Uruguay’s match against New Zealand in Group B here at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 had barely begun before Diego Polenta was charging down his flank, putting in tackles, running with the ball and winning a string of corners. Soon afterwards the rampaging left-back was upfield again, latching onto a clearance on the edge of the box before sending a thunderous angled drive into the top corner – only for the goal to be disallowed for a foul in the build-up.
Clearly equally at home in attack as in defence, Polenta is much more than your average forward-thinking full-back. Indeed, the No3 is captain of La Celeste, a player whose international youth pedigree and promising club career have earned him the respect of his colleagues.
“As a defender, it’s normal for me to want to play at the back, but I also like pushing forward,” Polenta told FIFA.com, when quizzed about his all-action style of play. “Whenever I get the chance to push on I try to take it. For example, when New Zealand scored, I moved into a more attacking position because we needed an equaliser. We managed it, but we deserved more than a point,” added the skipper, referring to the 1-1 draw that leaves Uruguay in a tricky position going into Friday’s final group clash against Cameroon.
A born leader, Polenta has captained his country at the 2007 edition of the South American U-15 Championship, the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009 and this year’s South American U-20 Championship in Peru, where La Celeste finished runners-up to Brazil. “I’m very happy and proud to be captain,” said the 19-year-old, who revealed that his idols include such iconic Uruguayan senior skippers as Paolo Montero and Diego Lugano. “They’re both an inspiration to me. I can learn so much from them.”
Finding his feet in Italy
Currently plying his trade for Italian outfit Genoa, Polenta caught the eye of the Serie A club’s scouts at the aforementioned continental U-15 competition in 2007. So keen were Il Grifone to acquire the youngster’s signature, they paid a transfer fee of nearly US$ 1.5m to Montevideo side Danubio, offered the then 15-year-old a lucrative contract and found work for the players’ parents, who also moved to Genoa with him.
Their decisive action and long-term perspective has borne fruit, with Polenta already on the fringes of the first team at Il Vecchio Balordo. “I’m very happy in Italy and I’m slowly carving out a space for myself,” said the versatile defender, who can also perform at centre-half.
“I wouldn’t want to leave Genoa because the club means a lot to me and we’ve got a very good squad,” added Polenta, who has an Italian passport thanks to his grandparents and still lives close to his parents. “Everyone’s looked after me really well since I arrived. It’s been really important having my family with me over there, giving me support, particularly because I was very young when I first arrived."
Though he has made just one Serie A appearance so far, Polenta made a significant step in his international career early this year, when he was called up to join Uruguay’s senior squad for their friendlies against Estonia and Republic of Ireland. “I was very happy, but it was all down to a lot of hard work,” he said. “And of course I have to thank coach [Oscar] Tabarez for giving me the opportunity. Training with the senior squad was something special, I learned a lot.”
Ticking off the President
Polenta is also blessed with razor-sharp comic timing, as none other than Uruguayan President Jose Mujica found out first-hand on 1 August. “The President called us and, because I’m the captain, I was delighted to be able to speak to him,” said the player, on Mujica’s good-luck call ahead of Colombia 2011.
Let's hope, however, that Uruguay’s most powerful politician also has a sense of humour, given Polenta’s cheeky response to Mujica’s request that the players give 110 per cent out on the pitch. “I told him we’d give 110 per cent, but that maybe he ought to lower taxes by ten per cent too,” said the player, whose answer had resulted in peals of laughter from assembled team-mates and journalists.
“It was just a joke. I never wanted to get involved in politics,” added Polenta with a grin, yet the episode underlined the kind of straight-talking, bullish attitude that often characterises great captains. Uruguayan fans can therefore rest easy: the legacy of Montero and Lugano appears to have a rightful, and youthful, heir.