“As a footballer, you dream of playing in an atmosphere like that, in a stadium packed to the rafters. Out on the pitch, it was really incredible. I’ve played in front of big crowds before, but nothing like that. It was unforgettable.”
Those were the words of Mathias Cubero, spoken after the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup final. The Uruguay star had just won the adidas Golden Glove award as the tournament’s top goalkeeper, but had been unable to prevent his team-mates from suffering a 2-0 defeat by host nation Mexico in a match staged before 100,000 raucous fans at the Estadio Azteca.
Alongside Cubero, five other players from this current FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 squad – Jim Varela, Guillermo de Amores, Leonardo Pais, Gianni Rodriguez and Gaston Silva – were either on the pitch or the bench that fateful day two years ago. Another final now awaits on 13 July, this time against France, and as in 2011, it is likely to leave a lasting imprint on their memories.
“It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, something I’ll tell my children about: I played in a World Cup final in that stadium,” Gaston Silva, Uruguay defender and captain, told FIFA.com. “Obviously, it left a bitter taste in the mouth because of our defeat, but we still feel a lot of pride, as we know how difficult it is to reach a final, and we gave our all on the day.”
Battling an entire nation
In the end, that would prove insufficient for La Celeste, who were beaten by a talented Mexico side spurred on by their ecstatic supporters.
“When I walked onto the Azteca pitch in front of that sell-out crowd, I’d never seen so many people. I’d never performed for so many fans before; it was really impressive,” said Rodriguez, who has regained his smile after missing a penalty in the semi-final shootout versus Iraq.
“When we entered the stadium, there were over 100,000 people already in there. That day, we were basically playing against an entire country,” continued the Uruguayan No17.
The encounter, which would eventually swing the way of El Tri, has remained in the minds of the defeated side. “It’s a sad memory, because we just couldn’t find the win, despite having had a really great tournament. The highlight was definitely a 3-0 victory over Brazil in the semi-final,” recalled Pais.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, has mixed feelings about Mexico 2011. “We were aware we were experiencing something amazing, surrounded by an enormous crowd, and we tried to make the most of it. I’m very happy to have taken part, but losing the match hurt a lot.”
Consequently, lessons have been learned ahead of another final on Saturday, one that is likely to generate a much less hostile environment. “It’ll be a bit different because we’re not playing the hosts – the pressure won’t be quite as fierce,” said Rodriguez who, as a Benfica player, is accustomed to high-octane clashes. “This time, when the match kicks off, what happens in the stands won’t matter.”
Was a simple lack of experience to blame two years ago? “The Azteca match will always be a great memory. Now, though, I’m delighted to be playing in another final, this time at U-20 level, but I hope that the result is a bit different,” said Silva, with just hours remaining before Los Charrúas lock horns with France.
“The atmosphere will be completely different, but the match is just as important, and will no doubt be just as intense,” stated Pais, who will not countenance the idea of another reverse. “We’ll be just as down if we don’t come out on top. I’d prefer to win in a stadium with a more subdued atmosphere than to experience the Azteca at its best but lose the match in the end.”
“It’s our second world final in a row, which means that the work being done at youth level in Uruguay is paying off and that we’re part of an outstanding generation,” concluded Rodriguez who, should the worst case scenario play out in the showpiece match at the Ali Sami Yen Arena in Istanbul, already has a plan for bouncing back.
“These things come in threes, remember. After the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, let’s hope that we can play in a final with the senior side one day.”