MAY THE LAST ONE TO ARRIVE NOT BE THE FIRST ONE TO LEAVE. THAT MIGHT BE THE REFRAIN SUNG THIS JUNE BY URUGUAY, THE 32ND TEAM TO PUNCH ITS TICKET TO SOUTH AFRICA, WITH a win and a draw against Costa Rica. The Charrúas had gone in through the back door at their last World Cup as well, in 2002, when they were also in France's group. That's where they hope the coincidences end, because neither the French nor the Uruguayans advanced in Korea and Japan. But the sad truth is, the South American team going to South Africa has the same weaknesses as the one that flamed out eight years ago: a porous back line and a rudderless midfield.
Uruguay scored the third-most goals in the South American qualifiers, and it's no wonder: Besides spectacular finishes from Diego Forlán, the Charrúas could count on lightning runs by Luis Suárez and thunderous headers by the 6' 4" Sebastián Abréu. In many of the games manager Oscar Tabárez played the three forwards together in a 4-3-3, something he's unlikely to do in South Africa, where his midfield will need shoring up.
This unit has no leader, and worse, Tabárez must replace the only player who could fill that role, Cristian Rodriguez (suspended for two Cup games for hitting an Argentine opponent after the final whistle). All the pressure will fall on Nicolás Lodeiro, a promising 21-year-old who has been called on to fill the boots of former midfield mainstay Alvaro Recoba. It will be up to Lodeiro, a creative playmaker for Ajax in the Netherlands, to feed Forlán and keep the ball out of the opposition's hands.
The River Plate estuary is no longer the cradle of great goalies, and Uruguay, like Argentina, has not found a dominant keeper. Néstor Muslera won the starting job after impressing in the final four qualifying games, but he could be replaced if he doesn't have a good first game. He'll benefit from the speed of Martín Cáceres and the experience and leadership of Diego Lugano, but not from the holes that Alvaro Pereira will leave each time he throws himself into the attack.
In soccer, stereotypes often faithfully reflect reality, and just as England will rain crosses on South Africa, so will Uruguay play rough, attacking soccer that tests the limits of legality. But the fierceness that helped it win in 1930 and 1950 will not be enough against the best teams on earth, especially with an underwhelming midfield and a suspect defense. Don't expect Uruguay to go beyond the round of 16.