Botafogo and Uruguay midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro will never forget his first goal at the Maracana. It came in a recent Copa do Brasil match against Atletico Mineiro, after team-mate Vitinho had cut in from the left and played a pass forward. Despite the best efforts of the Galo defenders, the ball eventually bobbled its way to the young Uruguayan, who instinctively curled a superb first-time shot with his left foot into the top corner.
“I didn’t really have any other option,” said the goalscorer. “Victor is a great goalkeeper and I had to make sure the ball was out of his reach. I hit it perfectly and it went in.”
It was the 24-year-old’s fourth game at the stadium, one that holds a special significance for Uruguayan football, as Lodeiro well knows. As a boy he would listen wide-eyed to tales of the Maracanazo, Uruguay’s memorable 2-1 defeat of Brazil in the FIFA World Cup in 1950, when Alcides Ghiggia scored in the very same goal that Lodeiro later did to secure Uruguay’s second world title and silence 200,000 baying Brazilians.
The next task facing Lodeiro is to help Uruguay claim a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, one that seemed straightforward enough when the qualifying competition began but which has become increasingly complex for the reigning Copa America champions. La Celeste currently lie fifth in the table, and would have found themselves in an even more precarious position had they not scraped a 1-0 win over Venezuela in their last outing.
Their next crucial assignment is in Lima on 6 September against a Peru side lying just two places and two points behind them. As Lodeiro tells FIFA.com, however, Los Charrúas are more than ready for the awkward mission that lies ahead.
FIFA.com: Has the time come for Uruguay to get their Brazil 2014 campaign back on track?
Nicolas Lodeiro: It’s another decisive game, another final, as we like to call these kinds of matches, and we’re up against direct rivals who are also fighting for a place in the finals. We know how to play games like this though. The Venezuela match was very difficult and it boosted our confidence. We’re looking on this game as a final and we want to show how strong Uruguay are when things get tough.
It’s important that Uruguay get there, especially with what happened in 1950. Brazil is right next door and a lot of people will make the journey and cheer us on.
Did confidence play a part in your fine performances at the FIFA Confederations Cup?
Yes, absolutely. Last year was tough for us and we didn’t get the results we were looking for. The Confederations Cup gave us the chance to show the potential of this Uruguay side and to reproduce the form we showed at the last World Cup and the Copa America. Our reputation as a strong, winning team had suffered a little, but the Venezuela match filled us with confidence again and we showed at the Confederations Cup that we’re on the way back to being the team we were in South Africa and when we became Copa America champions.
Have you ever been scared you might not qualify for the world finals?
No, never. We’ve found ourselves in a tricky situation because the results weren’t coming. You tend to become more wary but there’s no question of being scared. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but the team’s shaping up well. We’re confident and we really want to play in a World Cup close to home. It’s very important to us.
Did the FIFA Confederations Cup make you even more motivated?
It’s a similar kind of tournament, though there’s no comparing it to the World Cup, which is a very special event. It’s going to be different, and it’s important that Uruguay get there, especially with what happened in 1950. Brazil is right next door and a lot of people will make the journey and cheer us on. It’s going to be a different kind of World Cup for Uruguay and we’ll have a very good team there.
Do you remember your first match at the Maracana?
I went to the old Maracana with Nacional but I stayed on the bench. It was a Copa Libertadores match against Flamengo and my hair was standing on end. The Maracana means an awful lot to us and it was great to be there and walk on the pitch.
Do you think that playing in Brazil for a team that’s up at the top of the table is important to your chances of appearing in the World Cup next year?
Yes, very important. When I was in the Netherlands (with Ajax) I’d play one game and sit the next one out, which is how you lose your rhythm and your confidence. But I’m happy at Botafogo. I’m playing every game, I’m full of confidence and I’m with a good side. My team-mates are fantastic and it’s a really good squad. Everyone treats me so well here. And when you’re happy you feel at home and you perform better.