By DEREK GATOPOULOS
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
ROSTOV-ON-DON, RUSSIA -- Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez paid tribute to Luis Suarez as the team prepared for Wednesday's World Cup match against Saudi Arabia - the 100th international appearance for the Barcelona striker.
"It is a big number, but not just a number. It means so much more to a player," Tabarez said on Tuesday. "Since he came up from the youth squad, Suarez has always had a pivotal role."
The 31-year-old failed to shine in the opening match against Egypt, where the South Americans struggled before a late goal from defender Jose Gimenez gave them a 1-0 victory.
"I think there is agreement that [Suarez] did not have his best game against Egypt, but players are not programmable robots. They need support," Tabarez said. "His potential remains intact." Suarez has scored 51 goals for Uruguay and is playing in his third World Cup.
His participation in 2014 was cut short after he infamously bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.
In 2010, he was again at the centre of controversy when he was sent off for using his hand to stop a goal from Ghana in the quarterfinal round before Uruguay advanced in a penalty shootout.
Uruguay was the only South American team to win its opening match in a tournament where upsets have been commonplace. Tabarez's squad is hoping to secure qualification Wednesday, but he said the Saudis would be keen to restore pride after their 5-0 thrashing by Russia.
"We are not expecting a red carpet," he said. "They have fast and competent players. ... But, like everyone here, they have their strengths and weaknesses."
At his fourth World Cup with Uruguay, the 71-year-old Tabarez is the oldest coach in the tournament, and he reflected on the importance of the game in his home country, a twotime champion with just 3.5 million people.
"There are not many countries that can say football is part of their identity, but we are one of them. Back home, even the monuments have been painted light blue. The pedestrian crossings have been repainted in blue and white," he said.
"As with 2014, I expect more letters for old ladies who will confide in me that they have always hated football. But when they see us win they run out of the house and hug the first person they find. ... In Uruguay, football is a religion."