There are two weeks to go until Uruguay celebrates the 70th anniversary of their second and last World Cup win. It was on July 16, 1950 that La Celeste (the Sky Blue) silenced a giant crowd in Rio's Maracana stadium, coming from behind to beat hosts Brazil 2-1.
In the meantime, with the domestic league still over a month away from restart, the country is reliving the emotions of a decade ago. On Wednesday, it was 10 years since Uruguay's dramatic penalty shoot out win over Ghana in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. The run of success came to an end on July 6 with a 3-2 defeat to Netherlands in the semifinals. Even so, Uruguay has much to celebrate when it looks back on the tournament in South Africa. It provided a whirlwind of emotions, and a shot at glory after the country had pretty much convinced itself that none of this was going to happen again.
Uruguay were the first kings of the global game. The gold medals at the Olympic football tournaments of 1924 and 1928, in Paris and Amsterdam, changed the sport. They introduced the Europeans to the new, balletic South American style of play, setting off a fever and establishing the necessity of a World Cup, open to amateurs and professionals alike.
Uruguay staged and won the first World Cup in 1930, and won again in their next attempt 20 years later. Their first defeat was an extra-time loss to the great Hungary team in the semifinals in 1954. They reached the last eight in 1966 and were back in the semis in 1970. But after that, Uruguay failed to make an impact on the world stage. They had done so much to globalize the game. But they had been overtaken by many other countries. And with a population little more than three million, it seemed that they were doomed to mediocrity.
After 1970, Uruguay failed to qualify for five of the next nine World Cups. And when they did make it, their record was dismal; just one win (a stoppage time success against South Korea in 1990), six draws and seven defeats; nine goals scored and 24 conceded. At first it felt as if the Uruguayan people were losing a birthright. Later, there was a sense of acceptance. A people given to melancholy had an extra reason for sad reflection. Never again would they be champions.
Then came South Africa 2010. In South America's World Cup qualification campaign, Uruguay needed to go through a playoff after finishing fifth. And then, come the main event in South Africa, they made it into the last four. It was no flash in the pan. The following year, on Argentine soil, they won the Copa America. In the Brazil World Cup in 2014 they got the best of England and Italy -- their first World Cup wins over European opposition since 1970. And two years ago in Russia, they were once again the best South American side, statistically speaking at least, as they made it to the quarterfinals.
So the tournament in 2010 was clearly a key moment. It was the first World Cup in the second spell in charge of coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, who also took Uruguay to Italia 90, and stepped back into the role in 2006. Fourteen years later, he is still in charge, enthused by the prospect of taking La Celeste to Qatar in 2022.
In addition to a long and glorious coaching career, and his own experience as a first division defender, Tabarez is a qualified teacher. El Maestro has coaxed Uruguay back to the game's top table with calm common sense and the application of intelligence. He was aware that the globalization of football meant that Uruguay's future was dependent on their youth development work. Promising players would inevitably be sold abroad early. It was up to the youth ranks to identity them, develop them and forge a bond between then and the national team.
The 2010 side contained the likes of strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, centre-back Diego Godin and goalkeeper Fernando Muslera -- all of them graduates of Uruguay's under-20 side. And the graduates have kept on coming. Those four may well be past their best come Qatar 2022. But Tabarez will still be able to call on plenty of quality. True, burly striker Maxi Gomez is struggling at Valencia, and as yet is nowhere near the level of Suarez and Cavani. But the loss of Suarez and/or Cavani would also bring a benefit. Uruguay would no longer be obliged to play 4-4-2, not the most flexible of systems at the highest level.
With just one striker there is room for wingers, such as Brian Rodriguez of LAFC, and it would also make it easier for the team to use more of its splendid young midfield resources, such as Federico Valverde of Real Madrid and Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus. Any country in the world would be happy to possess this pair. And so the mentality of "never again champions" can be retired. The mood now is more positive so maybe, with the wind in our favour, they can mount a challenge. Starting with the events of exactly 10 years ago, Uruguay have regained the right to dream -- and that seems well worth celebrating.