What about Uruguay?

"OTHER countries have their history," Ondino Viera, manager of Uruguay's 1966 World Cup team in the English version, told me. "Uruguay has its football." So it has. A proud history indeed and you begin to wonder whether history, after an admittedly long fallow period, may not finally repeat itself in South East Asia soon.

Until very recently, this seemed most unlikely. Uruguay after all had squeaked into the World Cup finals through the back door, coming only fifth in the South American group, and therefore obliged to play off against Australia the winners of the Oceania group. Having faltered in the away leg, Uruguay won with ease in Montevideo and since then there have been all sorts of green shoots. So much so that maybe France, holders and favourites, and the lively Danes, strong favourites in qualifying Group A, may be beginning to look over their shoulders.

First and foremost there is Alvaro Recoba, still probably the highest paid player even in Italy who recently ran into a dazzling spell of form with Inter. Recoba as we know spent several months out of action in the Campionato, after an attempt to pose as an Italian in origin with a laughably crude fake passport. But his long suspension was reduced, as so often happens in Italian football, he was able through that period to go on playing for his country, and now his performances with Inter have been remarkable.

At Lecce, where he scored twice, admittedly against one of the weaker defences in the League, he scored a goal of astonishing quality, running more than half the length of the field, initially beating his man, beating another on his way and leaving the rest of his challengers trailing, before beating the keeper. The following weekend in the key Serie A match at San Siro against Roma, rivals at the head of the League he was simply irresistible. Two more goals, one of them from a remarkable swerving free kick, taken with that famous and formidable left foot, which soared into the top right hand corner of the Roma net.

Later on he would be substituted, clearly distressed still after he had been brutally struck when off the ball - a red card was shown - and needing perhaps to be saved from himself. But, playing alongside the burly Italy centre-forward Christian Vieri, himself in outstanding form, Recoba was fulfilling all the promises he showed in his very first game for Inter three seasons ago. Brought on when they were embarrassingly 2-0 down at San Siro to humble Brescia he scored two sensational left footed goals, one direct from a free kick, too.

But it took him a long time to be properly appreciated by Inter. Discarded, on loan to struggling Venezia, he had a pleasing revenge when he scored twice in a defeat of the Milanese Club by the lagoons.

What the Uruguayans seem to have now is an abundance of strikers. One who has come through recently is the blond Diego Forlan who cost Manchester United 7 million when they beat Middlesbrough to his transfer from River Plate in mid season. This quick young striker, still to be capped by his country, scored twice in Oporto against Boavista in the European Champions Cup, one of them a brave diving header when an opposing boot only just missed his head. His father was a notoriously tough Uruguayan defender- Uruguay breads them - who deserved to be sent off for a shocking foul in a 1974 World Cup match against Holland in West Germany. He stayed on that day, but the equally rugged Montero Castillo, whose son Paolo now plays centre back for Uruguay and Juventus, was indeed expelled.

No, it cannot be denied that Uruguay in World Cups can be a menace. They were in 1966 at Sheffield when they had two men sent off versus West Germany in the quarter-finals. They gave the Brazilians a bruising time of it when they met in Guadalajara in the World Cup of 1970. And they thoroughly disgraced themselves in Mexico in 1986, when they were obliged to play most of a match against Scotland in Mexico.

Yet they have some imposing achievements in their story. It was a coruscating Uruguay team which won the Olympic title in 1924, in Paris and 1928 in Amsterdam. Two years later their team which beat Argentine 4-2 in the first ever World Cup Final in Montevideo was deemed to be not quite as good but it was good enough to win.

Not till 1950 did Uruguay compete in the World Cup again and this time too they won it, 2-1 victors against Brazil in an amazing game played before 200,000 people in the new Maracana Stadium in Rio, when even a draw would have given a dazzling Brazilian team the trophy as winners of the final group. True Uruguay were very lucky to have had to play just one group game in the first stage, an 8-0 win over feeble Bolivia, but theirs was a tremendous team, inspired by the big veteran attacking centre half and skipper, Obdulio Varela who himself played tribute to the superb defending of left back Rodrigues Andrade, nephew of the elegant Jose a World Cup winner in 1930. And had Rodrigues not been injured in a fascinating semi-final against Hungary by the shores of Lake Lausanne in 1954 the Uruguayans might well have reached that final, too.

Lecce, now, have a couple of penetrating Uruguayan youngsters in Javier Ernesto Chevanton, already an international, 21, and the midfielder, Guilleruo Giacomazzi. And that accomplished midfielder Fabian O'Neill, who found his career stymied when he left Gagliari after five seasons for Juventus, has been rebuilding it of late at Perugia. Uruguay could spring some World Cup surprises.