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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK

Football's debt to Uruguay

By Tim Vickery
BBC Sport Online

With drums, and hearts beating faster still, Uruguay celebrated their last-ditch qualification for the World Cup with a huge dose of relief.

It was hard not to feel sorry for Australia - their defeated opponents, beaten 3-1 on aggregate after a slender 1-0 first-leg lead.

They needed to make it to a World Cup to launch football as a mass sport in their country, and for the third time running they had lost in a play-off.

" Football owes a huge debt to the Uruguayans, a debt which many round the world have now forgotten "
Tim Vickery

Even so, it was harder still not to celebrate with Uruguay.

If Australia had been successful then Uruguay, for the first time ever, would have missed out on three consecutive World Cups.

It would have killed off what remains of the nation's footballing self-esteem.

Other countries have their history, it is said, while Uruguay has its football.

It is much more than mere rhetoric.

Beyond anything that happened over the 180 minutes against Australia Uruguay's qualification was deserved for two reasons.

Firstly, because football owes a huge debt to the Uruguayans, a debt which many round the world have now forgotten.

Their gold medal in the 1924 Olympics changed the way football was played.

No one had heard of them when they arrived in Paris.

But their style of play - full of short passes and movement, invention and wizardry - was immediately seen as being much more attractive than the more muscular style of the day.

Pua's humility

On the back of winning gold in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, they were given the right to organise the first World Cup, and worked hard to ensure its success.

So football's global success today - both in the way it is played and watched - was given enormous impetus by the Uruguayans.

The second reason for finding their qualification deserved is the humility of coach Victor Pua.

" Pua scoured the country looking for talented youngsters "
Tim Vickery

He was bright enough to realise that qualification is not a birthright, that a country of just three-and-a-half million people will inevitably struggle against far bigger nations.

Pua perceived that Uruguay could only be successful as a result of a process, and then worked hard to put that process into action.

He scoured the country looking for talented youngsters, and organised them into the team that went to the World Youth Cup in Malaysia in 1997.

Through that route came defender Alejandro Lembo, superb midfield general Pablo Garcia, flying forward Mario Regueiro and attacking midfielder Nico Olivera.

Youth talent

Two years later the World Youth Cup side included magnificent keeper Fabian Carini, impressive centre-back Gonzalo Sorondo and dynamic striker Javier Chevanton.

Many were also taken to the 1999 Copa America, as, from boys to men, Pua groomed them for the World Cup challenge.

Now they have proved themselves up to the task, Uruguay will be looking to make the most of their involvement in the first World Cup of the new millennium.

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