Uruguay returns to sport's biggest tournamentPosted: Wednesday April 24, 2002 11:31 AM
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) -- After a 12-year absence, the winner of the first World Cup is back.
Uruguay, the smallest country ever to win a World Cup, has finally emerged from a decade of soccer mediocrity. A flourishing youth program and a handful of budding stars have breathed new life into the "Celeste" -- world champions in 1930 and '50.
But the road back hasn't been easy.
The Uruguayans lost coach Daniel Passarella halfway through the qualifiers, and just scraped through by beating Australia in a two-leg playoff to grab the last ticket to Japan.
At the finals, they come up against defending champion France, Denmark and Senegal in Group A.
"Facing those teams in the first round will be a difficult challenge," playmaker Alvaro Recoba of Inter Milan said. "Such a tough start should force us to immediately sharpen our concentration."
Uruguay's march to the finals was at times promising and erratic.
They showed flashes of brilliance, beating Ecuador in a 4-0 rout. But, only months later, suffered an embarrassing loss to minnow Venezuela.
In all, Uruguay won seven games, lost five and tied six, finishing fifth in the tough South American qualifying group.
Victor Pua, a longtime coach of Uruguay's youth squads, replaced Passarella, the former Argentine national coach who stepped down amid a conflict with Uruguayan club coaches over the availability of key players.
The change did little to derail the determined Uruguayans, whose gritty defense always keeps them competitive. In 20 games, Uruguay conceded just 15 goals -- the least of any South American team.
The rejuvenated Uruguayans also boast offensive promise, which should make them a challenging opponent in this year's tournament.
The midfield is loaded with players with European club experience, such as Inter's Recoba, AC Milan's Pablo Garcia, AS Roma's Gianni Guigou and Venezeia's Federico Magallanes.
Recoba is the team's creative force, and is coming off a terrific year in Italy. A deft playmaker, he has a potent left foot and is particularly adept at scoring from set pieces.
But a major question mark hanging over the midfield has been its consistency.
Up front, Manchester United striker Diego Forlan and Malaga's Dario Silva will likely lead the Uruguayan attack. Nicolas Oliveria, who plays for Sevilla in Spain, and Ricardo Morales, of Uruguay's Nacional, should give a dose of extra firepower.
Uruguay's strong back line is anchored by Paolo Montero of Juventus, a rugged and tough defender considered by many as one of the best in the world. The back line is likely to be completed by local star Dario Rodriguez of Penarol, Washington Tais of Real Betis and Inter Milan's Gustavo Sorondo.
Juventus' Fabian Carini, 21, is a solid goalkeeper despite his lack of international experience.
A batch of promising young players has been the catalyst for Uruguay's return to glory. During the 1999 Copa America, Uruguay -- under Pua -- fielded most of its players from its U-23 squad to finish third.
The youthful makeup of the team has fired the imagination of this soccer-mad nation of 3 million people.
Despite the presence of France, Pua refuses to contemplate an early return home -- and is defiantly predicting a major upset.
"Despite being in a tough group, I believe we can advance even though everyone seems to be pointing to France and Denmark," Pua said. "Our aim is to win the group."