“I’d already thought about it and had talked it over with my team-mates. And so when I picked up the ball, I decided straight away that I was going to chip it right down the middle. I was sure I could do it and had tried it out in training. Thankfully, it went in.” The explanation is Nicolas Lopez's, and the effort he is referring to is his ‘Panenka’ penalty against Nigeria.
The spot kick, which sealed Uruguay’s qualification for the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, came at just the right time for Lopez and his team-mates, who had struggled against a formidable Nigerian team, despite the Africans being forced to play with ten man for over half the match.
It was in the 84th minute and with the score level at 1-1 that the clinical marksman got the idea in his head to emulate countryman Sebastian Abreu, who will forever be remembered by fans for scoring a similar type of penalty against Ghana at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, propelling Uruguay into the semi-finals of the tournament.
As timid when speaking to the media as he is clinical in the box, the youthful forward has distinguished himself at Turkey 2013 by scoring four goals in as many games. Speaking with a drawl, as if wishing for the interview to be over already, he nevertheless opens up a little when asked about his nickname, Diente (‘tooth’).
“It’s because of my teeth – in fact, when I started out, they called me ‘the rabbit’,” he admitted, pointing out that the braces he wears are not there just so that he can rid himself of his moniker. “Before, my teeth were even worse – they really did stick out,” he added.
Only 19 years of age, the Roma front man has seen his career swiftly move up a gear over the past couple of years. “Everything happened so quickly and unexpectedly. I made my Premier Division debut with Nacional in Uruguay at 17, and six months later I was a Roma player,” he said.
In the Italian capital, he hopes to follow the example of Edinson Cavani at Napoli or Luis Suarez at Liverpool, two Uruguayan forwards who have enjoyed success at the highest level, but without necessarily imitating them: “They’re on fire for club and country. They’re such good players, who both offer something a little bit different.”
It would appear that Lopez also has certain attributes that make him stand out from the crowd. Aside from his general quality, his nose for goal and his skill on the ball, he possesses a sixth sense often exhibited by top forwards – being in the right place at the right time to stick the ball in the net.
“Since I was a little boy, when I started kicking a ball around at the age of four, I’ve always played up front and always stood out due to my ability to score," he said. "Sometimes I score really impressive goals, while other times it’s just a case of prodding the ball over the line."
In Turkey, Lopez has notched a variety of goals, and appears confident in his team’s chances of lifting the trophy, and of his own chances of winning the adidas Golden Boot award for top scorer. However, Spain, Los Charrúas’ opponents on Saturday, are not likely to make things easy for them. “We know that Spain are playing well and have some great players; it should be an excellent match,” he said.
As always, according to the South American attacker, the Uruguayans, who have historically punched above their weight, will raise their game. “We’re a very small country, but in football we’re always there or thereabouts in big tournaments," he said. "We’ve possibly got fewer aces up our sleeves that European teams, but the truth is, when we all give 100 per cent, we’re a match for anyone.
“We all know why we’re here. We’ve got a strong, united squad and we didn’t come to make up the numbers. We didn’t start the tournament all that well, but we were able to improve, and luckily we’re now in the last eight,” he continued, referring to his side’s group-stage defeat by Croatia.
From that point onwards, however, Uruguay have gone from strength to strength. And Lopez believes that the key to overcoming Spain could be to draw inspiration from Mexico, who came close to surprising La Rojita in the previous round. “I think that, if we can score, like they did, then we’ll need to defend a bit more, but we’ll also have to keep attacking to try to grab a second.”
If he is able to find the net on Saturday, Lopez plans to dedicate the goal to his son Benjamin, as he does after every successful strike. The nine-month-old’s name is even printed on the on-form striker’s boots. And if he manages to oust Spain with another Panenka penalty kick, he will have a tale to tell his young offspring for many years to come.