Being tagged as a 'star in the making' can be a burden for any young footballer, particularly in a country as fiercely passionate about the game as two-time world champions Uruguay. For 20-year-old attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, however, the weight of expectation surrounding him throughout 2009 has so far shown no sign of slowing his progress.
Though his full international debut only came in November’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying play-off, first leg in Costa Rica, Nico’s performance against Los Ticos underlined the quality coach Oscar Tabarez had witnessed for both the Uruguay U-20s and Nacional, who were his employers until Dutch giants Ajax recently signed him to team up with free-scoring compatriot Luis Suarez.
The complete package
Marcelo Nicolas Lodeiro Benitez was born on 21 March 1989 in Paysandu, and as a boy he excelled at football, swimming, triathlon, volleyball and basketball. Indeed, it is perhaps these formative experiences that helped shape his all-encompassing style of play, which features technical ability, intelligence on the ball, explosive bursts of pace and a clinical eye for goal.
“I almost always do what the coach tells me but sometimes I like to spring a surprise, like taking on my man when I shouldn't or nutmegging someone,” the left-footer told FIFA.com in mid-2009. “That's how I play and I've no intention of changing,” added Lodeiro, whose multi-sporting days ended at the age of 12 when boyhood favourites Nacional lured him to the capital Montevideo.
Despite the challenges involved in leaving his hometown at such a tender age, Nico showed plenty of character to overcome his homesickness and rise rapidly through the Nacional ranks. Having helped the club to silverware at U-17 and U-20 level, he made his first-team debut against Fenix on 19 August 2007 in that year’s Apertura championship, and struck his first goal on 1 December.
The year 2008 included outings in the Copa Libertadores and his gradual emergence as an important member of El Bolso’s squad, though it was in the following year that Lodeiro’s talents really blossomed. In the first half of the year, the attacking midfielder played a central role in helping Uruguay qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 and scored four times in Nacional’s charge to the Copa Libertadores semi-finals.
His fine displays on Egyptian soil and in the Apertura 2009 convinced La Celeste supremo Tabarez to call him up for the South Africa 2010 play-off, despite the player being uncapped at senior level at the time.
“I couldn’t believe it when he named me in the starting XI for the first leg!” said Lodeiro, who was steady if unspectacular in the 1-0 win on Tico territory before a fine showing in the 1-1 second-leg draw which sealed Uruguay’s passage. “It was a real relief to clinch qualification. The release of tension I felt when the ref blew for full time was incredible.”
A goal in a 3-0 derby win over Penarol and a vital strike in the 2008/09 Uruguayan championship final victory over Defensor Sporting were further highlights of an unforgettable 2009 for the youngster. “I always dreamed of winning the championship with my club and breaking into the senior national team, but I never thought it’d happen in the same year,” said Lodeiro, who thus moves to Europe after fulfilling his promise to win something with Nacional first.
“We’ve had him watched five or six times,” said Ajax coach Martin Jol, while Suarez is another clearly looking forward to working with Lodeiro on a more regular basis: “He’s a player who can turn a game and he has enormous potential.”
But even in the face of such praise, the gifted creator is not allowing himself to get carried away: “Now I’m just focusing on working hard, giving plenty back to Ajax and trying to make the squad for the World Cup.”
And after Uruguay missed out on Germany 2006, could Tabarez’s blend of young guns like Lodeiro and Suarez, along with stalwarts such as Diego Lugano and Diego Forlan, make La Celeste one of the dark horses of South Africa 2010?
Lodeiro started for Uruguay as captain in each of their four games at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009. The attacking midfielder also fired two goals, both coming in group-stage wins over Ghana (2-0) and Uzbekistan (3-0)
Nico had to wait two years for his first goal in a clásico against Nacional’s fierce rivals Penarol. The midfielder finally broke his duck on 6 December 2009, scoring his side’s second in a comprehensive 3-0 success in the Apertura championship.
Lodeiro found the net just five minutes from time in the second leg of the 2008/09 Uruguayan championship final against Defensor Sporting, thus putting the seal on Nacional’s 4-2 aggregate win which earned them a 42nd league crown.
Lodeiro was voted the 2009 Uruguayan player of the year by journalists in his homeland. He also made the cut for respected local daily El País's best XI for the Americas, finishing seventh in the prestigious annual survey to find the finest players on the continent.