[STATE OF THE GAME] One of the biggest challenges confronting head coaches in professional soccer today is managing different players' personalities. In a society that worships individuals and deifies celebrities, there is perhaps no bigger task than convincing a superstar athlete with an oversized ego to favor the interests of the team above his own.
The most successful coaches are the ones who are able to get the best out of these complicated individuals or who are able to recognize when such “divas” are irretrievably toxic to the team and drop them. They also choose players who believe that playing for your country is an honor, which is why, no matter how talented, a player whose first priority is his own celebrity should not be selected for the national team.
The most effective coaches also understand that qualities such as respect, empathy, pride, and selflessness must permeate the team and each of its players. A player will only come into full maturity once those core elements are acquired. You cannot have the player without the human being.
What a shame, then, that some individual players on the international stage have recently shown themselves to be oblivious to this human element, displaying self-centered, diva-like behavior. It is not uncommon these days to see professional teams in many sports, not just soccer, with players in their midst whose primary concern is self-promotion at the expense of the group. Such characters, in wanting to be the center of attention in a team sport, create havoc and, like cancerous cells, eventually contaminate the whole organism. The culture of sport, in its fascination with celebrity, has lost its appreciation for the human element.
The Uruguayan team that won the 2011 Copa America and finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup stands in admirable contrast to such trends. They were tactically disciplined, well organized, and lethal in the counterattack with the play of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez up front. On the back they were led by the solid play of their captain, the caudillo and a veritable Wall of China, Diego Lugano.
How can a little country with fewer than 4 million people have so much glory, pride and honor in the way they play soccer? Players on the Uruguayan national team understand and honor the sacrifices of previous generations by sacrificing everything for the country, knowing their responsibility, and putting the interests of the team above their own at all times.
Their play is a display of guts, resilience, and the promise to each other in the field never to surrender. They fight and fight until the very end. They have a truly warrior-like, team-first mentality that is a pleasure to watch.
The head coach of the squad, “El Maestro,” Oscar Tabarez, has always made mention of the need to form human beings and the man before the player. The camaraderie and cohesion of the Uruguayan team was clear in the way the players talked about each other in interviews, by the reactions of the substitute players on the bench when a goal was scored, and by the exhilarating way the players came together in the field.
They also paid tribute and graciously addressed every opponent following matches. Tabarez made the reading of the biography of the iconic captain of the 1950 World Cup team Obdulio Varela mandatory for all players. Varela was a fierce, relentless defender who had the respect of all his teammates, compatriots and opponents. He epitomizes how a player should carry himself both on and off the field.
Following the historic win against Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final that traumatized the Brazilian nation, Varela declined to celebrate with Uruguayan officials, whom he did not hold in the highest regard.
After his victory, he chose instead to go out on the streets of Rio by himself to console the inconsolable -- those who had just lost the Cup on their own soil.
It is evident that Tabárez was able to infuse the spirit of Varela, the spirit of both the human being and the player, into the heart of his team. Perhaps it is just that which leads to a remarkable championship team.
(Ricardo Guerra is an Exercise Physiologist. He has a Masters of Science in Sports Physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several clubs and teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams. The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)