Uruguay hope to recapture former glory in South Africa

By Conrado Hornos

MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - With a mixture of outstanding strikers, young talent and their traditional grit, Uruguay hope they can take a step in South Africa toward restoring some of their former soccer glory.

If the prospect of lifting the World Cup again, as they did in 1930 and 1950, might be a dream too far, the players still have the ability to be a surprise in the tournament.

The task will not be easy. La Celeste's Group A opponents are 2006 runners-up France, hosts South Africa, and Mexico.

"We must go to the World Cup with expectations because we have players who are in the important leagues along with other players from the elite teams," coach Oscar Tabarez said in a recent interview with Reuters.

"I have the hope that we could be a surprise, although at no time are we going to be believe that we are the favorites or think we are champions."

Among Uruguay's leading players is Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid who has topped La Liga's scorers' chart twice and won Europe's Golden Boot twice. There is also Luis Suarez of Ajax, top scorer in the Dutch top flight this season with 35 goals.

Another attacking option is Sebastian Abreu of Brazil's Botafogo, who is the top scorer among active Uruguay players with 24 goals in 55 internationals.

Captain Diego Lugano of Turkish side Fenerbahce is a natural leader with a temperament that epitomizes the gritty spirit of Uruguay's football. In the same mold is midfielder Diego Perez, of Monaco, who fights for every ball.

With more temperament than technique, the little country that slew mighty Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in 1950, won the Copa America 14 times and still inspires respect in opponents, must overcome the notion that they are a team of the past.

"We play strongly and we have done for many years. The team have players who know how to play good football and we hope to do so at the World Cup," Forlan said.

In recent decades La Celeste have appeared in only the 1990 and 2002 World Cups and they reached South Africa after an erratic qualifying road. Getting to the second round will be an important achievement.

The last time they reached the last eight was in 1990, when Tabarez was also coach, and they have not made the semi-finals since Mexico in 1970.

(Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Rex Gowar and Clare Fallon)