Brazil and Argentina are not the only ones carrying South American hopes at this World Cup. “Other countries have history, Uruguay has football,” goes the famous saying, and over the next four weeks in Qatar, La Celeste will be looking to continue its rich tradition of punching above its weight on the big stage.
For a nation of 3.5 million people, Uruguay’s record at the World Cup is little short of remarkable. Twice winners, on home soil in 1930 and then 20 years later in one of the game’s greatest ever upsets in Brazil, they have finished fourth on three separate occasions and reached the quarter-finals three further times, including last time out in Russia when they were beaten by eventual champions France.
Perennial ‘dark horses’, they arrive into this tournament in more than decent shape, Diego Alonso’s squad an encouraging mix of grizzled, experienced veterans and up-and-coming talent.
And let’s be honest here, the combination of Luis Suarez and Darwin Nunez, the master and the apprentice, Uruguay’s agents of chaos, is enough to give even the best of defences sleepless nights.
Suarez’s World Cup pedigree, of course, is unquestionable. This is his fourth tournament, and the marks he left in the previous three – good and bad – are indelible.
Who could forget that red card for handball against Ghana in the 2010 quarter-final? Who could forget that brilliant, curling strike against South Korea earlier in the same tournament? What about the brace against England in Sao Paulo four years later, or the bite on Giorgio Chiellini which stunned the world and saw him exit in disgrace a few days later?
He’s 35 now, Suarez, but while the legs are fading, his influence for Uruguay remains. He scored seven times in their CONMEBOL qualifying campaign, and his tally of 68 makes him comfortably their leading marksman of all time, 10 clear of Edinson Cavani, another veteran who will be completing a quartet of World Cup finals in Qatar.
An obvious reference point, then, for Nunez, who is following in Suarez’s footsteps at club level, who at 23 is appearing in his first World Cup, and who will be looking to take over from Suarez and Cavani as his country’s main man in the coming years.
“Suarez, like Cavani and [Diego] Forlan, are the greatest idols for the current generation,” Uruguayan journalist Nico Pirri tells GOAL. “Every child in Uruguay dreams of being like them. Suarez, in particular, has a lot of influence on emerging players.”
That is certainly the case with Nunez, with Suarez having taken on the role of mentor with his young protege. He recommended him to Barcelona as a teenager, and the pair’s relationship, on and off the field, is a strong one.
Nunez, certainly, is grateful for such support. When he completed his £64 million ($76m) move to Liverpool from Benfica in June, one of the first messages he received was from his countryman. “I was the first [Uruguayan to play at Anfield],” it read, “but I hope you are the first in goals.”
So far so good, you’d say. Nunez is already a firm favourite among Reds supporters and his record, nine goals in his first 18 appearances, is actually better than Suarez’s at the same stage. “He has exploded,” Suarez says. “He is now playing for Liverpool as I knew he would.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, either. Nunez learned quickly that indiscipline will cost you dearly in the Premier League. His petulant reaction to some gentle provocation from Joachim Andersen, the Crystal Palace defender, cost him a red card on his Anfield debut in August, the subsequent three-match ban doing little to help his bedding-in process with his new club.
Suarez called him after that error. “Luis told me that these things will happen in every game in the Premier League,” Nunez told ESPN. “He said that they’ll come and find me, that they’re going to bump into me, and that I need to make myself strong and not repeat my screw-up.
Suarez, remarkably, was never shown a red card in his Liverpool career, though he did miss close to 20 matches through suspension after unsavoury incidents involving Patrice Evra and Branislav Ivanovic.
Those will forever tarnish his legacy on Merseyside, though in terms of talent, it is questionable whether Liverpool have ever had a more gifted player. He left having scored 82 goals in 133 appearances, many of them spectacular, and would go on to reach even greater heights with Barcelona, with whom he won four league titles and a Champions League crown, and Atletico Madrid, whom he helped to La Liga glory in 2021.
The two are likely to start together in Uruguay’s World Cup opener against South Korea on Thursday. Group H looks a tight one on paper, with Portugal and Ghana the other teams competing, but Alonso, who replaced the legendary Oscar Tabarez as coach last year, believes his side has the talent to make a big impact at the tournament. “The players and I want to become world champions,” he said in May.
Certainly with Suarez and Nunez, they should have the firepower to give themselves a chance. “Those two are very important,” says Pirri. “But those who arrive at the best time are [Federico] Valverde and [Rodrigo] Bentancur.
“Uruguay has a squad to fight and dream of staying until the last day, and with those two as the creators of the game, it will undoubtedly be very decisive for Luis Suarez and Darwin Nunez, to give them the opportunities to score.
“Today more than ever, Suarez needs to be well surrounded. For obvious reasons, he is no longer the player he was before and he cannot do everything. He needs the team around him.”
As for the man himself, he’s ready to do what he does best. The World Cup is made for the biggest players, and as far as Uruguay is concerned, there are none bigger than Suarez.
“Myself, Cavani, [Diego] Godin, this will be our last time and we want to make it count,” he says. “To play in four World Cups is a dream – but we hope this will be the most special one yet.”