(Reuters) - Oscar Tabarez began his second stint as Uruguay coach in May 2006, one month before the World Cup. But they were not going to Germany — in fact, they struggled even to find anyone who would play them in friendlies.
“We were hardly competing internationally,” he said in one interview. “We had to travel to the most distant parts of the world just to have matches.”
Meanwhile, their training base outside Montevideo was nicknamed “the Low Performance Centre” by players who complained of cold rooms and lumpy mattresses.
Uruguay, who had lost to Australia in the playoff for a place in Germany, were in the wilderness.
Nobody would say that of the team nowadays.
Tabarez is still in charge 12 years on, having led them to one World Cup semi-final, one round of 16 and the Copa America title in 2011. On Friday, they face France in the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
Not even ill-health has stopped the 71-year-old who was expected to resign in 2016 after he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease known as Guillain-Barre syndrome but has carried on regardless with the help of a walking stick or electric wheelchair.
Tabarez is more than just the national team coach and has effectively taken charge of youth development in Uruguay in what has become known as the “Tabarez process”.
In an interview with Reuters 10 years ago, Tabarez, who also coached Uruguay at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, outlined his plans for football in the country and the challenge facing him.
He spoke of the importance of keeping the under-20 and Olympic teams active and bringing players over from Europe to receive additional coaching and keep them in touch.
The subject matter extended to pressure exerted by parents on their children to make it as professionals which turned matches even at under-10 level into battlefields.
“There are more or less 200,000 boys playing football in Uruguay, of this only 0.14 percent may have a possibility of going to Europe,” he said. “The parents are making the wrong gamble and we have to make them aware of these facts.”
Even amid the heat of the World Cup battle in Russia, Tabarez found time to talk about widely-seen television images which showed children in a Uruguayan school bursting out of their classroom to celebrate the late winning goal against Egypt in the group stage.
“Those kids will never forget that moment,” he said. “I’m very proud about the way in which we live and experience football in our country. I talk to the players about this and use it as part of their motivation.”
Known as the schoolteacher — a profession he briefly exercised during the 1980s — Tabarez has managed to retain Uruguay’s renowned fighting spirit while curbing their wildest excesses.
Uruguay have the best disciplinary of the eight quarter-finals with only one yellow card so far. “When we won the Copa America in 2011, we also took the fair play title and that was very significant,” said Tabarez.
His approach is summed up by a message which adorns the wall of his house and is attributed to Che Guevara: “You must toughen yourself without losing tenderness.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge