One of the powerhouses of South American football, Uruguay were hoping to prove their worth on the global stage this time around. They had been crowned Copa America champions both in 1983 and 1987, and in the latest edition, held in summer 1989 in Brazil, they had only been denied by the hosts, finishing 2nd in the tournament.
Head coach Óscar Tabárez (1988– ) was aiming to improve on the country’s disappointing performance in the 1986 World Cup, where they had failed to live up to expectations and instead become subject to much criticism on the grounds of unsportmanlike conduct. There were clear signs of a more positive ring about the current team, and led on by the ever more brilliant Enzo Francescoli, who also was new captain of the side, there was hope that Tabárez could not only qualify the team for the World Cup, but also revive its pride in front of a global audience. Tabárez had taken over the reins in September 1988, having most recently led Colombian side Deportivo Cali. He was perhaps more famous, however, for his role in leading Peñarol to the Copa Libertadores title in 1987.
Assistant to Óscar Tabárez was Gregorio Pérez, born in January 1948. He’d managed at club level since 1981, and had worked at a number of domestic clubs, until he became Uruguay’s U20 manager and assistant at full international level in 1988.
Francescoli – Sosa – Alzamendi
4-3-3 had become the regular formation for Uruguay under Tabárez, regardless of the opponent. The key department of the team was no doubt the attack, usually consisting of Francescoli, Sosa and Alzamendi. The above-mentioned Enzo Francescoli was at the height of his career, and was simply one of the very best trequartistas in world football. Playing in the center of that attacking trio in Tabárez’s 4-3-3, he also played deeper than the other two forwards, often drawing center backs out of position to open up space for his team mates.
And here lay some of the reason for Uruguay’s success, the brilliant dynamics and fluidness of its attacking movements. The two “wide forwards” Sosa and Alzamendi possessed qualities that complimented those of Francescoli, adding pace. With Francescoli searching the space ahead of the defence and Sosa and Alzemendi trying to run in behind the defenders, Uruguay were often successful in stretching the opponents and making them uncertain how deep they should play. Uruguay rely on a mixed approach where they usually play their way from behind, through the press of the opponent, although it happens that they play the ball into space behind the opponent’s defensive line, for Alzamendi and Sosa to run onto. Alzamendi tended to play in a wide right position, while Ruben Sosa more often drifted inside from the left. While Francescoli was the natural star of the team, Sosa also added some exceptional qualities with his explosive pace and thunderous, often unpredictable shots.
In comparison, the three midfielders were more functional, and understandably so given the attacking licences given to their front trio. But also here Tabárez could draw on the talents of at least one top player, Rubén Paz, the 1988 Player of the Year in South America. Paz is no doubt the best passer in Uruguay’s midfield, and almost raises to the role as a “second playmaker” in the shadow of Francescoli. José Perdomo (who was captain when Uruguay won the 1987 Copa America) is the holding midfielder, and is at his best when covering zones and putting in feisty tackles. Beside these two, Tabárez has plenty of options for the third spot, but tends to opt for Santiago Ostolaza, who adds plenty of physical presence with his 1,90 m. There are decent alternatives, however, in the shape of Bengoechea and Correa.
Consistent back four
At the back, Uruguay could rely on a solid defensive unit, whose mutual understanding certainly only was growing thanks to the consistency of Tabárez’ team selections. In all likelihood, Tabárez would continue with a back four consisting of Herrera, de León, Gutiérrez (or Reverez) and Domínguez, who had performed so admirably in the Copa America. The defence tended to sit rather deep, and was helped by a disciplined and well-structured midfield in stifling the opposition. Uruguay tend however to be committed to attack and send men forward, and playing 4-3-3 there could be situations where they are vulnerable in being hit on the counter. This vulnerability of course also explains Tabárez’ need for having hard-working players in his midfield.
Friendly: Italy 1-1 Uruguay
Line-up (4-3-3): Seré – Herrera, Reverez, De León, Domínguez – Perdomo, Correa (Ostolaza 73), Bengoechea (Aguilera 78) – Alzamendi, Francescoli (c), Sosa.
Friendly: Uruguay 3-1 Ecuador
Goals: Martínez, Aguilera (2)
Line-up: Seré – Herrera, Revelez, de León, Domínguez – Perdomo, Correa (Ostolaza), Paz – Aguilera, Martínez, Castro (Barón)
Friendly: Ecuador 1-1 Uruguay
Line-up: Zeoli – Herrera, Revelez, de León, Saldanha (Borges) – Perdomo, Dalto, Pereira – Aguilera, Martínez (da Silva), Suárez
Friendly: Bolivia 0-0 Uruguay
Line-up: Zeoli – Herrera, Revelez, de León, Domínguez – Perdomo, Suárez (Dalto), Pereira – Aguilera, da Silva, Castro (Correa)
Friendly: Uruguay 1-0 Bolivia
Goal: Aguilera (pen)
Line-up: Zeoli – Herrera, Revelez, de León, Domínguez – Ostolaza, Pereira (Correa), Suárez (Martínez) – Aguilera, da Silva, Castro (Dalto)
Friendly: Uruguay 2-2 Chile
Goals: Correa (2)
Line-up: Zeoli – Saldanha, Revelez, de León, Domínguez – Ostolaza, Pereira (Correa), Paz – Aguilera, Martínez, Dalto (Castro)
First group stage
02.07.1989: Ecuador 1-0 Uruguay (Estádio Serra Dourada, Goiânia, Brazil)
Line-up (4-3-3): Zeoli – Herrera (Bengoechea 58), Revelez, de León (c), Domínguez – Correa, Ostolaza, Paz – Alzamendi (Martínez 75), Aguilera, Sosa
04.07.1989:Uruguay 3-0 Bolivia (Estádio Serra Dourada, Goiânia)
Goals: Ostolaza (2), Sosa
Line-up (4-3-3): Zeoli – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León (c), Domínguez – Correa, Ostolaza, Paz (Pereira 79) – Alzamendi, Bengoechea, Sosa (Aguilera 79). Unused subs: Seré, Saldanha, da Silva
Having lost against Ecuador, Tabárez made a couple of changes for the clash against the Bolivians, whom they would later tackle in the World Cup qualification. Gutiérrez came in for Revelez to partner de León at the heart of the defence, while Bengoechea replaced Aguilera in the role between the two wide strikers in Francescoli’s continued suspension absence. Again, Ostolaza was in the deep midfield position (as Perdomo also, like Francescoli, served the final of his two-match ban after the red cards which they picked up for the incidents in the 1987 Copa América final), with Correa working to his advanced right, while Paz resumed his playmaking duties from the slightly advanced inside-left role which he held. They were looking the more confident in the early exchanges, but lost Bengoechea to a harsh red card on 13 minutes. The Brazilian referee felt he’d gone in too hard and studs first on Roca. Even a man inferior, Uruguay did look confident enough, but failed to create anything in terms of opportunities until the opposition had Roca sent off for two bookable offences in quick succession. Then followed a wonderstrike by Ostolaza from a full 30 yards, though the ball struck the underside of the bar and went in off the head of goalkeeper Barrero, and shortly after right-back Herrera set up Sosa for the second. Well on top, the Celeste could’ve added to the scoreline in first half injury time, as an Alzamendi cut-back went off Bolivia defender Martínez’ foot and hit the upright. After the sending off of Bengoechea, Alzamendi/Sosa worked in somewhat more central roles than originally. Ostolaza headed in a third on the hour, and the Uruguayans were satisfied. They sat back, let their opponents keep possession, and looked to hit Bolivia on the break, although their efforts were hardly of a stern nature. Sosa and the highly impressive Paz were replaced by Aguilera and Pereira in identical roles. Uruguay were well worth their win, and could have done more had they needed to.
06.07.1989: Uruguay 3-0 Chile (Estádio Serra Dourada, Goiânia)
Goals: Sosa, Alzamendi, Francescoli
Line-up: Zeoli – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León, Domínguez – Perdomo, Ostolaza, Paz (Correa 65) – Alzamendi, Francescoli (c) (Aguilera 79), Sosa. Unused subs: Seré, Saldanha, Pereira
Uruguay were delighted to have both Perdomo and Francescoli available again after the pair had served their two match bans following the heated encounter with the very same Chile in the Copa América final two years earlier. The Marseille ace’s return could hardly have been more timely, as Bengoechea this time sat out following his red card last time around. Correa also gave way (to Perdomo). Once again, retrieving the entire 90 minutes has proved an insurmountable task, and so we’re indebted to merely a seven minute brief resume. Uruguay, however, turn on the style, as they dismantle the Chileans with the same scoreline that they had racked up against Bolivia in their previous match. Chile lost striker Letelier with a first half red card. Like this, the Celeste were looking very likely to progress through from this group, although there were still a few permutations which could swing the pendulum in the final bout of matches. Sosa headed in a first half corner from Alzamendi, while the latter increased the lead in the second half following a misplaced pass by Vera, and then Francescoli put the icing on the cake with a goal on his comeback following a swift transition.
08.07.1989: Argentina 1-0 Uruguay (Estádio Serra Dourada, Goiânia)
Line-up (4-3-3): Zeoli – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León, Domínguez – Perdomo, Ostolaza (Bengoechea 72), Paz (Aguilera 72) – Alzamendi, Francescoli (c), Sosa. Unused subs: Seré, Saldanha, Correa
Coming into this their final first group stage game, Uruguay could not really rely on a draw being sufficient to take them through to the next phase, as they’d have to expect the Argentinians to overcome Bolivia in their final fixture, and thus surpass Uruguay’s tally of five points. Why? Because there was also Ecuador in this equation. A win for them against Chile would definitely see them through. After successive 3-0 wins, the mood in the Celeste camp must have been a vibrant one, even if this was about as massive as it got, with arch-rivals Argentina providing the opposition. The starting eleven was identical with last time around, and after an early Sosa opportunity saved by the Argentina ‘keeper, Uruguay’s fortune had it that Ruggeri got himself sent off on 17 minutes after two bookable challenges, the latter on Francescoli. Surely, playing eleven against ten (?) for the remainder of the game was going to be a huge advantage. Argentina made sure to crowd out the central areas, as they were looking to suffocate the Uruguayans. Bilardo didn’t make any substitutions in the wake of the red card; only had the defensive midfield duo work in pretty much the same areas where they had set out, with Uruguay not operating with an out and out centre-forward. Even Basualdo and Calderón were booked before 20 minutes. Uruguay were fought out of their rhythm, as they couldn’t find any attacking cohesion through to half time. Another Sosa effort, a header, easily gathered by Pumpido, and also a yellow card for Francescoli, were all the Celeste could muster in the opening 45. Having become progressively frustrated as the first half went along, things didn’t improve after the interval, and despite the fact they were a man to the good, it was Argentina which looked the team more likely to break the duck. Perdomo and Paz picked up bookings, and finally the Argentinian goal came through their substitute Caniggia following a Maradona pass. The introduction of Bengoechea and Aguilera did briefly seem to inspire, and Perdomo saw a stinging effort tipped over the bar by Pumpido, and then Brown interfered as Sosa had looked to thread Alzamendi through. The 1-0 scoreline stood by the full-time whistle, and Uruguay were now looking very unlikely to progress. They would need Ecuador to lose to Chile, but not by a bigger margin than three goals.
Second group stage
12.07.1989: Uruguay 3-0 Paraguay (Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro)
Goals: Francescoli, Alzamendi, Paz
Line-up (4-3-3): Zeoli – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León, Domínguez – Ostolaza, Perdomo, Paz – Alzamendi, Francescoli (c) (Correa 71), Sosa (da Silva 88). Unused subs: Seré, Saldanha, Pereira
It had been an edgy final day of the original group stage for Uruguay, as they were not in action, and were depending on results to go their way for them to remain second in the table, and thus progress to this final phase. Their major worry must have been whether Ecuador would actually concede. Had they not, Ecuador would’ve progressed at the expense of Uruguay. Now Tabárez’ men were here in Rio, and the manager’s starting eleven seemed pretty much a foregone conclusion. Uruguay’s philosophy was to sit back and let Paraguay play, although they made sure not to sit too deep, and whenever they won the ball, the emphasis was to break at pace. From one such turn-over they scored the only goal of the half courtesy of captain Francescoli, as Sosa had got to the ball before goalkeeper Fernández along the Uruguayan right hand side. Paz had at times looked likely to make something happen, though it had been at the back where the Celeste had looked the most uncompromising so far. Zeoli had stopped a Cañete effort without much trouble, while de León had cleared a cross over his own bar. All to play for in the second half. After the break, Uruguay saw little reason to alter their tactics; they remained in wait for the Paraguayans. Swiftly, they made use of lighteningly quick breaks, although they were quite wasteful, with Alzamendi the chief culprit, as he wasted no less than three fine opportunities to score. Uruguay owed a lot also to Zeoli for keeping a clean sheet, as he twice saved on his near post from Mendoza, who had got in behind Herrera. He also tipped a Neffa header over the bar, and finally, stopped an injury time Jacquet free-kick from finding the top right corner. By then, the Celeste were three goals to the good, as Alzamendi had finally managed to tuck one home, and then Paz coolly finished yet another counter-attack. It was Uruguay’s third 3-0 win of the competition. When Francescoli had gone off, Paz went into his more forward role. Superb start to the final series, although the game was more evenly balanced than the scoreline suggests.
14.07.1989: Uruguay 2-0 Argentina (Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro)
Goals: Sosa (2)
Line-up (4-3-3): Zeoli – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León, Domínguez – Ostolaza, Perdomo (Correa h-t), Paz (Pereira 80) – Alzamendi, Francescoli (c), Sosa. Unused subs: Seré, Saldanha, da Silva
After their counter-attacking feast against Paraguay, would Tabárez follow identical tactical outlines on this occasion? They had fallen short to the Argentinians only six days earlier, and needed to make amends if they were to seriously challenge for the title. Uruguay were once again unchanged, and there had seemed little reason anyway for the boss to change anything around. They were a strong, coherent outfit, with so much pace to burn going forward. Any opponent would need to be wary of their counter-attacking credentials. The Celeste looked on top in the early phases, creating various opportunities, and looking like they didn’t have to rely just on swift breaks. Ostolaza was unfortunate to see the ball come back off the upright from his close range effort following a Paz corner from the right. Sosa had threatened, Paz had drawn a save from Pumpido, and Alzamendi’s pace was always keeping Cuciuffo awake. Having failed to seize on any of their early chances, Uruguay soon fell into the trap of being too slow, something which the opposition took advantage of, as Argentina started to look stronger. There were tackles both ways which were a bit over the top, and Sosa was fortunate not to come off worse than he did after Clausen had literally kicked him to the ground. Perdomo soon retaliated, although against Troglio rather than Clausen the culprit. Uruguay and Zeoli in particular were fortunate to see Maradona’s audacious lob from the centre-circle cannon back off the crossbar, with the goalkeeper well beaten, and minutes later Sosa, alert as ever, sniffed the danger as Sensini failed to spot him when attempting a back pass. The striker collected the assist, rounded the ‘keeper and slotted into the empty net for a precious 1-0 lead. It hadn’t been all plain sailing in the opening 45 minutes, but they didn’t mind now they had their goal. Perdomo came off at half-time, with Correa taking his central midfield role. The Uruguayans had to endure spells of quite severe Argentina pressure, and they might have been a tad fortunate on the hour as substitute Balbo’s goal was chalked off. This saw the Argentinians lose their discipline, and they had Ruggeri sent off against Uruguay yet again! He had cynically hacked Sosa down. Ten v eleven, the Argentinians kept looking desperately for that equalizer, and they ought to have been awarded a penalty for Gutiérrez’ bad foul on Caniggia inside the area. Sosa then sped past Sensini and chipped the ‘keeper for 2-0 with eight minutes remaining, and the super-forward had all but ensured Uruguay were playing for the title against Brazil two days later. Pereira came on for a jaded Paz with ten minutes to go, and this prompted Ostolaza into the central role among the three midfielders, moving Correa into the inside right job, with Pereira slotting directly in for Paz. Solid at the back, yet they had endured some hairy moments, but another vital win was secured.
16.07.1989: Brazil 1-0 Uruguay (Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro)
Line-up: Zeoli – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León, Domínguez – Ostolaza (Correa 70), Perdomo, Paz (da Silva 70) – Alzamendi, Francescoli (c), Sosa
After a very physically demanding batch of matches in just over two weeks, Uruguay had arrived for the final showdown against the hosts, and with both having identical records in the final series, a win would make either team champions; a draw would take the game to a penalty shoot-out. Uruguay were, as one would’ve expected, sitting deep and inviting the opposition on to them, hoping to find the means to expose the Brazilians on the break. While they looked secure at the back, with Gutiérrez and de León controlling Brazil’s dangerous front-two, neither of Paz or Francescoli were capable of leaving their print on the first half. Alzamendi was looking to use his pace, but was kept in check, while Sosa, quite drifting from one side to another, was also rather quiet. Ostolaza had to cover a lot of ground defensively, and was almost acting as a second holding midfielder alongside Perdomo, while there was next to no attacking contribution from either full-back. Zeoli saw a Bebeto free-kick just wide, while he held on to a couple of other efforts from the home side. Improvement after the break would be welcome, although at 0-0, this game was still as finely balanced as any neutral could’ve wished for. Uruguay conceded within five minutes of the restart courtesy of a Romário near post header, and thus were gradually forced to abandon their defensive stance. They did have more of the possession as the game went on, but they could hardly find the necessary creativity to break down a resilient Brazilian defence. Players were clearly looking jaded, and both Ostolaza and Paz needed to come off in order to add some fresh legs in the shape of Correa and forward da Silva. They went 4-2-1-3, with Francescoli working just behind that front three, but they couldn’t put the hosts properly to the sword, and Perdomo should have walked for a savage stamp on Mazinho when already on a yellow. Some light time-wasting tactics from the hosts contributed to the Uruguayans’ frustration, and they couldn’t get any nearer a goal than Sosa’s relatively tame flicked header goalwards, caught by the ‘keeper, from a Paz right wing corner on the hour.
Friendly: Uruguay 0-0 Ecuador
Line-up: Pereira – Herrera, Gutiérrez, de León, Domínguez – Ostolaza, Pereira (Castro), Correa – Alzamendi, Paz, Sosa