Picture the scene. There is an hour to go before Saturday’s FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 final at the Ali Sami Yen Arena in Istanbul. A Uruguay player is out on the pitch, inspecting the turf and visualising how the big game against France might turn out, David Guetta and reggaeton music blaring out of his headphones.
The youngster in question is Diego Laxalt, who will be wearing, as he always does, a shirt bearing images of his late grandmother and his godson. It is an item of clothing that has so far brought him luck, the 20-year-old midfielder turning in some impressive displays to become one of the stars of Uruguay’s long campaign at Turkey 2013.
The question is, can he top his performances so far with a star turn against the French? Laxalt certainly hopes so, as he told FIFA.com: “To play well in a final is a dream of mine.”
An impressive performance on Saturday would more than make up for the disappointment he felt at being substituted by coach Juan Verzeri following an unusually lacklustre first-half showing in Wednesday’s semi-final against Iraq.
“I don’t like being taken off but you always have to have respect for the coach,” he admitted. “I was pretty angry when he told me. I really was. But now I’m looking on the final as a chance to make up for it all.”
I made the promise because I thought it was a pretty distant dream. But now that we’ve got this far and we’re just a step away from doing it, I’m starting to get scared.
While unhappy with his substitution, Laxalt also explained that he and his Charrúa colleagues have been pleasantly surprised by their run to the final: “We spoke after the Iraq match and I said to myself that it was amazing we had reached a World Cup final in such little time. It’s something we just hadn’t thought about.”
Uruguay’s success has left Laxalt facing something of a quandary, however, as the laughing midfielder explained: “I promised a while back that I’d have my hair cut short if we won. I made the promise because I thought it was a pretty distant dream. But now that we’ve got this far and we’re just a step away from doing it, I’m starting to get scared.”
His trademark dreadlocks, which make him an unmistakable figure on the pitch, may soon be a thing of the past, though for that to happen Uruguay must first beat France.
“It’s the World Cup final so it’s going to be very tough,” he said, before rejecting the notion that La Celeste are the underdogs. “I don’t see France as the favourites. There’s no such thing as favourites in football, as I think we proved against Spain. They were supposed to be odds-on to beat us but we beat them.”
Laxalt and his team-mates have already achieved the honour of becoming only the second Uruguay side to reach a FIFA U-20 World Cup, their aim now being to go one better than the class of 1997 and win the title.
“Reaching the final is amazing in itself but it would be so much nicer to go on and win the trophy,” he said. “There’s always more history to be made and I think being the first Uruguay side to win the U-20 World Cup would be really fantastic and would put our names in the history books forever.”
Should Verzeri’s side fulfil their dream, it will be just another success for a country that lives and breathes the game.
A born footballer
“There aren’t many of us in Uruguay,” he said proudly. “The population is only three million, but we’re always there or thereabouts when it comes to football and we’re always making history, something we’re not going to stop doing. There’s a big responsibility that comes with wearing the Uruguay shirt, but that’s a positive thing. To wear the celeste is inspiring.”
That pride, combined with the thrill of contesting the final, can perhaps help the Uruguayans overcome the fatigue that is starting to take its toll on the team: “Yes, we are tired but this is a World Cup final and that will make up for it,” he commented, excited at the prospect of appearing in such a big match, a feeling already experienced by several members of the Uruguay squad when they made the final at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011.
Laxalt seems destined to have come this far, having started playing the game at the age of only three years and nine months, taking his first footballing steps thanks to baby fútbol, a South American indoor five-a-side version of the game for young children.
“You normally start playing when you’re five but I got going before,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been on the pitch ever since.”
Nearly 17 years on, the cool, calm and collected Laxalt is still playing. And when he walks out to inspect the field of play at the Ali Sami Yen Arena this weekend, he will have visions no doubt of making a significant contribution to his country’s already rich football history.