[PORTRAIT] Uruguay's glory days -- the achievements that led to its 1966 World Cup coach Ondino Viera saying that "Other countries have their history and Uruguay has its soccer" -- are in the distant past. But now, thanks much to young striker Luis "El Pistolero" Suarez, Uruguayans are starting to feel like a soccer power once again.
Uruguay -- the smallest nation ever to win the World Cup -- has reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 1970. The 23-year-old Suarez scored in the Celeste’s 1-0 win over Mexico in its final group game and struck twice in the 2-1 victory over South Korea in the round of 16 to set up a quarterfinal showdown with Ghana on Friday.
After his gamewinner against South Korea, Suarez said, “It’s what you dream about as a child and imagine: ‘I’m at a World Cup and I score a goal.'
“It was the most important goal of my career. You think about your family, my wife and my daughter. And the people at home in Uruguay. They support us through the good and the bad times.”
Ghana, the only African nation still in the competition, should enjoy “home” support, but the Black Stars are hobbled by injuries and face the perhaps the tournament’s most formidable frontline duo in Suarez and Diego Forlan.
"Luis and I have a great relationship,” says Forlan, who scored twice in a 3-0 win over host South Africa. "There is no secret as we both take turns to play furthest forward. Sometimes we switch to go wide, but at the top, we stand next to the defender closest to his goal and try to become the first to the ball.”
Suarez left his hometown of Salto for Montevideo – 300 miles away -- to join the youth program of Uruguayan power Nacional at age 11. He became a first-team starter at age 18 in 2005, and like most top Uruguayan talent, Suarez didn’t stay long in his homeland’s league. In a nation with a population of 3.3 million, Uruguayan clubs can't afford to hold on to its stars.
Nacional sold him for about $1.3 million to the Netherland’s Groningen in 2006. After 14 goals in 35 games for Groningen, he was snapped up by Ajax Amsterdam for a transfer fee of about $8 million. (At the 2007 U-20 World Cup, Suarez scored twice, including one in a round-of-16 loss to the USA, which lost in the quarterfinals to Austria.)
Suarez’s extraordinary scoring rate for Ajax last season has the Dutch team reportedly putting a price tag upward of $40 million on the sharpshooter. For now, Suarez is focusing on Uruguay’s quest to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time since finishing fourth in 1970.
Uruguay hosted the first World Cup, in 1930, having been granted the honor for winning Olympic gold in 1924 and 1928, and lifted the trophy. The Celeste won its second World Cup in 1950 with the famous Maracanazo upset over host Brazil.
A Brazil-Uruguay clash could take place if the Uruguayans conquer Ghana and the Brazilians defeat the Netherlands. If so, Uruguay will have its history to instill confidence – but more importantly, the deadly accuracy of El Pistolero.