There appear to be three kinds of games at this World Cup. There are the games in which the stronger team beats the weaker team (Spain, England, France). There are the shocks, in which the stronger team is undone by an opponent that is slightly better than it has anticipated (Saudi Arabia, Japan), and there are the evenly matched games in which nothing much happens (the others). With just one shot on target (plus two that hit the post), this was very much in the third category.
The temptation is to come up with a tenuous grand theory as to why this should be. There is barely any data but, still, let’s indulge ourselves. Could it be that all three types of game are the result of the lack of preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days? Some sides, having played in continental competition last year and comfortable with how they intend to play, are still in rhythm from their domestic seasons and so hit their stride immediately.
Others could have done with more time to fine-tune, to try to generate something approximating the cohesive styles that now predominate at club level. Aware of their shortcomings they become naturally more risk-averse, defensive structures being far easier to assemble than the attacking systems that can overcome them, and the result is stodginess. And this was extremely stodgy – or, as the South Korea coach, Paulo Bento, put it, “a very competitive game with a very high level of play between two teams that respected each other”.
One of the nicest things about World Cups is meeting old friends. Usually that means journalists, or Belgium, but Uruguay have a pleasing array of familiar faces so that watching them is like idly turning on a random snooker tournament in the middle of the afternoon and finding that Jimmy White is still gamely taking on John Higgins. There was Luis Suárez, scuffling around up front, a magnificent irritant – although, given he managed just 14 touches, perhaps neither as magnificent nor as irritating as he used to be. There, coming off the bench were the flared cheekbones of Edinson Cavani. And there, at the heart of the defense, gnarled, implacable, half as old as time, was Diego Godín. He even headed against the base of the post three minutes before half-time for old time’s sake.
There was also Martín Cáceres still chugging up and down with his man-bun. Of the Uruguay back four, it was he who had the most work to do, with Na Sang-ho probably South Korea’s greatest threat. It was from the FC Seoul forward’s low cross that Hwang Ui-jo fired over after 34 minutes. The right-back Kim Moon-hwan sank to his knees in despair which, given there was at least an hour still to play, seemed an overreaction – but perhaps he knew just how few chances there would be.
And Uruguay played in a pleasingly unchanging way. Football may always be developing. We may now live in a world of high lines and low blocks, of half-spaces and transitions. But Uruguay, for all the talk of the revolution wrought by former coach Óscar Tabárez, remained steadfast, always defending – even if there was a slightly distressing moment early in the second half as Rodrigo Bentancur, a product of Tabárez’s holistic approach to youth development, performed a figure-of-eight pirouette to extricate the ball from trouble just outside his own box.
Sometimes it is beautiful, as when José María Giménez dispossessed Son Heung-min with a delicious sliding tackle five minutes into the second half. But mostly it is just slightly frustrating: why, when they have such talent on the side, are they seemingly so reluctant to use it?
“We wanted to match their level of aggression,” said Bento. “We managed to do so during the first half.” At the Asian Cup in 2019, the criticism of South Korea was that they dominated the ball and did little with it. The first half here seemed to be following that pattern, but Uruguay gradually began to assert themselves as the game went on. “We couldn’t put pressure on Korea and lost precision,” said the Uruguayan coach, Diego Alonso. “We had to change at half-time and were able to defend higher.”
But they did not assert themselves enough to win the match, or really to cause much of a threat, at least until Federico Valverde pinged a 25-yarder against the post in the 89th minute. Avoiding defeat, perhaps, is the most important thing in the opener in the group, but this was a game in which it felt both sides would happily have shaken hands on a draw at half-time.