Uruguay’s World Cup qualification was just reward for a selection policy that put its faith in youth.
Coach Victor Pua has seen a generation through from boys to men, first finding promising youngsters and taking them through to the World Youth Cups of 1997 and 1999, then giving them senior international experience at the 1999 Copa America. – and now taking them all the way to Japan and South Korea.
The stakes were high; missing out on a third consecutive World Cup would have destroyed the remnants of Uruguay’s footballing self-esteem. But Pua’s youngsters were up to the challenge – and none more so than midfield general Pablo Garcia.
The 24-year-old has been with Pua from the beginning. In the Final of the 1997 World Youth Cup it was Garcia’s shot, typically sweetly struck with his left foot, that gave Uruguay the lead. Argentina hit back to win, but it was clear Uruguay had unearthed a player with a long-term future.
His first senior international appearance came soon afterwards, when Uruguay took an experimental squad to the Confederations Cup. Two years later at the Copa America, the balance of the midfield looked right from the moment he came into the team. Uruguay went all the way to the Final, where they lost to Brazil – a game in which Garcia’s absence through suspension was keenly felt.
The central midfielder was missing for just two of the 20 games that Uruguay went through to book their 2002 berth. Both times Uruguay were dreadful, losing at home to Paraguay and away to Venezuela. The fact that their worst two performances came in Garcia’s absence leads to the conclusion that he could well be the most important player in the team.
Garcia sits in front of Uruguay’s centre-backs, breaking up opponents’ attacks with his height, strength and sense of anticipation, and then setting up his side’s moves with his splendid left foot, both strong and subtle.
And he has the lung power to join up with his strikers and let loose his shots. His was the first goal of the successful qualifying campaign, a drive from the edge of the area that won the game against Bolivia.
Without Garcia, Uruguay are disjointed, with little to offer but their renowned garra charrua – effort and application. With him they are a team, their efficient defence linked to flashes of inspiration from the strikers.
But Garcia’s ability to knit a side together has not always gained him a regular place in European club football. There is a suspicion that he lacks pace, and after an undistinguished spell with Milan he now turns out for Venezia.
The World Cup, though, offers Garcia and the rest of Pua’s prodigies a global stage to show their worth.
Club Venezia (Ita)
Born May 11, 1977
Previous clubs Wanderers, Valladolid (Spa), Atletico Madrid (Spa), Penarol, Milan (Ita)
International debut December 1997, v United Arab Emirates
International caps 29 (1 goal)