For the 13-year-old boy that left his hometown in the Flores province of Uruguay to live alone and far from his family in the capital, the 190 kilometres that separate Trinidad from Montevideo must have seemed that much further.
Yet if that seemed like a long way, just imagine how it must feel to travel to Ras Al Khaimah in the north of the United Arab Emirates, to play in the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013. For Kevin Mendez, the thousands of miles he has journeyed seem incredible, especially when he thinks about where he was just four years ago.
“I never imagined anything like this. When I think about where I am, surrounded by all this...it hasn’t sunk in yet,” the attacking midfielder told FIFA.com. “We’re playing in the World Cup, wearing the Uruguay shirt, and we know anything is possible.”
Any young player who wants to reach the top must make sacrifices: especially if there is the chance of playing for Uruguayan giants Penarol. Those dreaming of stardom must simply knuckle down, even if it means giving up some of the pleasures of childhood, or saying goodbye to those who have loved and supported you from the beginning.
“It was tough, no doubt about it. I had to leave everything behind to come to Montevideo - my parents, my brother and many other people I loved. The first year was difficult. I was only 13 and I really missed my family,” said Mendez.
The Uruguayan revelation talks as though it was a lifetime ago, but then four years makes a huge difference in the life of a teenager. “I got used to it eventually. I still miss them, but I’ve learned how to get by. I just want to play football to the best of my abilities, and I hope they’re happy too.”
In his darkest hours, he found comfort when he stepped out onto the pitch: “Football helps a lot. It’s something that you can devote yourself to, that makes you strive to be the best. So it helps you to forget the loneliness a little.”
Life improved when Mendez found a new family – a group of young Penarol players that lived and grew up together. What is more, In the Uruguay U-17 squad there are another four youngsters from the club: goalkeeper Thiago Cardozo, defenders Fabrizio Buschiazzo and Darwin Avila, and striker Gonzalo Latorre. Together they form a quintet with title-winning pedigree.
Of course, the Uruguay squad that will face Slovakia in the Round of 16 does not just depend on talent from Penarol. There are players from Nacional and other teams too, and together they make up a highly promising, attack-minded generation.
While in this year's South American U-17 Championship, Uruguay depended heavily on the goals of centre forward Franco Acosta, but at this U-17 World Cup the offensive options of coach Fabian Coito are more varied, as New Zealand discovered to their cost in a 7-0 hammering in the opening game.
“Even though Franco was terrific at the South American U-17 Championship, it’s important for the team that lots of players join the attack and get on the scoresheet, instead of depending on just one striker," said Mendez. "Along with the forwards, our defensive and attacking midfielders are scoring goals too. It’s great.”
In the midst of this impressive attacking arsenal, Mendez sees himself as having a broader role. Nor does he feel pressured to always display the football that, according to the European press, has put him in the sights of teams like Barcelona and AC Milan.
“They’re just rumours," he explained. "If it happens, it would be great for my family and me, and it is always nice when such clubs are interested in you. But there is nothing concrete yet. I’m totally focused on the U-17 World Cup and the team.”
He proved that against New Zealand, when he scored the opening goal of the competition after just three minutes. “It opened the door for us and calmed everybody down, after all the pressure that comes with playing for Uruguay in a tournament like this,” he said.
In the case of the Uruguayan attacking midfielder, the door has been open for a while now – ever since he left home in fact. Now it is a question of just how far he and La Celeste can go. “We have a lot of potential," he concluded. "We just have to do our best and try to become world champions. I never imagined this, but I dreamed about it, like every boy dreams. And now, with determination and sacrifice, I’m going to give it my best shot.”