With both nations not at their best in qualification, are Australia and Uruguay bound for another epic World Cup play-off tie?
18 Nov 2012 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2014 - 4:59 PM

Disclaimer time – I’m not Australian. Much to my regret, I’ve never even visited the great southern land. I have family in Perth but I’ve never had any contact with them. I feel, therefore, no obligation whatsoever to support the Socceroos.

In fact, I would not be heartbroken if they do not qualify directly for the next World Cup – part of me would prefer them to have to make do with the play-offs.

The reason is the happy memories I have of those epic matches against Uruguay in 2001 and 2005. I was in the stadium in Montevideo both times.

In 2001 I was sitting among the Australian journalists as it all went very quiet in the second half – it is where I first heard the expression 'spit the dummy’.

Four years later I had the honour to be working with the SBS team. It gave me some priceless memories – one of the production staff being freaked out by the sheer intensity of the atmosphere pre-kick off, while commentator Simon Hill licked his lips and relished the occasion; making my way with Les Murray down from the cabins and through the crowd just before half time, ready to do a pitch side piece at the interval, missing Uruguay’s goal on the way and having to force our way back to catch the replay on TV.

And of course, the second leg in Sydney. I was standing in the early morning air in a square in the centre of Montevideo, surrounded by distraught Uruguayans at the end of the penalty shoot out, catching the euphoria from the other side of the world in my ear piece.


Les asked me to agree that the better side had made it to the World Cup. I had just done my own little boxing scorecard, where over the two legs I thought Uruguay’s extra-time rally might just have snatched a points verdict.

It was not an observation I thought appropriate to share with an Australian audience at that precise moment.

The truth is that I enjoyed the whole thing so much that I would love to do it all again in a year’s time. Since the last place in the 2014 World Cup will be decided in a play-off between Asia and South America, it is not an impossible dream.

Indeed, on my side of the Pacific, there is a chance that Uruguay might once again – for the fourth consecutive campaign – finish in fifth place and go into the play-off. That is where it stands with South America’s qualifiers past the half way mark.

On recent evidence, however, there are reasons to doubt it. Uruguay can still aspire to something better.

The mid-week 3-1 win away to Poland was as impressive as it was important.

Uruguay has had a tough few months, starting with the desperately disappointing Olympic Games tournament, when it was deservedly knocked out in the group phase.

Then the wheels came off in World Cup qualification, with heavy away defeats to Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia and a slightly fortunate home draw with Ecuador.

Suddenly the team was looking sluggish and past its sell by date.

Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez had kept basically the same group together since the Copa America of 2007. Five plus years counts as an eternity in football and it seemed that Tabarez had some urgent rebuilding work ahead of him.

In the event, Tabarez did not hit the panic button though important changes were made.

The most striking was the omission of Diego Forlan, Uruguay’s all-time top scorer and the brains of its attack, but at 33 showing signs of decline. The other change was enforced by the injury to Diego Perez, the terrier who along with Egidio Arevalo Rios has formed Uruguay’s central midfield block.

Against Poland, Arevalo Rios was on his own. Tabarez went for something a bit bolder, with the left-footed talent of both Cristian Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro in his midfield.

This switch, plus the absence of Forlan, meant that Edinson Cavani could be picked in his favourite striker role rather than squeezed in as a wide midfielder.

Cavani scored one and pressured a Polish centre back into sliding another into his own net. Both were set up by Luis Suarez, who scored the other, smacked the bar from range and had one of those games where he is all but impossible to mark.

The strike power of Suarez, Cavani and (now as an option rather than an obligation) Forlan is the best reason for backing Uruguay to avoid the play-off.

Three teams already look safe; Argentina – an excellent year of which was only slightly spoiled by a goalless draw with Saudi Arabia; Colombia, which gave more evidence of its rise holding Brazil to a 1-1 draw; and Ecuador, which should get over the line based on its home record.

Uruguay is level on points with Venezuela and Chile. On last week’s evidence Uruguay – seldom happier than when it has its back to the wall - has rallied well.

Chile, meanwhile, is in crisis. Coach Claudio Borghi made a bright start but has paid the price for being unable to shore up the defence or put to an end to disciplinary problems. He was sacked after the mid-week 3-1 defeat to Serbia.

In this little three-team tournament Uruguay still has to visit both Chile and Venezuela. If they all take points off each other there could still be time for one of the stragglers to make a late burst – Peru, for example, which has an interesting group of youngsters coming through, or bottom of the table Paraguay, the form of which is showing signs of improvement.

With all the twists and turns of this splendid qualification campaign, the battle for a place in Brazil is likely to be tense and exciting.

Yet will it all be rounded off by another Australia-Uruguay clash this time next year?