“Being the first to do something also has its downside,” said Uruguay coach Graciela Rebollo the day after her side were eliminated from the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012. The truism perfectly encapsulates what her young squad have gone through thus far at the tournament.
In qualifying for the event, the team became the first Uruguayan side to reach the finals of a women's FIFA World Cup. However, a lack of experience has weighed heavily on these pioneering youngsters who, after losing 4-0 to China PR and 5-0 to Ghana, waved goodbye to any chance of surviving Group D and will head for home after their final fixture against Germany on Sunday.
Having now come to terms with their imminent departure, the coach and two of her young charges, 16-year-old striker Yamila Badell and 17-year-old defender and captain Nicole Arambulo, spoke with FIFA.com about their Azerbaijan experience and the repercussions back home. And despite the huge disappointment of bowing out early, the group are determined to pick themselves up and face the future with optimism.
“For us, this World Cup has been quite the experience,” insisted the coach. “Things that may appear inconsequential are very significant for us, and everything we soak up here can become a positive. That goes for even the saddest and harshest moments, as there are things to be gleaned from them too.
“Take the flight over here, for example," she continued. "Even that was an experience for the girls who, for the most part, hadn’t been further afield than some school camps.” And, listening to Rebollo speak, you get a strong sense of a mother figure, someone as interested in the personal development of her group as their footballing one.
La Celestita’s showing here in Azerbaijan has created quite a stir back home, where large numbers have been following the live broadcasts of their games. “It’s really great for Uruguay,” said an emotional Badell, “and it’s been amazing for us to hear people saying they saw us on TV or that we gave everything in our games. Even people who haven’t a clue about football have been watching the games. It’s remarkable.”
Unquestionably, the team’s adventure has been a huge help in raising the profile of women’s football in Uruguay, where it is still relatively new and amateur in status. Coach Rebollo, meanwhile, is already planning the next stage: “We need to look to the future. These girls will make up the next generation of U-20 and senior players. In two years time Uruguay will be hosting the South American U-20 Women’s Championship, and part of this group will form the spine of that team.”
And if there are two players who have what it takes to be among that number, it is surely Badell and Arambulo. The former has yet to find the net in Azerbaijan but showed her enormous potential with nine goals in the Sudamericano qualifying tournament. As for Arambulo, her leadership and presence at the heart of the defence is beyond reproach.
The captain, who began playing football alongside her little sister Augustina, herself a member of the current U-17 squad at just 14, said that it was the unity of the group that helped them at difficult times: “We all encourage one another. It was hard to pick ourselves up after the second game, but we’ll always be ok when we come together. When you’re out on the pitch and you see your team-mates running their socks off, you do the same – even if you’re absolutely shattered. It’s infectious.”
One thing a Uruguayan team can never be accused of is a lack of commitment or fighting spirit. “After the Ghana game, I told the girls in the dressing room that we’d gone down with our pride intact,” said Rebollo. “You have to recognise when your opponent is better than you, although the girls never gave up.”
Badell, for her part, is already focusing on upcoming opponents Germany, saying “we have to give our all once more even though we’ve no chance of progressing", while for Arambulo what mattered more than anything was “representing your country well and enjoying the moment”. And whatever the result on Sunday, this brave Uruguay squad have already made history.