Uruguay head into their first game against Egypt with the focus on stars such as Luiz Suarez but with their World Cup hopes equally resting with veteran coach Oscar Tabarez, who is battling chronic illness. Friday’s game in Yekaterinburg will see the 71-year-old take charge of the famously tournament tough South American side at his fourth World Cup finals, the first being back in 1990. In all he has been in charge of Uruguay’s national side for more than 180 games.
Along the way Tabarez, nicknamed “El Maestro” (the teacher), known for his undemonstrative manner, guided Uruguay to a fourth-place finish in South Africa in 2010, and each time ensured his team has got out of the group stage. He has done so while battling a debilitating neurological condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome, which severely restricts his movement — and in Russia may possibly become the first coach in World Cup history to use a wheelchair.
So far, he has been spotted overseeing Uruguay’s preparations at their Bor sports centre base on Monday, just outside the city of Nizhny Novgorod, walking with the aid of a crutch. But despite the painful personal hurdles, it is clear who is in charge of the Celeste. “When ‘the Maestro’ speaks, a fly does not fly,” one of the Uruguayan journalists following the team said as the players trained in Bor. Tabarez, a former primary school teacher who also guided Uruguay to a Copa America title in 2011, has said previously that his condition does not impact upon his job and his health appears better in the approach to Russia.
“I put everything with physiotherapy, with doctors and treatments because I’m not thinking of leaving,” he said. Some had expected him to step down after the last World Cup, but Tabarez continues. His A-list players are unequivocal in their support for Tabarez. Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin support the coach at every step and consider him “untouchable”. “The team knows that El Maestro does not have to scream to tell you what to do,” Suarez told a Uruguayan television documentary about Tabarez.
After Egypt, Uruguay will return to Nizhny Novgorod and prepare for matches against Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia, in a weak-looking Group A. The expectation is that by the end of those matches, Tabarez will have continued his perfect record of ensuring Uruguay again progress into the World Cup knockout stage.