Uruguay warm to villain role

URUGUAY are warming to their role as the World Cup’s pantomime villains ahead of today’s semi-final against the Netherlands (kick-off 7:30pm), despite suggestions that Oscar Tabarez’s side could face a frosty reception from fans in Cape Town.

Locals have not yet forgiven the South Americans for the way Luis Suarez deliberately handled on the line in the last minute of their quarter-final against Ghana, sending Africa’s last representatives out of the tournament.

The fact that Suaraez has refused to apologise, preferring instead to compare his actions to Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of God’, has hardly endeared him to football purists, either, and although the striker will be suspended for tonight’s game the controversy is refusing to dissipate.

Quite what Suarez could have done instead when Adiyiah’s header was flying into the net in the very last minute of extra-time, a goal that would have sent Uruguay out and put Ghana through, is hard to fathom; surely human instinct in that situation is to throw up a hand leave the rest to fate.

But Ghana’s John Pantsil claimed no Ghanian would have resorted to such heinous cheating and Suaraez is being judged by the same code.

British journalists always warm to such a theme; remember the moral outrage at Maradona’s handball in 1986, David Beckham’s sending off in 1998 and Sol Campbell’s disallowed goals in 1998 and 2004 – not to mention countless stories about diving cheats such as Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben and Robert Pires.

So when an English voice in yesterday’s press conference dared to ask whether Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez should be embarrassed to see his team in the semi-final and ashamed of his striker’s lack of humility since he committed the dastardly deed, the pantomime villain spotted a chance to take centre stage.

“Perhaps you should ask Suarez,” he bristled. “I’d like you to ask him that. I’m embarrassed by what has been asked by the British press. That is shameful. They have been speculating about a football action that is foreseen in the laws of the game. It happened in the Australia game and in 1990, Uruguay v Spain, when a footballer was on the goal-line and blocked the ball with both hands.

“It was an instinctive act. Suarez couldn’t foresee what happened afterwards, that Ghana would miss the penalty.

“And don’t talk to me about a lack of modesty. The Uruguayan people bring out our personal strength when we have to. We are very proud, and we’re upset with this topic. We’re proud of our performances and what we’ve contributed to the development of football at this World Cup. Uruguay went through almost three matches without a yellow card at all, so please don’t tell me we’re cheats.”

There weren’t quite boos from the back row or chants of “Oh yes you are…” but Tabarez was warming to his task and he clung to his chair with the same tenacity his team have shown in hanging onto their place in this World Cup.

Some 45 minutes later he was still going, still talking, and it wasn’t only the British press who were the targets of his wrath; he also refused to reveal any team news after accusing Uruguayan journalists of behaving “like war correspondents” at his side’s pre-match training session, during which they secretly filmed tactical sessions designed to take place behind closed doors.

Perhaps Tabarez believes Uruguay’s best hope of victory today is to mount a rearguard action in an “us against the world” battle between South American minnows and the combined forces of the Orange Army and assorted allies – and if so he is certainly preparing the ground well.

He was at pains to point out, too, that although Uruguay have won the World Cup twice they have failed to get anywhere near the latter stages of the tournament since 1970 and, with a population of just three million, are now fighting well above their weight limit.

In a way, the same can be said of the Netherlands even though their tradition of producing outstanding teams has seen them twice reach the World Cup final and be crowned European champions.

But manager Bert van Marwijk’s problem is dealing with the weight of expectation not only to win matches but to do it in a style that the ‘total football’ Dutch legends of the 1970s would be proud of – a pressure that has proved too much in so many tournaments for the Dutch in recent times. But van Marwijk appears happy to take the criticism from back home providing his team continue to put victory ahead of aesthetics and retain a humble attitude against Uruguay today. “I’ve said before that I cannot change an entire culture,” he said.

“But I have worked very hard to create something in this group of players that makes them realise that, if you want to achieve something in a tournament, you have to concentrate on the next match. Always. We’ve tended to become a bit arrogant in the past, but the players understand now. They don’t do that now.

“People ask me why I don’t look happy, well I’ve come here to secure the ultimate prize. If we secure it, I’ll enjoy it. For such a small country to be in the last four is excellent, but we’re not satisfied yet. Our objective is 11 July.”

Van Marwijk also had to deal with accusations of cheating, neatly swerving questions about Robben’s propensity for falling to the ground a little to easily, but he knows the Netherlands are really here to play the role of heroes and has no need to stirk up controversy.

Tabarez, on the other hand, is probably still ranting to himself on the Uruguay team coach, looking out for undercover journalists hiding on the back seat. But can he really use his role a pantomime bad boy to take his team to the final on July 11?

All together now: “Oh, no, he can’t...”

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