Reda Maher

Brazil 360: Is there more to Uruguay coach’s rant than meets the eye?

Reda Maher

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Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez resigned from FIFA’s strategy committee in an astonishing development to the latest Luis Suarez affair.


I won't rehash his statement - click on the link above for that - but there is more to this defiance than meets the eye.

Suarez was banned for nine FIFA matches and excluded from all football activity – including training and entering stadia – for four months after he bit Italy defender Giorgo Chiellini during their World Cup match this week.

The majority of football fans believe the punishment was either fair or lenient; many were calling for a one-year or even life ban for Suarez, who has bit players twice before, and was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra.

But from the start Tabarez, and Uruguay’s players, fans and media, have rallied to Suarez’s defence, claiming outrage was constructed by the British media – a media which mostly forgave Suarez for previous misdemeanour, voting him Football Writers’ Player of the Year.

While it is understandable that there is staunch defence from fans of Uruguay (and to a lesser extent Liverpool, who will either lose their star player until November or sell him), the behaviour and conspiracies espoused by Tabarez have several undercurrents.


First, there is the creation of a siege mentality. Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have used the tactic to some effect; Kenny Dalglish failed to win that mind-game when Suarez was embroiled in the Evra affair. It is a risky strategy but, shorn of his best player in a knockout tournament, it is Tabarez’s wildcard.

But there is another subtext to his posturing (and it is posturing, for even he will know deep down that Suarez needs psychological help, and needs to stay away from the game in the meantime).

Uruguay is a small nation, with around 3.5 million inhabitants. It is also governed by Jose Mujica, a former left-wing guerrilla fighter who moderated his views and now leads the ruling ‘Frente Amplio’ (or ‘Broad Front’), a centre-left but populist coalition of socially democratic, cooperative and workers’ parties.


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Uruguayan president Jose Mujica poses with Diego Lugano before the World Cup

Mujica is famous for his humility – he is probably the world’s poorest president, living on a small farm instead of the presidential palace, driving a VW Beetle, and adding to his modest state income by growing and selling chrysanthemums.

But he is also famous for his populism, and supported Suarez during the Evra affair, even though it was in direct contradiction to his political and social views.

"There is solidarity with Suarez. Suarez is not a racist and never will be," he said, before blaming the ban on English sensitivity regarding colonial racism.

Fair enough, perhaps. But to defend him after biting an opponent for a third time?

"I didn't see him bite anyone," Mujica said this week after those disgraceful scenes in Natal.

"But they sure can bash each other with kicks and chops."

Nonsense, clearly. And an attempt to drum up support among passionate Uruguay fans ahead of the country's general elections on October 26.


So where does Tabarez fit into this narrative?

Tabarez, like his friend Mujica, used to be on the extreme left of politics; a former teacher, he named his daughter after one of Che Guevara’s girlfriends.

Like Mujica, he is more of a pragmatist these days, but remains staunch in his support of Frente Amplio.

But Mujica cannot stand at that election, as Uruguayan presidents are limited to single five-year terms; he can run again in 2019, but not this year.

And who is running as Frente Amplio’s candidate? Tabare Vazquez, the previous president, and a former president of Uruguayan football club Progresso.

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Vazuqez stands with his Frente Amplio colleague Mujica

When Vazquez was in charge, Suarez regularly spoke of reducing social inequality in Uruguay, the language of Frente Amplio, whose rivals are more right-wing and traditional. While not outwardly political - and deeply flawed - Suarez genuinely does care about his people.


And that is not all, as left-wingers from all around Latin America have rallied behind Suarez, claming FIFA is out to attack poorer countries.

Maybe Tabarez does not see a future career in politics, but like his contemporaries in government, he understands his demographic. Uruguay is a small country which punches well above its weight in football.

By backing Suarez to the hilt, he is seeking to instil a warrior mentality for the last-16 clash with Colombia; long-term, he could well secure his own future in the national game, regardless of the result.

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport
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