The Legacy of “El Maestro” Óscar Tabárez, the Coach Who Revived Uruguayan Soccer’s Garra Charrúa

Garra charrúa, the famed and ferocious Uruguayan fighting spirit, is an ethos based on the legacy of the indigenous Charrúa, who fought to defend their territory against the Spanish before being massacred in 1831. It’s what brought the small South American country four world championships between 1924 and 1950, what made it the world’s first soccer power.

Consider garra charrúa’s peak, at the great Maracanazo of 1950: the Uruguay vs. Brazil World Cup final. After a scoreless first half, Friaça puts the home Seleção up 1-0 in the 47th. The 200,000+ in attendance roar with delight. Unfortunately for them, Uruguayan winger Juan Schiaffino is the next to hit the mark, netting to tie it in the 66th. Regional pride on the line, Alcides Ghiggia scores a surprising strike in the 79th. 2-1 to La Celeste. Silence.

In the decades that followed that fateful day in Rio, Pelé took the reins to steer his country into the world fútbol limelight. Brazil’s Golden Era. Uruguay, in the meantime, fell into the shadows. Fourth place at the 1954 World Cup and a like result in Mexico in 1970 were the only shining spots in a decades-long downward spiral.

Given his humble history as a professional player, nobody would have expected Tabárez to make such a profound impact as a coach.

Little did we know, Óscar “El Maestro” Tabárez would arrive 20 years later, right in time to put the pieces back together with a short stint as Uruguay head coach from 1988 to 1990, followed by a longer and more fruitful stay that continues to this day.

Given his humble history as a professional player, nobody would have expected Tabárez to make such a profound impact as a coach. A 69-year-old former primary school teacher, BBC recently described him as “didactic,” a man who likes things to be “clear and simple.” Methodical, calculated, he is perhaps the no-frills antithesis to some of his squad’s biggest stars.

When Tabárez took over in 2006, he told tales of his team’s difficulties merely finding opposition; “We couldn’t play,” he said. “We were hardly competing internationally; we had not qualified for the World Cup and the previous management did not play preparatory friendlies. We had to travel to the most distant parts of the world just to have matches.”

His desire to refresh his roster, returning them to the original teachings of the escuela uruguaya – “básicamente jugar bien, con actitud y mentalización” – changed everything. Not only did Tabárez preach playing well, he managed to bring back the garra charrúa that his team had been lacking, so much so that we quite literally saw Luisito Suárez’s claw come to the rescue against Ghana in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. The fourth-place finish shocked the world, marking an international revival of the highest order for La Celeste.

“Fútbol is about more than just playing well.”

In 2011 – after winning the Campeón del Deporte de la Unesco award in 2010 – El Maestro led his side to a Copa América title, its 15th in history (in Buenos Aires no less.) He went on to win the International Federation of Football History and Statistics’ (IFFHS) Mejor Seleccionador Nacional de Mundo accolade in 2011, and three years later, his cracks fell to the best Colombia we’ve seen in decades. La Celeste came back with a vengeance in 2015 – bailing out of the next edition of the Copa América amidst controversy – but no sooner had they fallen, than Tabárez had them back on their feet, well in time for a 3-0 goleada victory at home in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying play.

“Fútbol is about more than just playing well,” Tabárez said upon his team’s win. “We wanted to return and face Chile to see what we could do, and we won with a lot of corrections, playing very cleanly.”

This transformation can be credited to the coach’s meticulous methodology, and also to his belief in fútbol as a “conduit to social change in the country.”

“I’m a soccer man,” he told The Telegraph in 2014, “but I understand that there are more important things than football. There are things that football can help. Sport can contribute greatly to health and education, which are the two measures we use of development … Soccer should help marginalized people into society, to contribute to equal opportunity, for government policies to encourage its use as an uplifting activity, to combat idleness.”

Let me just say, there is nothing idle about Uruguay captain Diego Godín. He oozes intense work ethic, guts and grittiness every time he goes up for a header or into a tough tackle. I can’t possibly think of a more perfect example to put this into perspective.

Thanks to El Maestro, we eagerly await our next opportunities to watch Uruguay fend off foes who look more powerful on paper, but don’t even come close to Uruguay’s determination and never-say-die attitudes.

March 25th. Brazil vs. Uruguay. Let the countdown commence.