Sometimes in sports you can come up with the perfect plan and it still won’t be good enough.
Consider Uruguay’s World Cup quarterfinal against France, which was a lot closer than the 2–0 score would lead you to believe. Uruguay fought back and for a time exposed a superior French side using all the weapons at its disposal: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to 71-year-old manager Óscar Tabárez.
Tabárez was leading Uruguay for the fourth time at the World Cup despite being diagnosed in 2016 with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which has him relying on a crutch or a wheelchair for mobility. He has been coaching nearly all these players for their entire international careers, and it’s clear he knows how to squeeze every ounce of potential from a side representing a nation of just 3 million people.
Uruguay played aggressive, physical defense, combined in interesting and unexpected ways on counterattacks, and rarely spurned good chances. Its set-piece dominance in this World Cup had been absolute. Center backs Diego Godín and José Giménez are among the world’s best at attacking and defending dead balls. Every foul whistled or ball knocked out of play seemed a small Uruguay victory.
But Uruguay was also smarter in the open field. It knew exactly when and how to counterpress France, making every one of its own turnovers an opportunity to catch its opponent flat-footed. For what felt like five minutes early in the first half, the pattern of play was a simple loop: France lost the ball trying to play out of its own half, N’Golo Kanté won it back and passed it off, and then France lost it again.
France had one halfway decent chance in the opening 20 minutes, taking advantage of Uruguay’s narrowness to work the ball into the box after two long switches stretched the defense out. Uruguay adjusted immediately, sending hard pressure at the receiver on subsequent French attempts. Mostly France seemed content to lob crosses in, turning open play into mini set-piece situations that Uruguay could win handily. Tabárez was coaching rings around Didier Deschamps. Everything was working perfectly, until for two seconds it didn’t.
France’s opener was a perfect confluence of superb play, a bolt of lightning striking right in the heart of Uruguay’s biggest strength. Antoine Griezmann’s free kick was perfect. Raphaël Varane’s header was even better than that.
But the goal was made by the tiniest of moments before the kick, Griezmann stutter-stepping in the middle of his run-up, which sent the defense backpedaling a second too early and cleared a pocket of space for Varane that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. It was the kind of cunning play Uruguay has mastered under Tabárez. The French fans celebrated in the traditional manner, with baguettes.
Order was nearly restored moments later, as Uruguay’s Martín Cáceres won a header off another set piece that drew a tremendous diving stop from Hugo Lloris to preserve the French lead.
Uruguay still found success in the second half, counterattacking quickly through well-drilled patterns of runs and passes. But once France caught up to those patterns, Uruguay had trouble improvising new solutions. As Premier League opponents have learned, it’s nearly impossible to game plan for the amount of space Kanté eats up, and he snuffed out opportunity after opportunity for Uruguay.
For its part, France scored a second without even earning a clear chance. Deschamps had said leading up to the game that it would help that Griezmann was so familiar with Godín and Giménez—all three play for Atlético Madrid. If it did help, it’s because Griezmann knew his best chance would be to bypass them entirely, taking a hopeful shot from distance that spun off the tops of Fernando Muslera’s fingers and in.
That save is both harder than it looks and absolutely Muslera’s fault. Griezmann’s shot took a weird knuckling midair skip back the way it came, but the goalkeeper got enough of his hands on it that you’d hope he could knock it over or around or down or pretty much any direction but backward.
In a game where the margins were this tight, that’s all it took: two seconds of brilliance on one end, two seconds of ineptitude on the other. If Muslera hadn’t made the game’s worst play, if Lloris hadn’t made the game’s best, if Uruguay had its leading scorer and Swiss Army knife forward Edinson Cavani healthy, then it very well could have advanced to its second World Cup semifinal in three tournaments.
Tabárez, as he’s done throughout his career with Uruguay, made the best of what he had. On Friday it wasn’t enough.