A striking dusk fell over the windy city of Pachuca on Sunday evening as Uruguay’s players huddled next to their team bus, freshly showered. They seemed not to want to leave the Estadio Hidalgo, so they loitered in their light blue track suits, re-living the comprehensive 3-0 win over Canada in their tournament opener and bopping up and down to the sharp rhythms of their favoured Cumbia music, blaring from a portable stereo.
They stood close, in a tight circle, shoving, joking and winking at the giggling Mexican girls who happened by. They looked like any gang of young boys anywhere in the world, on any street corner, awkward and nervous. But less than an hour earlier they were as organised, cohesive and effective as any team at these U-17 world finals.
“They made us suffer,” admitted defender Gianni Rodriguez, remembering the impressive Canadians and their creditable resistance in the Group C opener at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. “But we stuck to the things that make us great as a team; we stayed together and played for each other,” he added, looking back at his friends with mischief in his eyes.
Rodriguez, awaiting his first team debut with Montevideo club giants and fabled youth moulders Danubio, is a linchpin of the Uruguayan defence, who in their last ten competitive matches have conceded only ten goals. He consistently snuffed out rampaging runs from lively and slippery Canadian attackers like Keven Aleman and Michael Petrasso. Over the course of those 90 minutes, he, captain and club teammate Emiliano Velazquez, Gaston Silva and Alejandro Furia looked as impenetrable and imposing as the huge iron gate on which he leaned to give his thoughts on the game.
“This team is all about defence,” he said, suddenly serious and eager to recount his side’s stingy records. “It is the strongest quality we possess, just look at the South American qualifiers,” he added, pointing to the side’s runners-up finish at the preliminaries in Ecuador with the best defensive record of the ten participating nations.
“Keeping teams away from our goal is something we have cultivated for years,” he added, looking for confirmation from his friend Silva, centre-back and the team’s vice captain, who duly obliges, adding: “We are a unit no matter what. When we defend, we do it as one. When we attack, we do it as one. We fight for each other all over the pitch.”
It would be a mistake to think, however, that this Uruguayan side is simply a hard-working, miserly crew, interested only in the pragmatic side of the beautiful game, as Rodriguez is quick to point out. “We’re not just defence, you know,” he snaps impatiently. “We have a special player in attack that can also make the difference.”
Surely Rodriguez, with his bright eyes and clever mind, speaks of Juan Cruz Mascia, the striker that is already drawing comparisons to national hero Diego Forlan, best player at last year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Top scorer in the qualifying stages in Ecuador, Mascia, lean and quick on the ball, gave glimpses of his class already here in Mexico, scoring the first against the Canadians and having a hand in the next two, scored by Elbio Alvarez and substitute Guillermo Mendez. “He’s as dangerous a forward as you’ll find at this level,” said Rodriguez, nodding admiringly toward his mate who remains by the Cumbia-blaring stereo with his comrades, waving away would-be interviewers with a false shyness.
As the sun finally dipped behind the dusty Sierra Alta mountains that surround Pachuca, the players grudgingly climb aboard their bus, pushing and shoving like teenagers do. “We can’t think about being world champions just yet,” Rodriguez responds to one last question, preferring instead to target their next opponent, Rwanda. “That’s not how you win a tournament; you have to beat every team in front of you,” he said, hopping aboard just before the bus rolls through the gate.