The quarter-finals have been an insurmountable barrier for Uruguay in their five previous FIFA U-17 World Cup appearances. On only two of those occasions have La Celeste reached the last eight, and both times they failed to go any further, losing to Ghana in extra-time at New Zealand 1999 and to Spain on penalties at Nigeria 2009.
Their latest opportunity to break through the glass ceiling comes against an upwardly mobile Uzbekistan tomorrow. And as he told FIFA.com, Charrúa left-back Maximiliano Moreira is not expecting the Central Asians to make the task easy for them:
“They might not have much tradition, but if they’ve got this far then it’s for a reason," he said. "History aside, I don’t think we’re favourites, and if we don’t keep our feet on the ground then they could give us a nasty surprise.”
Moreira is part of a Uruguayan defence that has looked very solid to date at Mexico 2011. With just three goals conceded in four games, they boast the third-tightest rearguard among the eight sides still in the competition.
“We work very hard on our marking and we put a lot of effort into winning the ball back,” he said, listing his team’s virtues. “We know what to do with the ball as well, though, and we can take the chances we create. Don’t forget, we’ve been playing without our leading striker [Juan Cruz Mascia], but everyone’s been chipping in and here we are.”
The top scorer in the South American qualifying competition, Mascia has been hit by injury, with Moreira doing his bit to fill the breach by scoring Uruguay’s equaliser in their 2-1 win over Congo in the last round.
“Their keeper made an incredible save from me in the first half and I was still annoyed about it,” he said. “For the goal, I felt confident when I got into the area and all I had to do was hit it hard. I’m not used to scoring so I didn’t know what to do for a celebration. I was pretty happy though.”
Cacares, Cole admiration
Born in the coastal town of Maldonado, Moreira played youth football in nearby Punta del Este, where he was spotted by a scout from his favourite club, Nacional. He joined El Bolso’s youth set-up at the age of 13 and quickly made the switch from midfield to defence.
“It doesn’t bother me because I can do both,” he explained. “Fabian [Coito, Uruguay’s U-17 team coach] just tells me to defend my area and choose the right times to get forward.”
Moreira’s defensive role model is a compatriot of his. “One day I’d love to time my tackles as well as Martin Caceres,” he said, before extolling the virtues of Chelsea and England’s Ashley Cole: “He’s a great defender and he knows when to get forward too.”
Despite his international experience, the 17-year-old has yet to break into the Nacional first team, though he has made a few friendly appearances for the Montevideo giants: “I’m not far away but I’m in no rush. I’m not thinking about a transfer either or anything like that. The only thing that matters right now is beating Uzbekistan and reaching the semis.
“We need to play our own game, but without ignoring their strong points, like their attack It’s pays to be cautious, but we can’t forget about the things that have brought us this far.”
One of those attributes was the character Coito’s side showed in coming back against Congo in Morelia, even though most of the Mexican crowd was willing them to lose. “We knew the fans were with our opponents but we kept our cool," said Moreira. "If it’s just us 21 against the rest, then so be it. We’ve learned to gain extra motivation from things like that.”
As far as Moreira and his team-mates are concerned, there is no bigger motivation right now than reaching the final at the Estadio Azteca. “Deep down we feel good,” he said, wrapping up our conversation.
“We feel we’ve got the team to reach the final. Like I said before, though, we need to stay humble because that’s what sets us apart. Let’s see if it’s enough.”