Yekaterinburg: Uruguay head into their first game against Egypt with the focus on stars such as Luiz Suarez but with their World Cup hopes equally resting with veteran coach Oscar Tabarez, who is battling chronic illness.
Friday’s game in Yekaterinburg will see the 71-year-old take charge of the famously tournament tough South American side at his fourth World Cup finals, the first being back in 1990.
In all he has been in charge of Uruguay’s national side for more than 180 games.
Along the way Tabarez, nicknamed “El Maestro” (the teacher), known for his undemonstrative manner, guided Uruguay to a fourth-place finish in South Africa in 2010, and each time ensured his team has got out of the group stage.
He has done so while battling a debilitating neurological condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome, which severely restricts his movement — and in Russia may possibly become the first coach in World Cup history to use a wheelchair.
So far, he has been spotted overseeing Uruguay’s preparations at their Bor sports centre base on Monday, just outside the city of Nizhny Novgorod, walking with the aid of a crutch.
But despite the painful personal hurdles, it is clear who is in charge of the Celeste.
“When ‘the Maestro’ speaks, a fly does not fly,” one of the Uruguayan journalists following the team said as the players trained in Bor.
Tabarez, a former primary schoolteacher who also guided Uruguay to a Copa America title in 2011, has said previously that his condition does not impact upon his job and his health appears better in the approach to Russia.
“I put everything with physiotherapy, with doctors and treatments because I’m not thinking of leaving,” he said.
Some had expected him to step down after the last World Cup, but Tabarez continues.
His A-list players are unequivocal in their support for Tabarez.
Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin support the coach at every step and consider him “untouchable”.
“The team knows that El Maestro does not have to scream to tell you what to do,” Suarez told a Uruguayan television documentary about Tabarez.
After Egypt, Uruguay will return to Nizhny Novgorod and prepare for matches against Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia, in a weak-looking Group A.
The expectation is that by the end of those matches, Tabarez will have continued his perfect record of ensuring Uruguay again progress into the World Cup knockout stage.
Meanwhile, 12,000 Egypt and Uruguay fans will find themselves perched under open skies at either end of the Yekaterinburg Arena when Russia’s easternmost World Cup venue hosts the match.
To raise the capacity to 35,000, organisers have added in steep banks of temporary seating at either end, outside the covered portion of the stadium.
The ‘inside out’ arrangement will give fans a great view from behind both goals, at the expense of leaving them exposed to the elements — an unappealing prospect with persistent drizzle the prevailing forecast.
Those seated at the top will need a head for heights, as the highest row of orange seats is 40 metres (130 feet) above the ground.
“These temporary stands are really very stable. And these stands are made of the famous Urals metal,” said Leonid Rapoport, sports minister of the heavily industrialised region 1,760km east of Moscow.
“There is a Russian saying that for nature, there is no bad weather, first of all, and secondly — we hope that nature will be supportive and the weather will be fine.” If it did rain, he added, “partly it will cool down the players on the pitch ... and also the supporters in the stand.”
Kick-off: 4pm UAE
Stadium: Yekaterinburg Arena
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands)
Telecast: BeIn Sports