Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani were born within a month of each other in Salto on the left bank of the Uruguay river, bordering Argentina. They both emerged from Uruguay’s Baby Football, which grooms children between ages 4 and 13, to play together at different levels, including the under-20 World Cup. This is their third World Cup together.

The last two times were infamous. Suarez got suspended in Brazil after biting an Italian defender on the shoulder. Soon after Colombia knocked Uruguay out in the round of 16. In 2010, Uruguay reached the semi-finals, but without Suarez who got a red card in the quarter-final. He had stopped a goal with his hand in the last minute; Ghana missed the resulting penalty, but eventually lost in a penalty shootout.

So far in Russia, it seems they have aged well. The two forwards, both 31, appear more mature under the maestro Oscar Tabarez. Suarez has scrapped for the ball without receiving a single yellow card, yet, in four games, and Cavani has produced finishes that make champions.

Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani (right) being escorted by Ronaldo. Photo: Reuters
Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani (right) being escorted by Ronaldo. Photo: Reuters

The Suarez-Cavani duo synchronised for two magical goals against Portugal on Saturday to advance to the quarter-finals. First, Suarez peeled away to the left while Cavani took the ball to the right flank, then found Suarez with a 100-yard pass across the field. Suarez dodged a defender, shaped for a shot on goal, but spotted an unmarked Cavani rushing for the far post. A 50-yard pass followed Cavani with unerring accuracy and he finished with a header.

“There was a cross to the left, then a cross to the right—there is no scheme against that," said Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos after the match, summing up the helplessness of a defence when two players of exceptional quality combine in attack.

The second goal from Uruguay, minutes after a Portuguese equalizer, was vintage stuff from Cavani. He opened out his right foot to angle a long-range shot into the far corner past a diving goalkeeper who had positioned himself too far to the other side. The pass to Cavani came from Rodrigo Bentancur, with a Suarez dummy en route to throw the defence off. It brought memories of how Rivaldo set up goals for Ronaldo in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup triumph.

The Suarez-Cavani duet was also a stark contrast to the largely solo performances of Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Both the players vying for the mantle of best footballer in the world are out of the tournament, under-serviced by their teammates and able to produce only brief glimpses of their brilliance. Neither player has ever managed to score a goal at the knockout stage despite appearing in four World Cups.

Messi was mostly a forlorn figure up front in the 2018 campaign, watching the mess at the back as Argentina let in four goals against France, three against Croatia, and a goal apiece against Nigeria and Iceland. Coach Sampaoli, whose only game plan appeared to be to feed Messi, tried different formations, but left the defence exposed against the Croatian wingers and then the Olympic pace of Kylian Mbappe of France.

When Messi would make a darting run forward after a pass, he rarely received the return pass. The Ever Banega long-range pass in the do-or-die encounter with Nigeria that produced arguably the best goal of the tournament was a rarity. And the Messi shot that deflected into the French goal from the left foot of Gabriel Mercado seemed inadvertent.

Sampaoli made matters worse by keeping Argentina’s speediest forward Sergio Aguero on the bench for 80 minutes in the Nigeria game and then 60 minutes in the French knockout. That Aguero was openly critical of the coach after the 3-0 drubbing by Croatia could have played a part in that decision, but it left Messi with an inexperienced Cristian Pavon, who hardly made his presence felt. Aguero’s opportunistic header into the goal after replacing Pavon underlined how Argentina failed to combine as a team through poor selection and planning.

As for Ronaldo, who started the tournament with a hat-trick against Spain, the speed of his runs mixed with the cunning of his claims for fouls met their denouement in an Uruguayan defence that has conceded only a solitary goal in the tournament. He helped an injured Cavani off the field in the 70th minute in what appeared to be a sporting gesture out of character. But Uruguay would not have had to play with 10 men for a few minutes if Cavani had remained on the ground for medical aid.

Portugal did put Uruguay under pressure in the final phase, but it was mostly with crosses and headers. What Ronaldo lacked was somebody to combine with, in the way that Cavani and Suarez did—two players of almost equal class but contrasting styles.

In previous editions, Uruguay relied on meanness and defence, with Suarez being the spearhead in front. Cavani had to fall behind the line of the ball to help out in midfield. But Tabarez, who manages Uruguayan football right from the junior level, has built up the kind of reliable defenders and creative midfielders that allow Cavani to move up and play with Suarez.

This duo looks set to emulate greats from the past in World Cup’s hall of fame—Xavi and Iniesta for Spain in the 2010 triumph, Ronaldo and Rivaldo for Brazil in 2002, and the Dutch duo of Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff, who dominated club football in the seventies but lost the 1974 World Cup final to hosts Germany after leading 2-0. Football fans the world over, with the exception of those from France, will be hoping that Cavani’s calf recovers in time for him to join Suarez in the quarter-final on Friday. We want an encore of this Uruguayan duet.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru