Veteran coach Oscar Tabarez said Uruguay “broke the spell” after they left it late to defeat an Egypt side shorn of Mohamed Salah 1-0 in their World Cup opener on Friday.
Defender Jose Gimenez was the unlikely 89th-minute match winner for Tabarez’s men, who also struck a post late on through Edinson Cavani.
Uruguay’s deserved last-gasp victory leaves them and Russia in early control in Group A after the hosts’ 5-0 mauling of Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener on Thursday.
But it also stops the rot for Uruguay in World Cup opening games — the South Americans had not won their first match in the tournament since 1970.
A poor contest looked likely to end in stalemate but with Uruguay cranking up the pressure late on, Atletico Madrid’s Gimenez rose to power a header into the top corner and break Egypt hearts.
Aside from Liverpool ace Salah failing to get off the bench with his shoulder injury, another major talking point was also off the pitch — large portions of empty seats in one main stand at the Yekaterinburg Arena were an embarrassing sight for FIFA and local organisers.
That was of no concern to Tabarez, the 71-year-old known back in Uruguay simply as “Maestro”.
“When the players came back from the (pre-game) warm-up normally we have a chat and we said to them, ‘All of Uruguay wants the same as us — to win this match, but you are the only ones who can make that happen.’
“This is football and in terms of history, we broke the spell.
“We either die or we are killed. We need to keep fighting to progress. This victory will help but we can’t make too much of it,” added Tabarez, whose side face the Saudis next.
Paris Saint-Germain striker Cavani had a couple of half-chances for Uruguay in the first half, the best made by himself when he juggled the ball and lashed it on the volley, but it was deflected over.
Attacking partner Luis Suarez — in his first World Cup appearance since his biting ban of 2014 — was largely quiet in an unremarkable first period, doing his best work when he drifted between the lines of Egypt’s defence and midfield.
One of the biggest cheers came after 30 minutes when the stadium screens showed Salah happily chatting away on the bench but that is where the birthday boy — who turned 26 on Friday — remained.
With Egypt coach Hector Cuper saying on the eve of the clash that Salah had recovered from the injury sustained three weeks ago in the Champions League final, Egyptians will be desperately hoping their talisman is back for the game with Russia on Tuesday, now a must-win.
Cuper said after the match that he expects Salah to feature against the hosts and, on this evidence, they badly need him.
“He did not play today because we wanted to avoid risk or danger but I think that he will be fine for the next match,” said the coach.
“Yesterday we were quite certain that he would play. At the end of training he was examined in depth and there was some doubt if he fell or was hit by another player.”
The north Africans, contesting their first World Cup since 1990, were for the main part fairly comfortable in defence and Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny was a constant presence at the base of Egypt’s midfield.
Suarez, who had a frustrating afternoon, forced goalkeeper Mohamed Elshenawy into a decent stop straight after half-time, the Barcelona striker slamming his boot into an advertising board in anger.
He thumped the turf on 73 minutes when Elshenawy smothered at his feet, and seven minutes from the end the stopper was at it again, palming Cavani’s drive over.
Cavani then rattled a post with a free-kick as Egypt held on with increasing desperation, before Gimenez’s dramatic late intervention.