A commanding and reassuring presence in goal and a forceful character with it, Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera fulfils all the requirements of one of the most demanding posts in the game.

The Lazio custodian, who has only just turned 24, is bringing all those qualities to bear at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, making a major contribution to La Celeste’s progress towards the semi-finals, where they take on the Netherlands in Cape Town on Tuesday.

Making a name
That contribution became even more important at the climax of a gripping quarter-final against Ghana, with Muslera pulling off saves from John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah in the penalty shoot-out to help Uruguay over the line.

“When the penalties started I tried to stay calm and trust my instincts,” the Charrúa No1 told FIFA. “Luck plays a part after that of course because the odds are always stacked against the keeper at penalties.”

His performance against the Black Stars was the latest act in a dramatic rise to prominence that began only a few months ago. Making his international debut away to Ecuador in the penultimate round of qualifiers in the South America Zone, the young goalkeeper turned in an assured display that belied his age, playing a key part in his side’s crucial 2-1 win.

His composure since that impressive showing in Quito has put an end to the debate as to who should don the gloves for Uruguay. Having tried three other candidates for the job without being convinced by any of them, coach Oscar Tabarez looks to have found a long-term solution.

Out of the four keepers lining up in the semis, Muslera has made the second-highest number of saves. In pulling off 15 stops to Manuel Neuer’s 18 for Germany, the Uruguay custodian has eclipsed both Maarten Stekelenburg of the Netherlands and Spain’s Iker Casillas, who have made 13 and ten stops respectively. And like Neuer and Casillas, Muslera has conceded just two goals to date.

Setting new standards
The Uruguay shot-stopper’s tournament statistics also compare favourably with his predecessors in the post, three of whom also knew what it meant to reach the last four of the competition.

Having conceded a mere 0.4 goals per game in South Africa so far, Muslera has a better record than Enrique Ballestero, who let in 0.75 during the Uruguay’s triumphant campaign in 1930. In helping Los Charrúas win the title in 1950 and reach the last four in 1954, Gaston Maspoli conceded 1.38 goals per game, while Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, the man between the posts at England 1966, Mexico 1970 and Germany 1974, posted an average of 1.23.

Stepping out in the tournament at an earlier age than both Ballestero and Maspoli, the current incumbent can also expect to make many more FIFA World Cup finals appearances and perhaps even equal or better the mark set by Mazurkiewicz, a finals debutant at the age of 21.

A brilliant future
The unassuming Muslera has repeatedly given the credit for his excellent form to his team-mates, although as coach Tabarez points out, there is no need for him to be so modest: “He’s in great form at the moment and that gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. He showed his character in the penalty decider against Ghana and that was crucial to us getting the win.”

“He can call it luck if he wants but to my mind penalties are all about confidence and doing your job well,” says Sebastian Abreu, adding to the chorus of praise, with left-back Jorge Fucile also having his say on the man of the moment: “He’s very talented for someone so young. He gives us security and he does just the right amount of talking.”

Time will tell if Muslera can earn the same kind of status as his illustrious goalkeeping compatriots, who blazed trails long before he appeared on the scene. As beginnings go, however, his will take some beating.