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Washington Tabarez epitomizes class
'El Maestro' at work: Since his hiring in 2006, Óscar Washington Tabárez has led Uruguay back to international prominence. (Photo by Dante Fernandez/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Coincidence though it might be, there is something ever so sweet about the timing of Óscar Washington Tabárez’s return to Italy as coach of Uruguay for a friendly tonight. He arrives in the wake of Silvio Berlusconi’s long overdue resignation from the post of Prime Minister. Ousted from office after losing his majority, this had the unmistakable feeling of what goes around comes around.
Almost 15 years ago, Tabárez had been pressured by Berlusconi to hand in his notice at Milan. A 3-2 loss to Piacenza on December 1, 1996 was the seventh of the season. Like a gentleman, he assumed responsibility, collected his things from room No.5 at Milanello and exited with great dignity.
Sympathy wasn’t lacking. To the media, he was ‘poor Tabárez’, but he did not appreciate being spoken of as such. “I am not poor. I consider myself rich inside,” he said. Respectful of Milan, he was not afforded the same courtesy by Berlusconi. The billionaire, already suspicious of his coach’s socialism and admiration for Che Guevara, feigned never to have even heard of Tabárez. “Who is he? A singer at San Remo?” Berlusconi joked in reference to Italy’s Song Contest and its terrible acts.
That snide remark made Tabárez a figure of fun in Serie A. He embarked on a second stint at Cagliari in 1999, but soon received his marching orders after picking up one point from four games against Lazio, Juventus, Perugia and Venezia.
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Treated unfairly, he hasn’t been back until now. Yet it would be wrong to suggest Tabárez harbors any ill-will towards his former employers in Serie A. “Life is up and down,” he said. “It is never flat. That goes for me as it does for everyone.” Even for Berlusconi? “Yes. That goes for everyone,” he replied.
Plagued by scandals, Berlusconi’s reputation has declined as Tabárez’s has risen. To use the coach’s own words, this is the “most beautiful, most thrilling moment” of his career. Semi-finalists at the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay won the Copa America last summer and are now fourth in the FIFA rankings, a remarkable achievement for a nation with a population of 3.5m.
What makes Tabárez’s success so enjoyable is how he learned from the mistakes he made in the past at Milan in 1996 and Boca Juniors in 2002.
“I arrived at the end of a cycle of success obtained by a group of players who now found themselves at the end of their careers,” he told So Foot in October. “The 1994 Champions League victory was a swansong for Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Zvonimir Boban, and Dejan Savicevic.
“Joining after that was really very tough. Moreover they recalled Arrigo Sacchi to replace me. He didn’t do any better than me [as Milan finished 11th] and then Fabio Capello came back and he didn’t do any better either. His points-per-game average was inferior to mine. It took Carlo Ancelotti to invert the tendency.
“It was the same at Boca. I arrived after Carlos Bianchi [had won the Copa Libertadores back-to-back]. It was complicated to match his results. We finished second but it was considered a failure. Each time, my status as a foreigner was a problem. They demanded more from a foreigner than a local and that’s logical.”
After he was sacked by Boca, Tabárez was out of the game for four years. He turned down offers to return to coaching to reflect on his football philosophy. He didn’t want to make the same mistakes. “Many of the things that I have implemented today were borne out of that moment… I didn’t want to work just for the money. I aspired to something different.”
When Uruguay reached out to Tabárez in 2006, he outlined a number of conditions before accepting the job for a second time. It had to be on his terms. His staff were to be in charge of all age groups. There was to be an emphasis on fair-play and education to inculcate a tolerance of defeat while performances were to be judged first and results second.
Tabárez has been able to do things his way. He has overseen the development of a fine generation of players and eased the adaptation, particularly of Edinson Cavani, Jorge Fucile and Sebastián Coates, into the national team. Well-organized defensively with an attack envied throughout the world, Uruguay are a team to be feared.
If that’s now the case, there’s no doubt it’s down to Tabárez drawing on his wealth of experience. That includes his 137 days at Milan. Tabárez has revealed himself to be no more a singer at San Remo than Berlusconi was ever a creditable Prime Minister. He is an outstanding tactician, deserving of his place on FIFA’s shortlist for Coach of the Year, and after a 4-0 win at home to Chile in World Cup qualifying on Friday, Uruguay look set to give Italy one of their sternest tests yet under the management Cesare Prandelli.
It promises to be a fascinating encounter.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.