So sudden has been the upturn in Mauricio Victorino’s international career that only when he returns to his native Montevideo next week will the events of the past few weeks sink in.
A FIFA World Cup™ semi-finalist with only ten caps to his name, the Universidad de Chile central defender made his full Uruguay debut under Oscar Tabarez in a September 2006 friendly against Venezuela, reappearing against the same opposition three weeks later. Those, however, were his only outings for La Celeste for three years, with Tabarez finally recalling him for the first leg of the South Africa 2010 play-off against Costa Rica last autumn.
A virtual outcast during Uruguay’s qualifying campaign, Victorino became an integral part of the set-up in South Africa. Handed a starting place in the South Americans’ opening group match against France, he has played a total of 434 minutes in five matches, sitting out only the second group game against the tournament hosts. And should Los Charrúas cap an impressive month’s work with victory in Saturday evening’s match for third place, Victorino will be able to take a deserved medal home with him, an enduring reminder that the last few weeks have not been a figment of his imagination.
"It’s been an amazing experience," said the smiling 27-year-old in an exclusive interview with FIFA. "When I was young I envisaged myself playing in a big club, winning titles and making the national team one day. So all this is a dream come true for me. Sometimes we look at each other and when we realise everything we’ve achieved we all say, 'We didn’t do too badly, did we?'"
Back on the map
"Uruguay is a very small country but it has a tremendous passion for the game," he added, putting the team’s successes into perspective. "Thanks to what we’ve done, people’s confidence in the national side has been restored."
Though elated at Uruguay’s top-four finish, Victorino is not surprised: "We were the last team to qualify for the World Cup but we came here with the objective of getting through to the second round. When we got there we realised we had the ability to keep going and we felt deep down we could go all the way. Sadly, we came up a little short."
Though deflated after losing out to the Netherlands in the semi-finals, the Uruguayans are full of ambition ahead of their final date with the Germans, as Victorino explains: "Finishing in the top three is very important for us. If we can do it, we’ll go down as the third-best Uruguay team of all time, behind the two sides that won the title. It won’t be easy though. Germany have proved they’re a great side and although they’ll be flat after losing to Spain, they’ll be doing all they can to beat us."
Joachim Low’s side will be the third European opponents the two-time world champions have faced in South Africa, and the defender is expecting them to be as tough to beat as the Dutch: "Their midfielders and forwards are very similar to the Netherlands players. Like them they can turn a game when you least expect it. Even so, we’ll be going out there looking to attack more than defend."
Turning his attention to Sunday’s Final, Victorino tipped Spain for glory: "I think they’ve shown they’re the best and they deserve the title. It’s going to be tight but I can see them winning it."
Though disappointed not to be taking Vicente del Bosque’s side on, he believes Uruguay have every chance of going one step further at Brazil 2014: "It’s probably a bit soon to be thinking about that because we have to get through the qualifiers first, and they’re really tough. Then there’s the finals themselves, but after this experience I think we’re entitled to dream about doing it all again in four years time."