Few countries are as passionate about the global game as Uruguay. And that passion is sure to surface once more when the young Charrúas step out at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, which begins in October. No matter how well they fare on this their fourth appearance in the competition, the Uruguayans can at least be sure that the whole nation will be following their every move and willing them to success.
In three attempts La Celeste have only advanced from the group phase on one occasion, at New Zealand 1999, a disappointing record that Roland Marcenaro's side are anxious to improve on in Africa.
"Our first objective is to get into the last 16," the coach tells FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "After that we'll just treat each game as a final and see what happens. I'm not saying we'll end up world champions, which is something we're dreaming about, but we are very aware of the responsibility on us and we're happy to accept that. I just hope things go as well as they possibly can."
Marcenaro has been in the job since 2006, when he was appointed to the post by national coach Oscar Tabarez, who was given overall responsibility for implementing a long-term plan encompassing all the country's representative sides. In his first year in charge he failed to guide his youngsters to Korea 2007, a setback he has been able to learn from. "It was a huge blow but Tabarez gave me his support," he says. "We learned from our mistakes, we've changed a few things and luckily for us the results are there for everyone to see."
The wider significance of reaching the finals is not lost on him. "It's positive for us and for our youth football in general, for all the many coaches around the country who are working hard despite a lack of resources. Our youth game is a valuable source of players for the national first division and the rest of the world, which keeps on coming to Uruguay to look for talented players."
La Celeste begin their Group F campaign against Korea Republic before taking on Algeria and Italy. "I don't want to say whether it's a good or bad group or an easy or difficult one," comments Marcenaro. "The top 24 nations in the world are going to be there and there won't be any easy games. We've managed to avoid some of the major teams, though, and that always helps."
"The first game is the key," continues the 45-year-old former striker. "You can't afford to start with a defeat and that's why the information we're getting on Korea (Republic) is so important. We know they're a combative team that plays fast, precise football, but we're going to keep on analysing them. That doesn't mean to say we won't be taking a look at the other two. We already know a little about them, but we'll see them in action when we get there and that's going to be very important for us."
Marcenaro is currently working with a squad of 32 players and has the job of whittling that number down over the next few weeks. "I'll take it down to 27 and we'll be playing as many games as we can with that group. Then I'll choose the 21 that will go to Nigeria. The squad will be more or less the same as the one that qualified for the finals though, and I don't think there will be any more than two or three changes."
And though he will have to make do without overseas-based players such as Diego Polenta (Genoa), Sebastian Gallegos (Atletico Madrid B) and Gonzalo Barreto (Lazio), the coach has every confidence in the squad at his disposal. "The players have been working together for some time now but I think we'll have to start focusing on specific things like playing one-touch football and getting forward more quickly. Things like that could make all the difference at the World Cup."
Recent friendlies with Mexico gave Marcenaro a chance to gauge how well his team are shaping up. "We lost the first match 3-1 but we won the second 1-0," he explains. "Those games were a useful yardstick for us because the Mexicans had just played Korea and Italy. We've now got a couple of games coming up against Nigeria, which should give us a good idea of where we are and what we need to work on. We'll arrive in pretty good shape and I'm confident we can do well."