Tabarez's cleaning up mission

The erudite coach has worked tirelessly in an effort to rid Uruguay of the stereotype of being a 'dirty' side, writes Ian Hawkey.

Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguay coach, says there is more to his squad than just "unyielding steeliness".
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Oscar Tabarez goes by the nickname "Maestro", or teacher. He is a qualified schoolmaster, and once worked as such, so no mystery there. Seeing him at press conferences is to see an instructor, a man of dialogue, unafraid of intellectualising the game of football, but also careful with what he says.

In the past four days Tabarez has had to defend the indefensible more than once. His Uruguay team have reached their first World Cup semi-final for 40 years by having profited from an act of rule-breaking; Luis Suarez's handball on the goal-line in the final minute of extra time in their quarter-final match against Ghana. Tabarez spoke of his player "acting on instinct," and pointed out that Suarez had been punished with a red card and a suspension for today's meeting with Holland in Cape Town, and that the team had suffered by conceding a penalty for the incident.

Ghana failed to convert the penalty, so Tabarez talked of the element of "luck". In the four years of Tabarez's second spell in charge of Uruguay, he has often displayed concern that his side should work to alter an image that outsiders have had of the team; that a pride that these footballers take in their toughness spills over too readily into dirtiness, brutality and a notion that fair play is something to be explored only in as far as that exploration focuses on how the boundaries of fair play can be frayed and exploited.

"We are not just about garra charrua," Tabarez repeated before the World Cup. "Garra charrua" translates as something like "unyielding steeliness", which supposedly captures the spirit of Uruguayan football, a steeliness which partially explains how a tiny country punches above its weight in the world's favourite game. Tabarez wanted to reverse a trend that saw Uruguay collect more red cards than any squad in the long South American qualifying section for the 2006 World Cup, which they failed to reach after losing a play-off against Australia.

When a Uruguayan, Nicolas Lodeiro, was the first man sent off at the 2010 World Cup finals, it looked like old habits were back. When they then passed relatively cleanly and smoothly to the last eight, they gained friends. Until, that is, Suarez cheated and looked so joyfully proud of the consequences of his handball. To hold that against Tabarez is probably unfair. He is clearly a man with values. It is often reported that he has a phrase of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara's displayed at his Montevideo home: "Toughness is something we need to acquire, but without losing an essential tenderness."

In the 20 years since he took his country to the 1990 World Cup, and a disappointing exit at the last 16 stage, he says he has learned a great deal. "I have become more mature," Tabarez, 63, said in a press conference, "but I have the same eyes for the game and the same face." The maturing process has taken Tabarez to more celebrated sites than Uruguayan domestic football, where he combined a low-key playing career with teacher-training and then coaching.

He had a spell in Italy's Serie A in the 1990s, twice with Cagliari. He did well enough to attract the attention of AC Milan, then the pre-eminent club in European football. Tabarez represented a marked change in style from the man he followed in the job, Fabio Capello. Capello had been a martinet compared with the maestro, who oversaw a decline in Milan's rate of success and left, deemed to have devolved too much authority to senior players.

He worked in Spain, with Real Oviedo, and in Argentina where, at Boca Juniors, he had the odd clash with their favourite son, Diego Maradona. In a Uruguay squad that includes lesser egos but a good spread of talent, he has proved tactically flexible, and there can be no doubt about the motivation of a group Tabarez calls "very loyal to one another". With suspensions ruling out Suarez and Jorge Fucile, the defender, who would have marked Arjen Robben, Tabarez's problem-solving capacities will be tested.