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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Liew at Al Janoub Stadium

Uruguay leave the World Cup the same way they played in it: gracelessly

Giorgian de Arrascaeta looks crestfallen at the final whistle as victory over Ghana is not enough to avoid elimination.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta looks crestfallen at the final whistle as victory over Ghana is not enough to avoid elimination. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Finally the tears came. For the closing few minutes he had managed to hold them back, as the news came through and his teammates continued to chase. But the final whistle came like a life sentence and suddenly he could hold back no longer. He buried his crumpled face in his jersey. The Ghana fans caught a glimpse on the big screen and let out their largest cheer of the night. For a few seconds the world was watching Luis Suárez crying. And the world was not – shall we say – overly uncomfortable with this state of affairs.

A revenge of sorts, then, even if nobody was much in the mood for celebrating. And for Uruguay, perhaps the final cruel twist of a strategy that seemed to be working perfectly, right up until the moment it didn’t.

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What if they had converted some of those chances in the second half? What if they had started playing a little earlier against Portugal? What if they had started playing at all against South Korea? For now, those questions could wait. After all, there were scores to be settled, honour to be satisfied.

As the referee, Daniel Siebert, and his team strode from the pitch, furious Uruguay players stood in their way, shoved and jostled, demanded answers that would never come. José Giménez grabbed an assistant by the arm and immediately held both hands up in mock innocence, the old habits dying hard. In a way Uruguay were leaving the World Cup in the same way they had played it: gracelessly, begrudgingly, with chips on their shoulders.

The great shame was that they were capable of so much more and at times during this chaotic 2-0 victory they showed it. For most of the game they dragged Ghana all over the park, seized control of midfield, attacked with vision and purpose. The rest of the time they simply defended heroically. It took three games for Uruguay to show us what they were made of, and by the time they did it was all too late.

Giorgian de Arrascaeta deserved better. For years he has been one of Uruguay’s great lost talents: an attacking midfielder hailed as the next big thing when he first emerged but now 28 and perhaps wondering if it would ever happen for him. He has won pretty much everything there is to win with Cruzeiro and Flamengo and yet for some reason Uruguay have never quite seen his best. Óscar Tabárez never felt brave enough to give him the free role he played in Brazil. Now, under a new coach, on the biggest stage of all, he had two goals and the star billing he deserved.

The back five deserved better. Guillermo Varela, perhaps lucky to keep his place ahead of Martín Cáceres, put in a ferocious shift at right-back. Giménez, a defender who would slide tackle his own grandmother, made countless last-ditch interventions and a mighty block in the dying minutes. Fede Valverde, such a dynamic and creative player with Real Madrid, deserved better: brilliantly disruptive in a deeper role.

Did Suárez deserve better? In a way he probably did. After all, he was the key to the whole exercise. Not so much in terms of anything he did on the ball; at the age of 35, Suárez now barely looks as if he has the energy to swing his own leg. But his role against Ghana was quietly vital and it was a role ingeniously prepared for him over several days.

Luis Suárez remonstrates with Ghana's Mohammed Salisu.
Luis Suárez remonstrates with Ghana's Mohammed Salisu. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Everyone knows the history: Ghana, the handball, the penalty, the grudge. And in the build-up it was a grudge Uruguay were quite happy to indulge. Suárez was assigned pre-match interview duties and obviously refused to apologise for the handball, even when one Ghanaian journalist called him “the devil”. Suárez was made captain: there he was, grinning away for the cameras at kick-off. At every turn Ghana’s players and coach tried to maintain a strict focus. But at every turn Uruguay were putting Suárez in their eyeline.

How does this work in practice? Perhaps, if you’re a defender, you stick a little closer to Suárez than is wise. You pay him attention. You pay him so much attention that you take your eye off the cross and miss it completely.

You sit too narrow and allow De Arrascaeta too much space for a shot. For all that they tried not to, Ghana ended up fighting the last war, playing the man and not the game. Never watch the magician’s hands or you might miss the trick.

And so Ghana, too, leave with a cruel sense of unfinished business. They were good enough to win this, good enough to qualify. They were a slip away from earning a draw against Portugal. They missed an early penalty here. They sunk their enemy, and yet somehow he managed to take them with him.

Afterwards their crushed fans took a certain solace in Suárez’s plight but it did not feel quite as sweet as they had hoped. They were learning, perhaps, that vengeance and victory are two quite different things.

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