This year’s World Cup has proven football pundits wrong on many occasions. Early exits of Spain or Germany, however, didn’t stop fans and aficionados from turning to other obvious candidates and tipping them to the title - with Brazil currently getting the most attention.
In the whole debate one side seems to be, and usually has been, unfairly overlooked. But why are Uruguay so underrated?
The 40-year void
La Celeste are a two-time winner of the trophy. A team that triumphed in the first ever edition of the World Cup played on their home soil in 1930, upsetting their bitter rivals Argentina.
Fast forward 20 years, they repeated their success by beating flamboyant Brazil hosting the tournament, in front of 200,000 spectators gathered for the final at the famous Maracana Stadium.
Uruguay’s legacy, however, was tarnished by a 40-year spell in which advancing from the group was everything the team had fuel in the tank for. Especially bitter were the 20 years before Luis Suarez’s infamous handball, sending Uruguay into the semis in 2010.
Only thanks to the Maestro - Oscar Tabarez - the tides turned for Uruguay. Since taking the reins in 2006, his Che Guevara-inspired football utilitarianism and meticulous care for breeding a new, educated generation of footballers has worked wonders – to the relief of the now 71-year-old coach.
La Celeste didn’t qualify for tournaments in the United States in 1994, France in 1998 and Germany in 2006. In South Korea and Japan in 2002, they didn’t even salvage a point and kissed their hopes goodbye after the group stage.
Asked whether reaching the 2010 World Cup semi-final was a dawn for a new era in football for Uruguay, Tabarez only said “it could be, as long as we don't go another 20 years or so before getting to this stage”.
However, that dark period in their football effectively sent the once big winners into the shadow of their South American nemeses - Argentina and Brazil - who were always there fighting for the highest honours instead.
Eternally in the shadows
While Uruguay were struggling, football in Brazil and Argentina was thriving. Both teams took the World Cup trophy home in the time Uruguay were directionless, whilst both, too, were gifted with football-defining players that shaped subsequent generations.
Argentina had Alfredo Di Stefano and Diego Maradona, with his half-pitch runs through defenders and the hand-of-God goal that gave him the divine status.
It was then replaced with the golden generation - those that the won Olympic golds in 2004 and 2008 - of Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Maradona’s heir Lionel Messi.
Brazil had Pele - another involved in the 'greatest-ever' debate - who significantly contributed to their World Cup triumphs of 1958, 1962 and 1970. More recently, Luis Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos made headlines all over the world and induced fans to fall in love with the finesse of the Canarinhos' football.
Uruguay lacked that.
Between the eras of Jose Nasazzi, Jose Leandro Andrade, Juan Schiaffino or Alcides Ghiggia - making Uruguay's name in the 1930s 1950s - and the current generation of Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan or Edinson Cavani, only Enzo Francescoli, a River Plate legend and the idol of Zinedine Zidane, strikes as a more notable figure.
But even now, when the names of Suarez or Cavani ring a bell even for somebody not totally invested in football, Uruguay are rarely named as favourites in the same breath as Brazil, Spain or Germany.
Despite their 2010 campaign and more than solid performance in Russia this year, their pragmatic but very effective football doesn’t earn as much credit as Brazil’s joyful style, for instance. Instead, comparisons to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid ensue, somehow irrationally working against them.
Channelling their inner Atletico
The utilitarian, defensive-minded, hard-working type of football played by teams like Uruguay or Atletico Madrid is often not appreciated the way tiki-taka used to be.
Inter Milan's triumph in the 2010 Champions League under Jose Mourinho was heralded as the victory of anti-football – a bad fame that has followed the Portuguese coach ever since and subtlely chipped away at his legacy.
Similarly, the Spanish league has always been considered a two-horse race between playing uber-offensive football Real Madrid and Barcelona. Utilitarian Atletico Madrid - regardless of their level of performance in the context of their rivals' - seem to have always been left out in their shadow.
Now, this appears to rub off onto Uruguay any time the comparisons between the two teams are drawn. But Tabarez doesn’t care for modern offensive football based on possession. He learnt that when coaching in Italy.
“Ball possession is not worshipped there,” he recently said, claiming football can be effective without it. Perhaps that’s why many of the Uruguayan players represent Italian clubs, even though Serie A has been taken with a pinch of salt in recent years.
Serie A’s decline
That most of the Uruguayan team is comprised of players representing Italian clubs is significant. You may not have heard about several Uruguayan players simply because they play in Serie A.
The league lost its position built by the dominance of AC Milan or Juventus and hasn’t regained it despite the recent resurrection of the Old Lady.
Although Sky Sports named the tournament’s revelation Lucas Torreira as a player "you’ve never heard of," perhaps we should have.
Bartosz Salamon, his former teammate at Pescara, revealed he once asked the club’s primavera’s coach Massimo Oddo if anybody among the youths stands out. "Torreira is a phenomenon. He will be a great player," he said. Nonetheless, he was overlooked until now.
This perpetual overlooking is applicable, too, to Uruguay at the 2018 World Cup.
Thus far, however, the 'favourites' label has become something of a poisoned chalice, with it seemingly resulting in a plane ticket back home. As such, Uruguay surely don’t mind retaining their underdog status.