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FIFA World Cup 2018: Edinson Cavani emerges from shadows to invoke characteristic tenacity in last-16 win over Portugal

Around the 70th minute of their Round-of-16 clash on Saturday, just moments before injuring his hamstring, Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani was at his natural habitat — the left-back position, of course — covering the run of Portuguese winger Goncalo Guedes. When Portugal were dispossessed, and the ball passed to Cavani, he banged a 50-yard diagonal cross that met Luis Suarez near the right-corner of Portugal’s penalty-box. It was his night, and luminaries like Suarez and Ronaldo were mere spectators.

For Cavani and Uruguay, long relegated to sidekicks for the more celebrated, this was catharsis. According to a report prepared in 2013, Uruguay is the best country in South America in terms of democracy, lack of corruption, security and press-freedom. No other country in the continent sends more troops to UN peacekeeping forces, and nowhere else is terrorism more suppressed. They were winners of the first two football World Cups they participated in, and yet, the grass always seems greener on the other side of River Plate.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: Edinson Cavani emerges from shadows to invoke characteristic tenacity in last-16 win over Portugal

Uruguay's Edinson Cavani celebrates his second goals against Portugal. AFP

Over the last few years, Cavani’s career has been astonishingly similar. At PSG, he was first moved to the wings to accommodate a less-mobile Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After the Swede left, and before Cavani could as much as let out a breath of relief, in came the 222-million-man Neymar, who had no problems resorting to middle-school petulance just so that his streaked hair can get more lustre. Even for the national team, he has been moved around the forward belt to accommodate Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. Holder of a report card that shows 15+ club goals every season since 2008, a staggering 25+ since 2010, more goals for Uruguay than anyone but Suarez, he deserves better than he usually gets.

The match began on the back of a thrilling France versus Argentina encounter, a seven-goal fest that whet the appetite like a neatly crafted entrée at a luxury dinner. Barely six minutes in, Cristiano Ronaldo served the first offering on what was another gripping thriller with a stinging shot into Fernando Muslera’s hands. The resulting goal-kick led to the first goal of the night, and another exhibition of the synergy that Uruguay’s two forwards share. Cavani first laid out a delicious switch-field ball to Suarez on the left wing, and within seconds, got the favor returned as Suarez found him, unmarked in the penalty-box, with a whipped cross. On a night when Di Maria, Pavard and Mbappe’s goals had raised the bar for this World Cup to daunting heights, Cavani had placed his nomination.

True to the nature of the evening’s proceedings, Portugal equalised before too long, Pepe climbing on to head home Raphael Guerreiro’s cross past Fernando Muslera. Just seven minutes later, mid-fielder Rodrigo Bentancur’s deft pass found Cavani on the edge of Portugal’s box. With only one defender to beat before going one-on-one with the goalkeeper, a dribble seemed like the logical move, but Cavani was in the zone, a psychological space exclusive to the gifted and hardest-working, and sent the ball packing into the bottom far corner with a delectable first-time finish that’s hard to conjure up even on video games. The sound of the shot rung loud enough to reach those who had ever doubted Cavani and Uruguay at this tournament.

For the third World Cup running, the world seemed to trip itself silly over the anticipation of who between Cristiano and Lionel will drag their teams to victory. Football, like most other sports and life itself, suffers from the myopia caused by a towering presence in the near-field vision. Ronaldo, Messi, Suarez or anyone else cannot do it alone at this stage of a competition like this. The idea of a collective, banal as it may sound, always finds a way to prevail over lone beacons. Had Ronaldo and Messi’s respective national team managers known better, they might have seen another day in their World Cup careers.

Cavani’s hamstring injury later that night will cause a few creased foreheads for Uruguay and their fans. To be robbed off their hardest-working and most in-form player days before a quarter-final must come as a rude body blow to a team that has been admirably resilient across their four matches in Russia, conceding only one goal. But as history has taught us, one would be remiss to overlook them, even in a battle against a far stronger adversary in France.

Suarez and Cavani hail from a land that doesn’t quite sing songs of personal valour. Uruguay was built by the Charrúas, who fought off Iberian invaders against overwhelming odds. The motivational phrase Uruguayans like to use during moments of distress, is ‘La Garra Charrúa’, a nod to the tenacity that brought victory in the face of destined defeat. Against a stronger-looking Portugal and Cristiano in good form, Oscar Tabarez’s men channeled their inner goliath to pave a path to their second quarter-final appearance in the last three World Cups.

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Updated Date: Jul 01, 2018 13:30:30 IST