Pride over progress: Luis Suárez and the stagnant reality of Uruguayan football
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Pride over progress: Luis Suárez and the stagnant reality of Uruguayan football

I once lived inside Uruguay’s Estadio Centenario for ten days.

Not literally. But in June, while shooting a documentary about Latin American soccer cultures, a small crew and I spent more than a week capturing Uruguay’s unique football history through its legendary home.

The Centenario is a true relic — a FIFA Historical Monument, in fact. It’s where the first World Cup final was played in 1930, which Uruguay won.

And it resembles Uruguayan football in every way: old, hard and in need of a renovation.

For decades, the Centenario is where Uruguay has proudly flaunted world-class talents like Enzo Francescoli, Diego Forlán, and of course, the enigmatic Luis Suárez.

Today, I’m sure much of Uruguay has its eyes on Spain, where the 27-year-old national hero was finally unveiled as Barcelona’s new $125 million striker.

Suárez, if you need reminding, was banned from “all football activity” for four months after he bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup match in June — the third such offense of his career. Under the ban, Suárez couldn’t enter a football stadium, let alone be announced by his new club.

But last week, an appeal ruling changed the ban to include official matches only, making all of today’s smiles across Barcelona and Uruguay possible.

Make no mistake: Suárez will still miss 11 or 12 matches for Barcelona, including three Champions League matches and eight more competitive Uruguay matches, ruling him out of next summer’s Copa América in Chile as well.

So why celebrate Suárez’s debut at Barcelona, when they should instead be focused on how to cope without him?

Blinded By the Bite

One night in Montevideo, we asked a prominent Uruguayan journalist about his thoughts on Suárez.

“He wants to win so bad. He always has,” said the writer. “We think he goes blind on the field sometimes. But that is Uruguayan football.”

But maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe it’s Uruguayan football that’s blinded by Suárez.

With his mesmerizing talent and gritty, determined style – known locally as garra – Suárez is the embodiment of Uruguay’s deep-rooted football identity. Any attack on him is construed as an attack on Uruguayan football as a whole.

Uruguay’s staunch defense of him is evidence of that. Through a racist abuse charge, numerous accusations of cheating and now three biting incidents, they have kept the same tune, often resorting to cries of victimhood.

“Indignation, impotence, I think that’s what we all feel,” Uruguay’s captain Diego Lugano said after FIFA handed down Suárez’s ban this summer, “We’d all like a fairer world, but that world simply does not exist. Those who rule, rule, and the strong ones are the strong ones.”

Suárez’s introduction Monday may be validation for the Uruguayans, to some degree, but it should no longer distract from Uruguay’s bigger issues.

After Monday, the Suárez circus will go back into hibernation until October 26th, when, as the soccer gods would have it, he can make his return in the season’s first El Clásico against Real Madrid.

In the meantime, Uruguay could use some self-reflection.

Some say Uruguay has a surplus of spirit and a dearth of talent, and the World Cup in Brazil seemed to prove it.

A Copa América without Suárez may offer an opportunity to overhaul their aging squad which, with an average age of 28, was the second oldest at the World Cup. There is rising talent in the country, as shown by the Under-20 team that finished second at the 2013 U20 World Cup in Turkey.

Uruguay’s long-serving coach, 67-year-old Óscar Tabárez, is also on his last leg, literally. A second spinal surgery will keep him from traveling with the team to Japan and South Korea for friendlies in September. While Tabárez has said he wants to coach through the next World Cup in 2018, a younger, fresh perspective might be just what Uruguay needs.

And last of all, if Uruguay really want to protect Suárez, they need to change their narrative from pity to prevention. They could take the steps to replicate the environment that worked so well for Suárez at Liverpool last season, which included regular work with a sports psychiatrist. Last year in England, Suárez performed so well, behaviorally and sportingly, his peers voted him the Player of the Year.

Uruguay is a stubbornly proud football country, with good reason. With a population of just 3.5 million, it is the smallest country in CONMEBOL, the South America football federation, yet one of the most successful. Two World Cup victories — over powerful neighbor sArgentina (1930) and Brazil (1950) — and a continent-best 15 Copa América titles are impressive feats for a country that has never let itself be bullied.

But calls for Uruguayan football to evolve should no longer be ignored.

It’s a need not lost on all. “Football changed, but we didn’t,” Diego Forlan told FIFA World magazine back in 2010. “And if we don’t start to change, things are going to keep getting worse, and all the garra in the world won’t help us.”

Just like Estadio Centenario, Uruguayan football needs a facelift. Here’s hoping their pride doesn’t stand in the way of progress for too much longer.

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