KIMBERLEY, South Africa: Oscar Tabarez has instilled a sense of harmony in the Uruguay team and become precisely the kind of leader the players need to manage all the hype surrounding the country’s biggest football match in four decades.
"As a person he is mild and calm," midfielder Alvaro Fernandez said Wednesday, two days ahead Uruguay’s World Cup quarterfinal against Ghana. "Very cautious about the things he says and that also makes us calm."
Uruguayan teams over the years have developed a reputation for being ill-tempered, drawing unnecessary yellow and red cards in big matches. This time, Tabarez’ calm seems to have spread to the squad.
When the two-time champion faces Ghana on Friday it will be the first time since 1970 that Uruguay has played the quarterfinals at football’s marquee tournament.
And while Tabarez is aware of the excitement his team’s performance has generated at home, he tries to keep his thoughts — and those of his players — focused on the task ahead.
"I try not to think about those things … because they affect your concentration, even if you try to avoid it," the 63-year-old Tabarez said.
Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup in 1930 and won it again in 1950 when it was held in Brazil. Since then, Uruguay’s best run finished in the semifinals in 1970.
Nicknamed "maestro," Tabarez made a name for himself as a coach when he led Uruguayan club Penarol to the Copa de Libertadores title in 1987.
The former school teacher then guided the national team to the second round of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Uruguay’s best result in 20 years.
He moved to Europe but didn’t achieve success with Milan, and returned to South America after a brief spell at Spanish club Oviedo. After Uruguay failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, Tabarez took charge of the national team for a second time.
Uruguay has conceded only one goal in three wins and a draw, and the players give Tabarez credit for the team’s success.
"It’s indisputable that during these years his work has been serious, professional, well-planned and coherent, perhaps more than ever in Uruguay," Captain Diego Lugano said.
Tabarez made difficult decisions when he selected his squad. He left out Cristian Rodriguez, an experienced player, and opted for rising stars such as Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
"He is quite calm as a coach, with a lot of experience, who knows how to handle the group very well," forward Diego Forlan said. "The experience that he has from (the 1990 World Cup) and other teams has helped us all a lot."
Uruguay was fifth in South American qualifying, behind Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina, and had to beat Costa Rica in an intercontinental playoff to earn a spot at the World Cup. All of the South American qualifiers except Chile are into the quarterfinals.
Cavani said Uruguay’s success stems from a process that began when Tabarez took over the team and continues to grow.
"In South Africa we are seeing the results of those efforts," he said.