Long after the penalty shoot-out which brought bitter defeat against Spain in the quarter-final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 in Kaduna, tears rolled down the cheeks of many of the proud young South Americans. Having trailed 3-1 early in the second half, La Celeste incredibly hauled themselves right back into the match only to go out on spot-kicks. As coach Roland Marcenaro's boys trudged through the mixed zone before boarding their team bus, it was clear that this result was painful.
A remarkable tournament for Uruguay has come to an end. When the 24 nations arrived in Nigeria back in October, the young Charrúas were considered underdogs but have risen to meet each challenge. Talking to FIFA.com the night before flying back to Montevideo, coach Marcenaro insisted that they were going home as heroes: "What our team has achieved here is fantastic. Am I proud of them? You bet, I'm extremely proud!"
Uruguay put up a tremendous effort at the Ahmadu Bello Stadium against hot favourites and title candidates Spain, and even looked the more likely winners as the end of normal time approached. This performance was the culmination of an impressive sequence of results put together by the South Americans at Nigeria 2009.
Having opened their Group F campaign on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline against Korea Republic, Uruguay followed this up with a confident 2-0 victory over Algeria. A mature performance against Italy in their final group game secured the point necessary to advance. La Celeste faced Iran in the Round of 16 and sent the hitherto unbeaten Asian champions packing after a hard-fought 2-1 extra-time victory, forcing many observers to sit up and take notice.
"We've proved we can play with heart. Our passion is key to what we are. And to what our country is," said Marcenaro. Indeed, while other teams at Nigeria 2009 may have been tactically and physically superior, La Celeste's will to win and never-say-die attitude helped them progress even further than more-lauded continental rivals Brazil and Argentina.
This mentality was exemplified by the reaction of their superb goalkeeper, Salvador Ichazo, to Spain‘s third goal after 51 minutes. Ichazo grabbed the ball out of the net and raced all the way to the halfway line where he summoned his stunned team-mates to respond to the challenge. Ichazo‘s calls were heeded and Uruguay incredibly fought their way back into the game.
Catching the eye throughout was playmaker Sebastian Gallegos. The talismanic No10 from Atletico Madrid has been one of the stars of Nigeria 2009 and with five goals so far, he may yet claim the adidas Golden Shoe. Captain Diego Polenta of Genoa was also excellent, while the team as a whole will surely soon appreciate just what they have accomplished here, though for some it may take longer to sink in than for others...