Portugal vs Uruguay World Cup clash full of nostalgia as old masters of dark arts collide

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In a World Cup of last dances, this has the potential to be the fieriest of tangos.

Qatar 2022 was, long before it began, billed as the final curtain call on the international stage for a host of generation-defining footballers: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale, to name but a few.

But when Uruguay meet Portugal in Doha this evening, two of modern football’s great dark artists will take the floor. Luis Suarez, the 21st century’s signature World Cup super-villain, and Pepe, who in deputising for the injured Danilo will become the third-oldest outfield player ever to appear at the tournament, three months short of his 40th birthday. “He is a monster,” Portugal boss Fernando Santos said of Pepe yesterday. “He’s going to play, for sure. He’s always ready.”

Their duel, as with that between Ronaldo and Diego Godin in the other penalty box, will have a comforting, nostalgic feel to it, capable of having taken place at any tournament since South Africa in 2010.

These are two teams on the cusp of new eras but, for now, still beholden to ageing stars, one of whom you suspect would have more joy if they accelerated the transition, while the other would like to, but are not blessed with quite the same production line riches.

Luis Suarez and Pepe renew their rivalry as Uruguay and Portugal clash at the World Cup (Getty Images)
Luis Suarez and Pepe renew their rivalry as Uruguay and Portugal clash at the World Cup (Getty Images)

Through qualifying, Uruguay struggled to find the balance between the old and the new. The eventual compromise is that nine of the XI that began the last-16 win over Portugal in Russia in 2018 are still here, but only six of them in the starting line-up.

Portugal’s generational divide is less numerically stark: bar Ronaldo and Pepe, this is a squad made up entirely of outfield players either with notable promise or firmly in their prime. They could well still win this tournament, but there is a sense that we will only see the best of this squad once their greatest-ever player and, perhaps, their conservative coach moves on.

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar | Best Images and Moments

England’s Harry Kane reacts after missing a chance to score v USA (REUTERS)
England’s Harry Kane reacts after missing a chance to score v USA (REUTERS)
Spain’s Alvaro Morata in action with Germany’s Nico Schlotterbeck (REUTERS)
Spain’s Alvaro Morata in action with Germany’s Nico Schlotterbeck (REUTERS)
France’s Kylian Mbappe scores their second goal v Denmark (REUTERS)
France’s Kylian Mbappe scores their second goal v Denmark (REUTERS)
Belgium’s goalkeeper #01 Thibaut Courtois (R) conceides a goal shot by Morocco’s midfielder #11 Abdelhamid Sabiri (unseen) during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Belgium and Morocco at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha (AFP via Getty Images)
Belgium’s goalkeeper #01 Thibaut Courtois (R) conceides a goal shot by Morocco’s midfielder #11 Abdelhamid Sabiri (unseen) during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Belgium and Morocco at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha (AFP via Getty Images)
Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol hangs off the crossbar (REUTERS)
Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol hangs off the crossbar (REUTERS)
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their first goal  v Mexico (REUTERS)
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their first goal v Mexico (REUTERS)
Germany players pose with their hands covering their mouths as they line up for the team photos prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group E match between Germany and Japan at Khalifa International Stadium (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Germany players pose with their hands covering their mouths as they line up for the team photos prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group E match between Germany and Japan at Khalifa International Stadium (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Costa Rica’s Keysher Fuller celebrates scoring their first goal with Yeltsin Tejeda and teammates v Japan (REUTERS)
Costa Rica’s Keysher Fuller celebrates scoring their first goal with Yeltsin Tejeda and teammates v Japan (REUTERS)
Iran’s Mehdi Taremi collides with Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey during theIR FIFA World Cup Group B match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Al-Rayyan (PA)
Iran’s Mehdi Taremi collides with Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey during theIR FIFA World Cup Group B match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Al-Rayyan (PA)
Costa Rica’s Jewison Bennette is tackled by Spain’s Rodri oduring the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group E match at Al Thumama Stadium (Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Costa Rica’s Jewison Bennette is tackled by Spain’s Rodri oduring the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group E match at Al Thumama Stadium (Clive Mason/Getty Images)
England’s Jude Bellingham celebrates scoring his team’s first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match v Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
England’s Jude Bellingham celebrates scoring his team’s first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match v Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Pepe’s summons highlights their one glaring area of weakness in a lack of depth at centre-back. He has not played any competitive football since October, though old dogs scarcely forget old tricks.

It, of course, takes two to tango, but history suggests that, in Suarez, he will have just as willing a partner.