Analysis

Kicking and screaming: How Uruguay crashed out of Copa America Centenario

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In the 100-year anniversary of the Copa America, first won by Uruguay, Los Charrúas lacked the usual fight for the tournament which they care about most. Rupert Fryer dissects Uruguay's Centenario flop.

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The only kick its returning star got was one of frustration, aimed at the plexiglass of a dugout. In the end it was little more than a ton of wasted air miles.  And all for something the boss said wasn’t real anyway.

“Almost out,” ran Spanish newspaper El Pais, somewhat optimistically. A couple of hours later, victory for Mexico over Jamaica would secure its fate.

Uruguay, the most storied team in soccer’s most storied international competition, has crashed out of the competition before even completing its group-stage matches.

One hundred years after hopping across the Río de la Plata to Buenos Aires to return as the first champions of South America, Uruguay have no cause for celebration on its 100th anniversary.

Its tournament was summed up in the 89th minute of the 1-0 defeat to a Venezuela side that arrived in the United States in total disarray. Edinson Cavani, once again, was present in body only as he somehow sent an unchallenged shot wide from 12 yards with the goal at his mercy.

The loss was Uruguay’s second straight to start the tournament after falling, 3-1 to Mexico in a fiery contest on Sunday.

Uruguay, and Cavani, had waited so long for the opportunity. The great Diego Forlan’s presence had marginalized the PSG man for years.

Even after all those goals at Napoli, Cavani was forced wide with his national team, asked to trudge up and down the touchline as a de facto wing back. He’d been a victim of his own selflessness, mucking in, chasing, harrying, fighting. He’d played for others. He’d been Uruguayan.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Forlan’s retirement was supposed to end all of that. It was supposed to set Cavani free. At last year’s Copa, Cavani didn’t even have Luis Suarez to share the limelight with. His time had come.

But all Copa 2015 brought Cavani was a red card. Three strikes in four World Cup qualifiers suggested he could do it this time. But he could not.

Uruguay went behind 10 minutes before the break when a speculative, long-range effort from Alejandro Guerra caught out Fernando Muslera, who could ownly turn the shot onto the bar and into the path of Salomon Rondon, who became the first man to score in three separate Copa Americas for his country.

Venezuela’s players had come together to pen an open letter in a December act of mutiny against their federation bosses. And it arrived in the United States with one point from six World Cup qualifiers. It was supposed to be there for the taking for Uruguay.

But coach Oscar Tabarez saw his side’s lack of creation exposed once again. Gaston Ramirez, fresh from a return to form with Middlesbrough, tried to add the creative spark, but he once again looked a little shy of the athleticism and quality to perform at the international level.

Carlos Sanchez did his best to deliver some more of his deadly set pieces, but they weren’t finding Diego Godin’s head this time.

Maxi Pereira charged down the right to win long throws, Alvaro Gonzalez did his best work to get into positions to cross via sheer bloody-mindedness, and the wonderful Egidio Arevalo Rios ate up ground and won tackles.

But it wasn’t enough. Tabarez and Uruguay needed something more. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available; at least, we think it wasn’t.

For most of the second half, the attention was focused on the bench. Luis Suarez was not listed as part of the match-day squad on Uruguay’s official team sheet, he was marked as injured on one handed out to journalists at the game.

But then he warmed up on the pitch before the match. Just after halftime when the substitutes began their warm-up, however, Suarez remained in his seat. Everybody could relax again, particularly Venezuela.

And then he started putting tape on his ankles and joined teammates for a run on the touchline. Tabarez made two subs. Focus was back on Suarez, but only to see him shake his head and kick the dugout as Mathias Corujo completed the quota.

Suarez was furious. He threw his bib to the floor, remonstrated with the Uruguayan delegates on the bench and beat on the dugout. If he was unavailable, it appeared nobody had told him.

"If he got upset, that is something I was not aware of. He didn't tell me anything," Tabarez said postgame.

Los Charrúas will be quick to point out everything that went against them. The president of the Uruguayan federation suggested after his team's loss to Mexico on Sunday that the refs favored El Tri. Prior to that match, the Chile national anthem was mistakenly played instead of anthem of Uruguay.

And Uruguay was handed an absurd schedule at the Copa America Centernario, asked to fly over 4,300 miles in the group stage; Colombia and Mexico less than 1,900.

But failure in this tournament falls squarely on the players and coach.

Top of the table in World Cup qualification, Uruguay didn’t need this tournament. And the decision to bring a full-strength, aging side to a tournament that Tabarez himself labeled “not a real Copa America,” will come under criticism.

But then, this is Uruguay. Soccer’s great overachievers. The game is everything to them. It was there from the start. It started the World Cup. It owns this competition. Uruguay has to play to win, to consistently overachieve. That’s its DNA; losing is not. Not when it’s not even underdogs.

Uruguay may not have needed this Copa America. But the Copa America is part of who they are.

As El Observer put it on Thursday night, this defeat is “a blow to the soul.”

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