MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – To say that Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez has been around would be an understatement.
In his second stint as Uruguay coach, Tabarez took the South American team to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, reaching the second round before losing to Italy.
From there, he moved to numerous well-known club teams: Boca Juniors, Penarol, Cagliari, AC Milan, Oviedo, Velez Sarsfield — and then back to Boca Juniors.
Not bad for a guy who had a modest playing career as a journeyman defender.
Tabarez, after sitting out of football for several years, returned to the Uruguay national team after it failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Tabarez is a former teacher — known as "El Maestro" — who has worked over the years to build up Uruguay's youth football system. He has also tried to soften Uruguay's traditional style of rough and tough play, known in Spanish as "garra." It literally means "claw," but it translates best as determination, toughness or grit.
Uruguay is the team no one wants to play, and it still plays with lots of grit.
"We know that we are not among the favorites," Tabarez said. "But we know if we prepare well we can be a tough team to play. This is where we are focusing our attention."
Uruguay has been on quite a run under Tabarez, a modest man who shuns the spotlight and speaks softly. For several decades he has been involved with football in the country, developing youth players who eventually reached the national side.
Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America title, which was played in neighboring Argentina. That came only a year after it finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup, the best finish of any South American team.
The Uruguayans almost missed out this time, putting Tabarez under some pressure. Uruguay went through a bad run in South American qualifying but managed to finish fifth, putting it into a two-game playoff against Jordan, which it won 5-0 on aggregate.
Tabarez summed up his philosophy after returning from the last World Cup to a huge welcome.
"The road itself is the reward," he said, meaning how things are done is just as important as the result.