NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Uruguay players used to have the reputation for being dirty. That has all changed under one man they call “El Maestro.”
Coach Oscar Tabarez has transformed Uruguayan football and worked hard to improve its image during his 12-year tenure, although Luis Suarez sometimes undoes it all.
The South American team is at the top of the “fair play” table with only one yellow card at the World Cup. And so far, Suarez has kept himself out of trouble as Uruguay prepares for a quarterfinal match against France in Sochi on Friday,
Tabarez, who was once a school teacher, starts teaching good manners at the grassroots level — encouraging youth players that come through the system to show respect and gratitude.
“We require the little ones who are only 13 years old to say hello, to say thank you to the kit man and to the waiter who takes their plates away. You have to say thank you,” Tabarez said in a television interview a few years ago.
Uruguay advanced to the quarterfinals after eliminating a Portugal team led by Cristiano Ronaldo. The 71-year-old Tabarez said after Saturday’s match that “when you have the luck to win, you have to do it without gloating. When we lose, it has to be with dignity.”
Tabarez requires his players to do the simple things, including being polite on and off the field.
When Uruguay players arrive for news conferences, they begin each one with “good morning everyone.” It’s a gesture that stands out in the world of football, dominated by egos and sometimes arrogant players who earn millions.
Under Tabarez’s tutelage, Uruguay reached the semifinals in 2010, but slipped up in Brazil and was eliminated in the last-16 after Suarez was banned for biting an Italy player. He is trying to return the national team to its former glory, when it won two World Cup titles in 1930 and 1950.
Along with humility and effort, Tabarez emphasizes the need for respect between players and the coaching staff.
“You have to have consistency,” Tabarez said. “The conductor of the group has to ensure that there is a lot of harmony between what he says and what he does. The footballer knows when a coach says something and does something else.”
There is always competition to earn a place in the team, but things are easier “when they have given you the rules and everything is done based on our sacred word … which is respect.”
This philosophy has helped mould elite players, like Suarez, Edinson Cavani and captain Diego Godin. And it also breeds unselfishness so that a natural scorer like Suarez makes an effort to give opportunities to Cavani. On more than one occasion, Suarez could have gone for goal himself. But he decided to give the ball to Cavani, who has scored three goals in Uruguay’s last three matches, including two in the win over Portugal. One of those came from a Suarez pass.
Tabarez’s legacy transcends football.
“I feel a great unity with this team,” said Ignacio Dufort, a Uruguayan who lives in Stockholm and has come to Nizhny Novgorod to be close to the national team’s training base. “Coach Tabarez has been carrying out a very serious process for 12 years, which is a great example for the country.”
Many see the results under Tabarez as surprising since Uruguay is a country of only 3.4 million residents.
They are the product of “convictions, group cohesion, to know what we’re playing for,” Tabarez said. “The players must bring fatigue and victory to the dressing room. The fatigue of having left everything out there. It’s what you see on the field, you don’t save anything up.”