Uruguay is team to beat in Copa America
Luis Suarez braces Uruguay for the Copa America final
I love Uruguay's national football team! The boys in blue, la Celeste, los Charruas - call Suarez, Forlan, Coates, Lugano, Rodriguez, Caceres, Rios, Alvero and Maxi Pereira, et. al. what you will - continue their form as South America's top soccer side.
Following up their outstanding (and surprising) semi-final run in last summer's World Cup finals - where they finished fourth and striker Diego Forlan was voted the best overall player - Uruguay have displayed another outstanding (and again surprising) run of form in Copa America 2011. Despite everyone predicting a final between South America's reigning football giants, Argentina and Brazil, it is the tiny nation the size of the U.S. state of Missouri - nestled in the armpit of neighboring Argentina (geographically and in terms of status) - who find themselves going to Sunday's final against Paraguay (who last won this competition in 1979). After two opening round ties, two-time World Cup winners Uruguay (1930, 1950) knocked off Mexico's B-squad (the A-team was rewarded with respite after automatically qualifying for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil following their thrashing of the U.S. to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup on June 25, 2011), became giant-killers with last week's 5-4 penalty kicks victory over Lionel Messi's aging Argentina (international glories still evade "The Flea"!), and booked their appearance in the Copa America finals with a 2-0 win over Peru last night thanks to a brace by Luis Suarez.
Watch highlights from the Uruguay-Peru semifinal.
For my money, Suarez is a world-class superstar striker alongside the ranks of Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney. While many pundits want to compare Messi to Maradona, it is Suarez - with his pace, indefatigable work rate, ability to hold onto the ball like it's attached to his foot, and predatory instincts inside the penalty box - who most reminds me of the Golden Boy. And, as Ghana's national team knows all too well, he even updated Maradona's "Hand of God" in last year's World Cup to save a certain goal and send his team into a penalty kicks win over Ghana and advance to the semifinals.
What amazes me about Uruguay, perhaps more than any other footballing nation, is the magnititude of their achievements measured against their diminuative size, both geographically and in terms of population. Uruguay, with a population of 3.5 million people, is by far the smallest country in the world to have won a World Cup (the second smallest country by comparison is Argentina - with over 40 million people); there are Latin and South American cities with bigger populations than this nation (Mexico City alone has more than three times the people). According to Wikipedia, only six nations with populations smaller than Uruguay's have ever participated in any World Cup: Northern Ireland (thrice), Slovenia (twice), Wales, Kuwait, Jamaica and little old Trinidad and Tobago. Uruguay is also the smallest nation to win Olympic gold medals in any team sport.
La Celeste won the first ever cup in 1930 and stole it from Brazil on Brazil's home turf in 1950 (a tragedy Brazil has never forgotten - or forgiven). Glories since have mostly eluded the nation until the new Celeste team's recent rise in rankings and world recognition. Behind playmaker Forlan - the handsome blonde Vitas Geralitis lookalike who drops back to play a Steven Gerard-like role behind Suarez (or Cavanni, when he plays up front) and takes all free kicks and corner kicks - the field-length runs of Alvaro and Maxi Pereira and Rodriguez, and the staunch defense of Coates, Lugano and Caceres, the boys in blue have a fiesty, seasoned gifted starting 11 (though the bench is not deep) that hangs around long enough in close games to make things happen and find a way to win. Technically, they are the peers of Brazil and Argentina; in spirit, they are driven underdogs forever seeking the respect the old Celeste of past World Cup glories achieved.
Uruguay has won the Copa America 14 times, their last trophy coming in 1995. It's hard to bet against them adding to their trophy shelf this Sunday.