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Kick, pull and bite! The Uruguayan dark arts that could get Ronaldo sent off

3:00 AM EDT 6/30/18
Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal Iran World Cup 250618
The Celeste have changed their image under genius coach Oscar Tabarez but they still boast a few players with the ability to provoke opponents

On August 24, 2010, Real Madrid hosted Penarol in the Trofeo Santiago Bernabeu. It was, ostensibly, a friendly – but Marcelo 'Pato' Sosa didn't do 'friendly'.

When asked before the game how he intended to stop Cristiano Ronaldo, the former Uruguay international revealed that he would first take the Real attacker out with a tackle and then, "ruffle his hair to annoy him."

He wasn’t joking, either. Sosa levelled Ronaldo inside six minutes. Then, just before the break, as the pair were jostling before a corner, he messed up the preening Portuguese’s perfectly styled hair, provoking a furious response from the forward. 

Speaking afterwards with a beaming smile on his face, Sosa admitted to being amused that Ronaldo had appeared "more upset by me messing up his hair than the foul!"

In truth, Ronaldo had got off lightly. The history of 'The Beautiful Game' is full of ugly tales of Uruguayan skulduggery. 

After the 1930 World Cup football in Montevideo, Argentina’s players complained at having been unable to get a wink of sleep before the game because Celeste fans spent the night singing songs outside their hotel, while in Mexico, in 1986, they kicked their way into the last 16, with a straight red card for Jose Batista after just 55 seconds of their group game against Scotland the undoubted lowlight of their campaign. 

So, when Uruguay captain Diego Godin says that while his country's footballers are fiercely competitive, they are "always honest and fair", it's tough to agree, particularly when he plays alongside Luis Suarez, the man whose deliberate handball was partly responsible for Ghana’s failure to reach the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup.

But then, Suarez still has no regrets over his straight red card.

On the eve of the World Cup last-16 clash with Portugal in Sochi on Saturday, the Barcelona star admitted that the effectiveness of VAR means that "some players have less to complain about" before breaking into a smile and holding his hand up to acknowledge his reputation for appealing for fouls – even when he himself has bitten someone...

Suarez then added sincerely, "Even with VAR, though, you have to consider what’s best for your team..."

Essentially, the end justifies the means, an adage embraced by many of Suarez’s predecessors. Indeed, some Uruguayan players and supporters still revel in their reputation as the masters of football’s dark arts.

There is even a popular satirical website in Uruguay that was set up to champion the country’s tradition of treachery. However, as the name suggests, 'Que vuelva la Celeste de antes' ('Who wants the Celeste of Old'), the founders joke that the national team have become too honest; too clean.
 
They want to “reclaim the old values", which they claim – with tongue planted firmly in cheek – have been abandoned under Oscar Tabarez, the legendary coach who has revolutionised the game in Uruguay.

When the 71-year-old returned for a second spell as national team boss in 2006, the Celeste had just failed to qualify for three of the previous four World Cups. That was too much to take for a nation that had won the tournament twice. 

Consequently, they allowed the qualified teacher known as 'El Maestro' to oversee a footballing revolution, placing a greater emphasis on structure and education. Every player from the senior squad down to the Under-15s essentially became one of his pupils. 

Certainly, it was striking that Suarez seemed just as enthralled by his coach’s comments during Friday’s press conference at the Fisht Arena as every journalist present.

"We've been working together for 12 years and achieving goals, step by step, but given the limits that we have as a footballing country, we've done very well to qualify for the World Cup," Tabarez mused.

"But now that we’re here, we've started to show what we're capable of and I believe that this group is closer than ever before to achieving our true objectives."

Namely, winning the World Cup, which would be a triumph that even fans of 'La Celeste de antes' would celebrate.

In the site's match ratings, they mock players for not committing enough fouls, or for sporting braids rather than old-school, hard-man moustaches, but even they concede that Uruguay are the team that nobody wants to face in Russia

The Celeste keep the ball better than they have for years but they do not obsess over possession – Saudi Arabia had more of the ball in their Group A encounter in Rostov yet Uruguay won the game 1-0, just as they had their tournament opener, against Egypt.

The South Americans racked up three goals in seeing off 10-man Russia on matchday three but the most noteworthy aspect of their qualification for the last 16 was that they were the only side to progress without conceding a goal.

Uruguay are essentially the Atletico Madrid of international football: both teams are founded upon the defensive excellence of Godin, both play 4-4-2, and both are spearheaded by two world-class forwards. 

In short, the Celeste are a side that also specalises in organisation and frustration, which hardly bodes well for Ronaldo.

Portugal stumbled into the last 16 with a 1-1 draw against Iran, a game in which their captain became increasingly irritated by his inability to add to his tournament tally of four goals.

"Players like [Lionel] Messi and Ronaldo want to be the best and refuse to fail," Portugal coach Fernando Santos mused afterwards, "but when they fail, they get very upset."

Ronaldo got so upset, though, he very nearly got himself sent off. Having missed a penalty early in the second half, the Real Madrid forward stupidly aimed an arm in the direction of Morteza Pouraliganji in the closing stages.

The referee consulted VAR amid claims from the Iranian players that an elbow had been thrown, but Ronaldo escaped with a yellow card, just as Portugal escaped with a point that set up a meeting with Uruguay in Sochi.

Saturday will be a far greater test of Ronaldo’s character. This may not be the Celeste of old but the likes of Suarez and Godin will undoubtedly try to provoke the Selecao skipper into a costly act of petulance.

They could kick him, they could pull him, they could bite him. Worst of all, they may even ruffle his hair! How he reacts could well decide the game.