Pioneers Uruguay back
after 12-year absence
Uruguay, who played a pioneering role in creating the World Cup, will make a welcome return to the finals in Japan and South Korea after watching the previous two tournaments from afar.
The Celestes (Sky Blues) clinched the 32nd and final place by beating Australia 3-1 on aggregate in a play-off after finishing fifth in the South American qualifying group.
Under the pragmatic coaching of Victor Pua, Uruguay, the smallest nation to have won the trophy, will at the very least be hoping to emulate their performance in Italy in 1990 when they reached the last 16.
To do so they will have to emerge from a difficult Group A, where they face holders France, Denmark, and Senegal.
Uruguay conceded only 14 goals in 20 qualifiers, illustrating that their strength lies in a defence which is led by the world-class Paolo Montero of Juventus.
Behind the back four is the outstanding Fabian Carini, who at 21 has the potential to become one of the world's great goalkeepers.
Other key players are defensive midfielder Pablo Garcia, attacking midfielder Alvaro Recoba, who will be a threat to Uruguay's opponents the moment he gets the ball on his left foot, and the quick, powerful Dario Silva of Malaga up front.
Uruguay have also surprisingly recalled 32-year-old striker Daniel Fonseca, their only man to have played in a World Cup finals.
Uruguay's resurrection owes much to Pua, who took over as coach halfway through the qualifying campaign after former Argentina captain Daniel Passarella walked out in a row over the release of players for a friendly.
Pua helped to groom the current squad of players when he was in charge of Uruguay's under-20 team, scouring the country for talent and leading his proteges to the World Youth Cup final in 1997 and the semifinals in 1999.
Several of the players he discovered and helped to develop -- such as defender Alejandro Lembo and midfielders Mario Regueiro and Garcia -- are getting ready for Uruguay's first World Cup in 12 years.
Uruguay's weakness is still in attack and they scored only 22 goals -- only fractionally more than one a game on average -- in qualifying.
Critics blame Pua's conservative tactics, as the coach invariably shuts up shop as soon as Uruguay take the lead in a game. Pua argues that he is simply adapting to the realities of modern football.
Japan and South Korea will present Uruguay with a chance to reverse a seemingly endless decline.
The country used to be a major force and played a major role in turning soccer into an international sport.
Uruguay were pioneers of the short-passing game as they won the 1924 and 1928 Olympic titles with a brand of football never seen before in Europe.
They were also at the forefront as the World Cup became a reality.
While nations such as England remained in isolation in the early days, Uruguay hosted and won the first tournament in 1930 at the Centenario stadium which is still used for their home games.
Uruguay were triumphant again in 1950 and reached the semifinals four years later but, since then, have adopted a more defensive approach.
Despite continuing to churn out world-class players for Europe's biggest clubs, the country has never managed to recapture the success of the early years.
They made the semifinals in 1970 but since then have appeared at only three more World Cups and have never got beyond the last 16.
They have also acquired a reputation for gamesmanship, violent play and petulance, which Uruguayans say is undeserved.
Occasionally, though, Uruguay's passion for the game still boils over.
Two members of the current squad -- striker Richard Morales and left-back Dario Rodriguez -- were among nine players arrested after a huge brawl on the pitch at the end of a Penarol-Nacional derby at the Centenario stadium at the end of the 2000 season.
The players were locked up for eight days after kicking and punching each other in the centre circle in an incident seen by hundreds of thousands of television viewers.
Australia's visit to Montevideo in November turned into a diplomatic incident after the visitors said they were pushed, shoved and spat at on as they arrived at Carrasco airport.