Inside Tabarez's youth system that ensures tiny Uruguay will keep punching above their weight

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'El Maestro' runs the national team like a club side, and has commanded the respect and full co-operation of his players and his bosses alike

Between Monday and Wednesday, on any given week of the year, the top 30 clubs in Uruguayan football release their best young players to national team coaches for a crash course in what it takes to be a professional.

It is part of the wide-ranging youth development plan put in place by Uruguay boss Oscar Tabarez that will ensure the tiny South American nation will not just be back challenging for next year’s Copa America and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but quite possibly for generations to come.

Uruguay are leaving Russia after a disappointing loss to France on Friday, with that familiar feeling among the defeated that they could have offered so much more, but that cannot take away from the fact that they have one of the most organised set-ups in international football.

And that will be the case whether Tabarez, now 71 and battling mobility problems, decides to stay at the helm or not. ‘El Maestro’, as he is affectionately known by everybody back home, led the team at the 1990 World Cup and was re-appointed in 2006. Since then he has overhauled Uruguayan football, the respect he has commanded effectively allowing him full control at every level of the game.

Tabarez's battle with illness

Tabarez has established a youth development system that is by this point, 12 years into the process, a conveyor belt of talent, ensuring that the country with a population of under 3.5 million people can continue to be a force in world football, just as they were when they were world champions in 1930 and 1950.

“He has practically made the national team like a club, where respect is the most important factor,” Esteban Gesto, a friend of Tabarez who worked as his fitness coach during the 1990 World Cup, tells Goal.

“He has developed generations of players via the Under-20, U17 and U15 teams. The people involved, the players and of all the members of the technical staff, are respectful and educated, individually and socially.

“Oscar has managed to forge a great level of co-operation between all of the players and all of the squads that are under his command.”

Esteban Gesto quote

Many of the squad that had threatened to spring a surprise in Russia came through this system. Jose Gimenez, Lucas Torreira and Diego Laxalt, to name but a few, were among the talented kids released by their clubs for the national team training camps held between Mondays and Wednesdays every week.

At these mini-camps U15 players train, eat and study before returning home to sleep, if they want to. The goal is to prepare them for the demands of professional senior footballers, for the long periods of time spent in concentracion at training camps across the world.

Nothing is left to chance, at any level, and what Tabarez says, goes.

“He’s managed to make the senior players go directly from the airport to training,” Gesto says. “There is a feeling of professional responsibility, of discipline, in every one of the players and he has managed to make them feel they really belong in the team, and their pride at playing for the national team is clear if you see how they work.”

Tabarez has managed upwards, too.

“Via the results that he has achieved, he has convinced the directors of the association. In Latin America it has always been very difficult to kick-start any project that requires economic outlay, but he has managed to convince them that it is an investment, not an outlay.

“He has the support of who he needs to support him, and that is to his credit, because it is not easy in South America to convince directors that it is worth the effort to try something like this, that it’s worth the effort to invest money in the sporting side of the game.”

Oscar Tabarez Uruguay

Oscar Tabarez Uruguay

For years of his second spell in charge Tabarez's duties have been more akin to an old-fashioned, all-encompassing club manager than an international coach, drawing up plans for youth development and ensuring facilities are up to scratch.

“He has managed to improve the work of all the youth teams, the selection process, and earned the respect of the clubs in the delivery of the youth players from Monday to Wednesday, which was not easy many years ago.

“And importantly he has improved the infrastructure and logistics where the Uruguay national team works, he has worked to get excellent training pitches, a covered, synthetic pitch that is vital during the winter.

“Generally he has improved and categorised the processes of developing players in the youth teams - U20, U17 and U15 - and he has created, we say here, a natural process of growth and personal and professional development of the lads who are involved.

“The youth teams are always active in some way; now for example they are preparing for the U20 South American championship in 2019. They have travelled to China and the Odesur games in Bolivia. It’s a process that allows the players to graduate to the first team naturally.

“As a result of this long process he really knows the players, he knows what they can give, and in the last few years he has managed to refresh the senior team - most noticeably in midfield - with players who have characteristics that suit the modern game.”

Indeed, Uruguay's midfield in Russia was made up of Matias Vecino, 26, Rodrigo Bentancur, 21, Nahitan Nandez, 22 and Lucas Torreira, 22. The experienced, high-quality squad that finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup and won the Copa America a year later has been replenished; for Alvaro Pereira see Laxalt, for Diego Lugano see Gimenez, for Arevalo Rios see Torreira. 

Uruguay's success is even more striking when you consider Argentina’s struggles with producing young talent. Argentina’s population is 12 times that of Uruguay, but years of infrastructural chaos at the country’s football association has left an ageing national team. Gesto suggests Uruguay’s neighbours will now embark on a youth development plan similar to Tabarez’s.

“Argentina have many millions more people than us and of course they have a huge amount of values,” Gesto says. “Argentina were many times U20 world champions and they also produce a huge amount of players, the same as Brazil.

“We are much smaller, we have smaller possibilities in terms of the number of players. What happens here is that we dream about football, we live football, and despite the small population of our country there is such a high percentage of people who play football.

“I think that Argentina will implement a new process, they have very capable people, a huge amount of qualified coaches, like Mr Bielsa among others, like [Mario] Zanabria. I think they will start a process taking into account what has happened in Uruguay and what has happened in Argentina at this moment in time.”

Esteban Gesto quote

The disappointment of defeat in Nizhny Novgorod was tangible - Gimenez was seen crying on the pitch before the final whistle, Fernando Muslera’s blunder having robbed the team of their momentum and any chance of making the semi-finals. 

“Today a dream came to an end, but just as one ends others begin, with Copas America and qualifiers, and we’re going to fight for those,” Tabarez said on Friday night, retirement seemingly far from his mind. “It hurts to lose, but perhaps today that is our reality and, today, we could not overcome it.”

The 71-year-old says the UFA will decide his future, and it will be interesting to see how his eventual successor will fare; on one hand he will surely suffer simply for not being Tabarez, but on the other he will be well-placed to benefit from the Maestro’s work.

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“Tabarez has united the Uruguayan people behind their national team, so much so that children and the new generations venerate and love their national team and its players,” Gesto explains.

“It is a truly difficult process in today's football, where only winning matters.

“He has done this through the honest effort and respect that radiates from his work and the behaviour of his players; those who were here before, those who are there now, and those who will come in the future.”

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