and a play-off against Jordan. They swatted them aside, winning 5-0 on aggregate, with all of the goals coming in the first leg in Amman.
“It was a great relief to qualify because a World Cup in Brazil without Uruguay would have been horrible,” Lugano adds. “Obviously, the only World Cup that was played in Brazil was won by Uruguay [in 1950], and so the history, the legend, made it an obligation for us to be there.
“It would have been a massive failure not to make it because of la Celeste’s history in Brazil and, also, after we had played so well at the last World Cup in South Africa, at the Copa America in 2011, which we won in Argentina, and at the beginning of qualification.
“Our really tough moment would have defeated many others but we turned it round with character and strength. These are the things that you notice when you put on the light blue shirt. That history factor and that strength come out in these moments.”
Lugano’s triumph-over-qualifying-adversity tale serves as a warning for Uruguay’s group phase opponents – Costa Rica, Italy and England, the country in which he endured a difficult season last time out at West Bromwich Albion; the Midlands club have since released him. Uruguay never know when they are beaten. “South American qualification is the toughest in the world,” Lugano adds. “That is because of a number of things, including the teams’ quality, the travel and the weather conditions. But we feel reinforced going to Brazil because of the tough path that we have taken and the way we have dealt with our difficulties.”
It seems a little incongruous that a West Brom reject should be preparing to captain a highly rated nation at the World Cup. There were surely times over the past domestic season when Lugano wondered what he was doing in the Black Country and Baggies fans probably felt the same way.
The central defender, who arrived from Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer last August, started only seven Premier League matches and he was described by the Birmingham Mail as being “as much of a threat in his own penalty area”.. West Brom supporters cringe at the memory of his performance in the 4-3 defeat at Aston Villa in January.
Apart from a loan spell at Málaga in the second half of the 2012-13 season, Lugano has not been a regular starter at club level since his days at Fenerbahce, which ended when he moved to PSG in the summer of 2011.
But the 33-year-old is a man transformed when he pulls on the Uruguay shirt and takes his place alongside Atlético Madrid’s Diego Godín at the heart of the back four. Whereas his lack of pace saw him exposed at West Brom, particularly when the manager Pepe Mel sought to hold a high defensive line, he has no such worries with his national team.
The Uruguay manager, Oscar Tabárez, plays with two deep-sitting midfield protectors and a style that is configured to give nothing away but also to provide the platform for the team’s attacking talents, chiefly Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlán.
The respect for Lugano in the Uruguay dressing room is total. Cavani, the £55m PSG striker, tells the story of when he was first called into the squad and he would address Lugano in the formal usted form of the Spanish language. If South Americans generally favour the more relaxed tu form, then footballers certainly do but there is an old-school reverence in the Uruguayan game towards their captains.
Lugano talks a lot about respect, passion and history. It fortifies him and his Uruguay team-mates. He refers to the 1950 World Cup final triumph and what the Maracanã means to every Uruguayan. It was the stadium in which Maspoli, Varela, Schiaffino and Ghiggia helped to bring Brazil to their knees, in what remains one of the shock results of all time.
Further back, there was the 1930 World Cup in which Uruguay, as the host nation, beat Argentina in the final and, more recently, the impressive bolt to the semi-finals of the 2010 tournament in South Africa and the subsequent Copa America success. The 3-0 victory over Paraguay in the final brought Uruguay a record 15th South American title.
“Historically, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are the big rivals in South America,” Lugano says. “The first World Cup in history was between Argentina and Uruguay [in 1930] and the first Copa America was played in Argentina [in 1916], with Uruguay beating Argentina in the final.
“So to win the Copa America again and to win it in Argentina, with everything that goes with that, was very special. Today, Uruguay has the most Copa Americas and many people do not understand how a country of just over three million people the smallest in South America, could win so many titles. But it is down to history and it is down to passion.”
Nobody epitomises Uruguayan desire in the current squad more than Suárez, who was the top scorer in South American qualification with 11 goals and is fighting for fitness after a knee operation. Premier League fans saw him cover his face with his shirt after Liverpool’s title challenge ended at Crystal Palace on 5 May but Lugano says that the tears are merely a product of the “sacred fire” that burns inside Suárez.
“I have seen Luis cry alone in the dressing room when we won the Copa America and I have also seen him cry from anger, like when we lost matches in our World Cup qualification, crying by himself and with great desolation,” Lugano says. “These are things that are part of a player that is obviously different.
“There can be other players with his skill but there are not many with that sacred fire, that character and hunger for glory. You cannot get that in the gym or take vitamins for it. You either have it or you don’t and Luis has always had it. He does not give up on a single ball. He is a good team-mate, a good friend and a proper Uruguayan.
“In the world of football, we are more than used to seeing team-mates who are more friendly with a rival than with their own team-mates but that is not the case with Luis. He defends his team-mates on the pitch. He is a winner.”
Lugano still struggles to explain the wobble in World Cup qualification, although he has his theories. At the start of the 2012-13 season, many Uruguay players were either injured or coming back from injuries; they had changed clubs and lacked a pre-season or they were feeling the strain from playing at the London Olympics.
“Uruguay is not like Brazil or Argentina, who have 40 or 50 players that can be part of the national side,” Lugano says. “We have 20 to 25 players and when nine, 10, 12 of them are going through a rough moment, the team feels that.”
But the optimism has flooded back and there is a part of every Uruguayan that believes that, because of 1950, it is written in the stars that their team will triumph once again this summer.
“The people have massive expectations and I think that not only history but the present leads us to have an obligation to perform very well,” Lugano says. “In Suárez, Cavani and Forlán, we have three world-class strikers and we have to take advantage of that.
“But the best way to do that, as we did in South Africa and at the Copa America, is to be a very solid team, practically unbreakable. Then, the strikers can shine and make us win games.
“I think it is the first time in history that three former world champions have been drawn in the same group so it will be tough for us. England and Italy have great tradition and Costa Rica have improved a lot. But if we can get through, then Uruguay can go on to do something big. I am sure about that.”