Uruguayan starlet Leonardo Pais is a man of few words away from the pitch, preferring to let his football do the talking. And talk it certainly does, especially in the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, during which the energetic midfield man has participated in 243 of the 270 minutes played by his national team thus far.
Beyond demonstrating his constant and tireless running, an ability to always make himself available, and accurate passing skills, this versatile footballer, who can play wide on the right or in central midfield, further enhanced his reputation against Rwanda by heading the winning goal of the match in the fifth minute of injury time.
It was an important strike, synonymous with La Celeste’s qualification for the round of 16. “I had imagined such a moment, but when it happened, the joy I felt is difficult to describe. My team-mates were having a go at me because I don’t get that many goals, but this particular one came at just the right time,” he told FIFA.com in a barely audible voice.
Most people expected us to get out of the group, but we know we can do much better.
Born on 7 July 1994, Pais’ first introduction to football came in the southern Uruguayan city of Minas, and it was while playing for home-town club Lavallejas that he was spotted by Defensor Sporting scouts at the age of 12. “Back then I fantasised about playing in a World Cup and now here I am, but even more than a dream come true, pulling on my country’s jersey is actually a real source of pride. That’s why it’s been a truly intense experience for me,” said the combative No7, an admirer of Cristiano Ronaldo, who wore the same shirt number at Manchester United.
Given his aforementioned date of birth, there is a chance that ‘Leo’ will end up blowing out his candles in Mexico, but only if his team makes it through to the semi-final stage of the U-17 World Cup. “Of course I’m aware of that,” he said, adding, “God willing, it’ll be a great birthday present. But our initial objective is the Congo match, and after that we’ll see where we are.”
Questioned about the Congo side set to line up against the South Americans on Wednesday, Pais delivered a short but nonetheless interesting analysis of the Red Devils: “I’m expecting a similar game to the one we had with Rwanda. We were watchful against them and we managed to block their path to goal. The aim is to do that again, while also taking the initiative. If we don’t, they could cause us problems because they run hard.”
To onlookers doubting the team’s morale after the loss to England, which saw the Uruguayans drop to second place in Group C, the fanatical Penarol supporter leaves no-one in any doubt: “We’re unaffected, because we didn’t really turn up. In fact, everything went pretty much how we were expecting it to – minus the result, of course.”
A big fan of mate, a traditional infused drink in certain areas of South America, Pais admitted he wished he had the time to get to know the host country’s culture and cuisine a little better. “Mexico is a nation full of history, but in between all the travel, games and pre-match preparation, it’s been tough to see much of it. We haven’t even been able to taste the local food because of the special diet we’re on,” he said.
Despite this, and not taking into account the Uruguay matches he plays on his video game console, Pais said he has been able to catch some of the other matches in the tournament, and that for him certain countries have stood out more than others. “Mexico and Brazil seem like good teams, but it’s Germany that have impressed me the most, because of their dynamic and forceful style of play,” he said, before delivering a final prediction of Uruguay's chances: “Most people expected us to get out of the group, but we know we can do much better. I hope we can show that against Congo.”