There is optimism aplenty in Uruguayan footballing circles ahead of the forthcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, and with good reason. Not only do coach Diego Aguirre's young charges boast their country's traditional garra charrúa (Uruguayan grit) but, as they showed in their impressive third-place finish at the U-20 Sudamericano in Venezuela in January/February, they employ an attractive and effective style of play.
Indeed, their 21-goal tally was a tournament high at the regional event and, as he told FIFA.com, Aguirre believed his side deserved more for their efforts. "It's true that Brazil were champions but the specialist press rated Uruguay as the best team at the competition. And not just because we scored more goals, but also because we got more points than the others and played better football. We came very close to winning the title: if we improve then we can challenge for the World Cup."
And which areas need improving? "We need to stop the ball ending up in our net so often," said Aguirre, whose team conceded 16 goals at the Sudamericano - more than any of fellow Egypt 2009 qualifiers Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. "We always go out to win, we've got plenty of firepower and we create a lot of chances. So it's to be expected that we sometimes leave ourselves exposed. Even so, we'll keep playing to outscore our opponents. Though a World Cup is more demanding, we mustn't lose the essence of our game."
"Now we've got all the players together we really need competitive action against foreign sides to help iron out any remaining flaws. That's why we'll play as many friendlies as we possibly can," continued Aguirre, speaking from the Brazilian city of Curitiba, where Uruguay are set to play four warm-up matches against Brazilian top-tier outfits.
"It's normal at this age level and it's the case with a lot of national teams, especially South American ones and even some European teams now," said the Celeste supremo, on the question of his players being involved on club duty until shortly before the global showpiece. "It's our job to fit them back into the group dynamic and our style of play, to help them get up to speed. That said, they've been working together for the last year so they've got the message by now."
Evidence of Uruguay's progress at youth level is the fact that, together with Brazil, they are one of only two South American nations to have qualified for Egypt 2009 and this year's FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. "Under [Oscar] Tabarez there's a great overall project in progress. Qualifying for a World Cup can be a matter of circumstances, but these two tournaments were reached convincingly, with players who are getting stronger at both group and individual level. There's the crux of the process: we're developing two excellent crops of players for the senior side. Uruguay have a bright future ahead."
Difficult but not impossible
Once on Egyptian soil, La Celeste will get their campaign underway against England, before taking on Uzbekistan and rounding off their Group D campaign against Ghana.
"I would have preferred easier opponents but that's just the luck of the draw," said Aguirre. "Over and above the usual first-game nerves, kicking off against a European giant will really show us what we're up against. The Uzbeks base their game around defensive solidity, but we'll know more about them closer to the tournament. Ghana are African champions, they play at a fierce pace and are used to the heat, that's where they have an edge on us. I hope we don't need to win when we play them!"
Such are the vagaries of the tournament schedule, if Uruguay finish second and Brazil first in their respective sections, the pair will meet in the Round of 16. "We saw the fixtures, but our group is so strong there's no room for speculation. What's more, if I was offered second place today then I'd take it because that'd mean we'd achieved our minimum objective. If we get Brazil after that then great: we played them twice in Venezuela and we won one game apiece.
"We're not putting limits on our ambition," said Aguirre as the interview drew to a close. "Our goal is stay as long as we can, which means the final. We're aware that a lot of teams will be going to Egypt dreaming of winning the title. We've now got to convince ourselves that we're well capable of fighting for that dream."