Juan Cruz Mascia is no ordinary teenage footballer. Compared in his native Uruguay to none other than Diego Forlan, he played his first international match before making his club debut and later turned down an opportunity to team up with Forlan at Atletico Madrid. With the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 now just a matter of weeks away, Mascia faces another important phase in his footballing education, as he prepares to carry La Celeste’s main goal threat against the cream of the world’s youth teams.

Mascia raised his profile a notch or two higher when top-scoring at the South American U-17 Championship in Ecuador in April, triggering huge interest in the national media, all of which has taken him somewhat by surprise. “I haven’t been overawed by it or anything, but it all feels a bit strange to me,” he tells FIFA.com. “I’ve gone from being a nobody to appearing in the papers and getting calls from radio and TV programmes. It’s a new experience, but I’m still carrying on with my life as normal.”

That calmness is typical of the Uruguayan ace’s down-to-earth attitude. A talented sportsman, he excelled at tennis, rugby and sprinting before, at the age of 14, devoting his energies entirely to football, the sport he always destined to play: “My grandmother saw me playing at a birthday party when I was five and said there and then that I’d grow up to be a footballer.”

A big decision
That prediction began to fulfil itself in 2008, when Uruguay’s current U-17 coach, Fabian Coito, saw him in action in a university league game and called him up for the national U-15 side, which was preparing for the following year’s South American championship. Also taking notice of the then attacking midfielder was Pablo Forlan, Diego’s father, who promptly arranged a trial with Atletico Madrid.

“I went with my mum, did the trial with an older age group and did well,” says Mascia, taking up the story of his Madrid adventure. “I went back in January 2009 and then, when I was about to sign, I realised that I’d be living on my own, which I didn’t like the idea of. People close to me said I should think it through, but my parents said: ‘Do what you feel is best. We’ll support you’. So I decided to come back and I’ve never regretted it.”

This team has learned to take things one game at a time. We want to take Uruguay as far as possible.

Uruguay's U-17 star Mascia

After then receiving offers to join Penarol, Defensor Sporting and Danubio, the Nacional-supporting Mascia opted instead for the unfashionable Miramar Misiones. “It would have meant cutting back on my time at school, which I finish this year, and I thought it was important to complete my studies” explains Mascia, who would like to go on and take a Business Administration course.

The young striker, who cites Zinedine Zidane as one of his inspirations, is no less open about his strengths and weaknesses on the pitch. “I’m quick and skilful but physically I’m not that strong,” he says before revealing one of the secrets of his success up front: “I started off as a central midfielder and moved further and further up the pitch. In fact, in that U-15 tournament in Bolivia I played virtually the whole time in midfield and started just the one game in attack. But I scored three goals in all, and if I don’t score these days I get told off.”

Passport to Mexico
Mascia’s six goals in the South American U-17 Championship helped Uruguay clinch the runners-up spot and also led to some inevitable comparisons with Forlan. “It makes me laugh because I know him,” says the tall, well-built striker. “I’ve eaten with him at his home and we spoke about football, but I think I’m more of a similar player to Luis Suarez. I like to go and get the ball and then take people on.”

As far as Uruguay’s chances in Mexico are concerned, the teenage target man is confident they will acquit themselves well. “We’re a consistent team and we had the character to be able to come back after a slow start in the South American championship and nearly win it,” he says. “On top of that we also let in fewer goals than anyone else in the final phase.”

The question is, in which areas does he think they can improve? “Keeping possession of the ball and maintaining our level of concentration at the start of each half,” comes the answer. “We sometimes struggle to get going, and you can’t afford to give away anything in a World Cup.”

Canada, Rwanda and England, in that order, will be Uruguay’s rivals in the group phase at Mexico 2011, and according to Mascia, Los Charrúas are not looking any further ahead than that: “This team has learned to take things one game at a time. We want to take Uruguay as far as possible, but we’ll just have to wait and see how things turn out. Even so, I think we can achieve something big.”