Why Cristian Rodriguez Will Be Uruguay's Surprise Weapon at the World Cup

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Why Cristian Rodriguez Will Be Uruguay's Surprise Weapon at the World Cup
Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Uruguay has some of the most talented and recognized players in the world, including the likes of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. However, Uruguay’s hero in Brazil might just not be among those names, it might actually very well be a man who's been sitting on the bench of Europe’s hottest team this season.

Cristian Rodriguez is a true heritage of Uruguayan DNA. He's a rare talent, but yet his numbers fail to impress. His stats are poor compared to monsters like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; perhaps they are not even close to his fellow teammates' in Atletico Madrid or in Uruguay’s national team. However, sometimes you have to see more than stats, more than meets the eye, to see how truly big a difference-maker this Uruguayan could end up being this summer.

The talented Uruguayan—homegrown at legendary South American powerhouse Penarol—was part of the group formed by Coach Oscar Tabarez on the road to South Africa 2010 when he was 25 years old. Rodriguez had just finished his best individual season with Porto in 2009 and was in the verge of accomplishing the World Cup dream.

Unfortunately for him, the last matchday of CONMEBOL’s qualifiers proved to be the most fateful night of his career. Uruguay lost at home against Diego Maradona’s Argentina and was relegated to a playoff series in order to acquire a spot in the World Cup. After the match, Rodriguez lost his temper and went on to hit Argentine defender Gabriel Heinze. His aggression was punished by FIFA with a four-match suspension.

"El Cebolla" (the Onion), as he is known thanks to his father's nickname legacy, wasn’t able to play the two-game playoff series against Costa Rica in which Uruguay was able to win by an aggregate score of 2-1. It also meant that if selected for the World Cup squad, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the first two group-stage matches. Tabarez decided to leave Rodriguez out of the final squad that traveled to South Africa and made it to the semifinals.

It was a hook to Cebolla’s liver that could have easily knocked out any player. But in his case, perhaps that was the day "garra charrua" (the famous Uruguayan battling spirit) started flowing in his blood.

On his latest seasons in Europe, Cristian Rodriguez's role hasn’t been exactly the one of a superstar. As a matter of fact, he has become more of a player who gives depth to Diego Simeone's roster in Atletico Madrid, where he usually comes in as a substitute, but nothing more.

Club-wise, Rodriguez has become inconsequential. However, things have been different at the national level. After being excluded from the World Cup four years ago, he has since proved valuable in the road to Brazil 2014 and keeping Uruguay as a top team.

Oscar Tabarez trusted Cebolla to come back to the group, and the coach has made him a regular on his call-ups despite his average, at best, performances at club level.

Rodriguez was part of the Uruguay team that won Copa America in 2011, even though he didn’t see much playing time. Gradually the winger started to gain more time in the pitch with La Celeste, until he became a starter in World Cup qualifiers and also for most of the 2013 Confederations Cup. He even scored a couple of key goals on Uruguay’s road to Brazil, including one in the playoff series against Jordan.

Tactically, Rodriguez is a player who can fit Uruguay's playing formations perfectly and be used in at least three different positions depending on Tabarez needs. Cebolla is a player whose primary position is as a left winger, and in Uruguay he can perform as the left midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation but can also move up to the forward line, acting as the attacking left winger when the formation switches to a 4-3-3.

When in a 4-4-2 formation Tabarez usually uses two defensive central midfielders, usually forming a duo with Arevalo Rios and Diego Perez. But in the given scenario that Uruguay needs a central midfielder with more offensive skills and in order to keep the 4-4-2 instead of switching to the 4-3-3, Cebolla can perform the role of the offensive midfielder. Rodriguez can easily transition into the beloved playmaker South Americans refer to as a No. 10 or "enganche."

On a personal level, Cebolla knows this is more than likely his first and last chance to shine on the biggest soccer stage. He is probably the hungriest player in La Celeste, as he missed out on what has been the milestone of this Uruguayan generation. And let’s face it, if Suarez, Forlan, Cavani and even Diego Lugano and Diego Godin don’t perform up to the expectations, they can always look back at what they did in 2010, something that Cebolla can’t.

With everyone expecting Uruguay's main stars to be the main weapons, Cebolla’s role could be fundamental in the two-time world champion's hopes of a Maracanazo 2.0.

Cebolla has his skin covered in Celeste DNA, with garra charrua that doesn’t allow him to even think about failure, and if his undeniable talent is ever to explode, it looks like this upcoming summer could be it. Rodriguez looks ready to incarnate the phantoms of the heroes in Uruguayan football.

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