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Uruguay look to uphold favourites tag at 2014 W.Cup
Uruguay head into the South American qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as favourites in the wake of their stunning triumph at the Copa America in July.
Oscar Washington Tabarez's side won the continental title for a record 15th time, outclassing Paraguay 3-0 in the final after earlier eliminating the hosts Argentina in the last eight.
La Celeste's triumph proved that their run to the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup was not simply a one-off, and also showed that, even today, a small nation of only 3.5 million people can enjoy success on the international stage.
They currently lie fourth in the FIFA world rankings, ahead of the likes of Italy, Brazil, England, Argentina and France.
"To have such international recognition is a real positive," accepts Tabarez. "Today people look at the Uruguayan national team in a different light compared to years gone by. We are respected."
But even without their recent glory, Uruguay's place in football folklore was assured thanks to their triumph in the first World Cup in 1930.
Nobody in Brazil needs reminding that Uruguay also won the only previous World Cup to be held in South America's largest country when, in 1950, they came from behind to beat the hosts in the deciding game at the Maracana.
"I have always said that Uruguay has a footballing culture like few other countries in the world," the captain Diego Lugano told AFP this week.
"Uruguayans are really enjoying the present, because we have had a lot of success recently.
"The team is one of the best in the world, and we are the champions of South America. There are some great players and the people are really enjoying this period.
"But the happiness has not lasted too long because the qualifiers that are about to begin are a whole new story and in South America the qualifying process is a really tough one."
They may have the smallest population of all the countries in the South American confederation, but most of their rivals in the nine-team qualifying group can only look on in admiration when they see the strength in depth available to Tabarez.
Almost all of the players named for the opening qualifiers against Bolivia in Montevideo and away to Paraguay in Asuncion ply their trade in Europe's leading leagues.
Many of the current squad are already into their 30s and may well not be around in 2014, but there are young players coming through -- witness their performance at the Under-17 World Cup earlier this year, when Uruguay reached the final before losing to hosts Mexico.
In addition, Penarol's recent run to the final of the Copa Libertadores provided a boost to the domestic game.
Nevertheless, Tabarez has done his best to take the focus away from his side in the build-up to the campaign, suggesting that Argentina will be the team to beat.
"Argentina are a real footballing power and they have so much potential in their team," he said, before adding that even his side's first opponents cannot be discounted in a wide-open group.
"Bolivia have collected the fewest positive results in recent tournaments but even they cannot be considered a weak side. They have their weapons and the altitude of La Paz will give them a real advantage," he insisted.
Indeed, altitude is just one of many factors that help make South American qualifying so tough.
"There are special circumstances around every game -- things like climate and the distances involved can really come into play, and every game has a really strong nationalistic undertone to it," says Lugano.
"So this is set to be a very difficult period for us, and I just hope, as everyone does, that it ends in Brazil in 2014."
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