Following a brief tournament overview of Uruguay’s campaign at the FIFA 2017 Under-20 World Cup, below are some summaries of several players worth keeping an eye on. Those seeking further information on the majority of these individuals may wish to also take a look at their respective exploits in qualification.
Muy contento por vos hermano!! Lo tenes más que merecido, por la calidad de jugador que sos y por la humildad que tenes 👊⚽️ pic.twitter.com/Ekc951uFZX
— Santiago Bueno (@SantiBueno98) 11 June 2017
Santiago Bueno with Federico Valverde (and his Silver Ball trophy) (@SantiBueno98)
Such were the expectations of the CONMEBOL champions that their eventual fourth-place finish will have caused disappointment throughout their ranks as well as their nation of perennial overachievers. Perhaps things could have been different had Facundo Waller not got injured in the first game and if potential star man Rodrigo Amaral had been fully fit, but nevertheless, Fabián Coito’s men have much to feel positive about in what any neutral analysis would brand a successful campaign.
They kicked it off with an impressive 1-0 win against Italy, with Amaral coming off the bench to strike a phenomenal free-kick into the opposite top corner. Subsequently, they eventually saw off a talented Japan side 2-0, before drawing 0-0 with South Africa, a game in which they were surprisingly often on the back foot. Nevertheless, they had already qualified and were to do as Group D winners, keeping three straight clean sheets along the way.
In the Round of 16, they chalked up a fourth, as captain Nicolás De La Cruz’s penalty was just about enough to squeeze past Saudi Arabia. However, their defensive miserliness swiftly came to an end in the Quarter-final, as Portugal took a first-minute lead; Uruguay recovered, though soon after they levelled up the score for the second time in the 50th minute to make it 2-2, both teams seemed fairly content to settle for a penalty shootout. This was the first of three that the South Americans would face in the tournament, though the only one from which they would emerge victorious.
They thus went into a Semi-final clash with regional rivals Venezuela, the only side to defeat them in qualifying. Uruguay almost avenged this courtesy of Nicolás De La Cruz’s second converted penalty of the competition, yet owing to a sensational Samuel Sosa stoppage-time free-kick were forced into extra-time, after which penalties followed. Alas, De La Cruz was to be one of two in the sky blue shirts to have their spot-kicks saved as, once again, La Mini Vinotinto got the better of them. Subsequently, they strolled into the Third Place match with group foes Italy, yet though they had a decent second half, the 90 minutes finished as a 0-0 stalemate. The shootout, held immediately afterwards, was won relatively comfortably by the Europeans.
Federico Valverde (Midfielder, No. 16, Real Madrid Castilla)
Starting all seven games, the solitary regular to have not also played a part in the qualifying process was adjudged to be the second best player of the tournament, winning the Silver Ball. Back in 2015, the ex-Peñarol man scored a remarkable seven goals in eight Under-17 qualifying games, but here he was fielded in a deeper midfield role, caressing the ball with great poise as he often sought to kick-start and galvanise attacks. He was regularly on set-piece duties and had a role in the first goal against Portugal when his corner was volleyed by Nicolás Schiappacasse onto the bar, before Santiago Bueno headed home the rebound. Later on, he made it 2-2 with his only goal of the tournament, which came from the penalty spot. Impressively, he also converted a further three penalties, albeit during shootouts. Given that Uruguay only netted seven goals in seven games, with four coming from dead ball situations, one could easily dispute FIFA’s high ranking of the playmaker Valverde, though it must be said that his side was often let down by a lack of options and finishing in the final third. Indeed, the Real Madrid youngster seemed to feel a little of these frustrations against Venezuela when he took matters into his own hands. He thus nearly scored directly from a corner, almost caught out the goalkeeper with a fine, curling free-kick as well as attempted a – rather less accurate – strike from near the halfway line.
Though the front line provided relatively little to write home about, those fielded at the back certainly came away with well-earned plaudits. Indeed, having entered the tournament with a decent qualifying record of eight let in over nine games, they thus conceded just three goals in their seven World Cup games: one a free-kick, another a long range golazo and the other – the opener against Portugal – the result of Valverde, of all people, getting dispossessed within the first minute and the Europeans quickly capitalising.
For this goal, the ball was slid by Xadas to Xandre Silva, who finished off. Bypassed and split open along the way were centre-backs Santiago Bueno (No. 2, Barcelona Juvenil A) and Agustín Rogel (No. 18, Nacional). Given the circumstances, it is debatable how much blame can be apportioned to the pair, but they both otherwise had very impressive tournaments and can justifiably be considered amongst their country’s most promising prospects. Indeed, Bueno was more prominent than he was in qualifying, starting all the games except the Third Place decider, scoring with a close-range header against Portugal and often impressing with his ball-playing skills and passing – most notably when he hoisted a well-directed upfield ball which ultimately turned into a goal for Nicolás Schiappacasse against Japan. Rogel, on the other hand, was perhaps a little overshadowed at times due to the blossoming of the more nimble Barcelona youngster, but he nevertheless solidified his reputation as a persistent, intimidating brick wall, who will relentlessly harass and harry opponents. Though he did not score, he was still a nuisance at set-pieces, with his muscular frame and intent unsettling defenders.
The wing-backs also impressed, with right-back José Luis Rodríguez (No. 4, Danubio) winning much praise, not only for his defensive work but also his occasional forays up his flank. Indeed, this ever-present was particularly prominent in the Third Place game, cutting inside and nearly scoring at the end; his most telling contribution, however, was his pass to Schiappacasse for the striker’s goal against Japan. Left-back and fellow regular Mathías Olivera (No. 5, Club Atlético Atenas) had a similarly impressive tournament and, just as he did in qualifying, got on the scoresheet. Indeed, with one of several overlapping runs he embarked on, he received a pass from midfielder Marcelo Saracchi (No. 6, Danubio) – who was not used so much in the competition, but had his moments – and from inside the area squeezed a shot home, to seal the 2-0 win against Japan. Owing to the manoeuvrings of his agent Daniel Fonseca earlier this year which led to him being bought out of his Nacional contract and then registered with a second division side he has never played for, he is very much in the shop window.
Lastly, recognition is certainly in order for goalkeeper Santiago Mele (No. 1, Fénix), who made some fine stops, keeping a tournament-best five clean sheets, as well as remarkably saving three spot-kicks in a row against Portugal. Off the back of that particular feat, he will have been disappointed not to have saved any of the subsequent nine penalties he faced in his following two shootouts – Yeferson Soteldo’s hit the bar – but his credentials have nevertheless been bolstered. Indeed, though Venezuela’s Wuilker Faríñez was widely considered to be the best shot-stopper in qualifying, the favourite of the dissenters was Mele and here he also had admirers eager to put him forward for this tournament’s accolade.
Nicolás De La Cruz (Attacking-midfielder, No. 11, Liverpool, Uruguay)
In terms of consistency, certainly the best player in qualifying, yet while in South Korea the captain had his moments, he was less of a driving force and will surely come away feeling disappointed. Indeed, he was often an attacking presence and showed glimpses of what he can do, but his tournament got off on the wrong foot and never really consistently recovered to a plateau that this determined battler would be able to accept. In the opening game with Italy, just as did occur on the first day of qualifying, he had a penalty saved and then, in the following match with Japan, missed a golden one-on-one opportunity. In the knock-out phase, he went some way towards restoring internal equilibrium by scoring from the spot twice: first against Saudi Arabia (a penalty which he also won after forcing a handball) and then in the Semi-final with Venezuela. However, though there is certainly a lot of potential to be nurtured here, he was to leave the competition in a very dejected state, with his decisive shootout spot-kick being saved by Faríñez, which thus denied Uruguay a place in the Final.
Rodrigo Amaral (Attacking-midfielder/Forward, No. 10, Nacional)
Still, though De La Cruz did not exactly fire on all cylinders, he nevertheless had more to say for himself than Rodrigo Amaral. The scorer of five, largely breathtaking, qualifying goals and arguably his nation’s most natural talent, back in February his agent Daniel Fonseca spirited him away from Nacional in order to physically prepare for this tournament in isolation. Having been unable to complete 90 minutes at any point earlier this year due to being deemed unfit, this was supposed to be the platform on which he could showcase to the world his abilities and thus have countless salivating elite sides eagerly offering up their daughters and much more in order to sign him up. However, though in the first game against Italy, he came off the bench to score an absolutely sensational bullet of a free-kick to win the match, we saw very little of him in the remainder of the tournament. Indeed, he only made one further substitute appearance as well as – somewhat curiously – played for the entirety of the Third Place encounter. He did reportedly pick up a knock in the first game, but one suspects that his lack of subsequent game-time was more due to ongoing fitness issues which manager Coito has made clear that he is not impressed by (struggles with his weight, does Amaral). One wonders how different Uruguay’s campaign would have been had he arrived in peak condition with left-sided midfielder Facundo Waller (No. 15, Plaza Colonia) – who picked up an injury after thirty minutes of the opener and never featured again – also able to line up alongside him. Having also missed two shootout penalties – on top of the one the prodigy missed two years ago at the same tournament against Brazil which knocked his country out – this is not a competition that he will wish to recall in a hurry. Nevertheless, though Amaral has stated that he will not return to Nacional, he is still contracted there until December – will there be an unlikely reconciliation or will a bigger side be willing to take the risk?
Rodrigo Bentancur (Defensive-midfielder, No. 20, Boca Juniors, transferring to Juventus in July)
Possibly under-the-radar, possibly just a little under-par, the Boca Juniors regular who has already been snapped up for €9.5 million by Juventus had a decent, if unspectacular, tournament. Indeed, though not renowned for his goalscoring, he is nevertheless capable of kick-starting attacks and making inroads upfield, though in this competition he was a little more subdued in that department. Instead, he mainly deserves commendation for his work in tandem with the likes of Carlos Benavídez (Defensive-midfielder, No. 8, Defensor Sporting), Valverde and others in shielding the back four and often ensuring opponents had few options available to them in the final third. One minor concern for his new employers may be his tendency to collect cards as, having already been sent off in a qualifying game, here he received a one-match suspension owing to an accumulation of yellows. Still, he turns 20 later this month and given the money – and thus, confidence – invested in him, one expects to see him make his Serie A bow next season.
Nicolás Schiappacasse (Striker, No. 9, Atlético Madrid Under-19s)
As noted, Uruguay sometimes struggled to create clear chances, yet when they did, they were often not taken by those up top. Perhaps more than anyone else, Schiappacasse was guilty of some notable misses, one in particular occurring in the opener against Italy; later in the final Group D game against South Africa, his squandering drew him a fair bit of unwanted attention. He could be wasteful and sometimes appeared disinterested, yet at the same time he also regularly found himself in good positions and was involved in many good moves. He could certainly be inconsistent, but he did at least show a sample of how clinical he can be when he struck home against Japan; he also had some indirect involvement in Bueno’s goal against Portugal when he volleyed a corner against the bar, which the defender then headed home.
Otherwise, Joaquín Ardaiz (Forward, No. 7, Danubio) had a less remarkable tournament, whereas Agustín Canobbio (Attacking-midfielder, No. 19, Fénix) often found himself in promising positions but was not able to get on the scoresheet – he did, however, win two penalties (against Portugal and Venezuela).