Fiorentina’s Uruguayan midfielder Matias Vecino smiled as he reflected on the journey that has brought him to where he is now.
In his thoughts was the day when a muscle injury forced him to limp off in the first half of a league meeting with Roma at the Estadio Olimpico. The date was 4 March 2016, to be exact, and the midfielder has very good cause to remember it. Having trudged disconsolately to the dressing room, Vecino’s look of concern soon turned to smiles when he took a call on his phone from the Uruguayan national team.
“It was strange because I knew they were following me and that it was the day when the squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Brazil and Peru were being announced,” the player told FIFA.com. “I’d gone out on the pitch without hearing the squad. I felt so happy when I did hear. They rang me to confirm that I was in and they asked me about the injury. We lost 4-1 that day but I felt happy on a personal level. I’d made that all-important step.”
Though not the nostalgic type, Vecino could not help but think back to his formative years, to the first kickabouts he enjoyed in San Jacinto, a place where everyone knew each other. Also in his thoughts was his mother Dolly, who made sure he kept well up with his school work, and the advice of his father Mario, an ex-footballer who was killed in a car crash when Vecino was just 14.
“What hurts the most, aside from him not being around any more, is that he didn’t get to see this. He would have enjoyed it so much,” said the Fiorentina midfielder, who has his father’s signature tattooed on his left hand. On his right is inked the name of his 18-month-old son Genaro, who was brought into the world by Luisina, the player’s first and only love.
As far as Vecino was concerned, that call from his homeland showed him he was right to turn down the chance to play for Italy, the country where he has grown as a player since his move to Fiorentina in 2012, which came just two seasons into his professional career.
“I was surprised when the opportunity [to play for Italy] arose but it never caused me to think twice,” said the 25-year-old, who came through the ranks at Central Espanol and had a brief stay at Nacional before moving over to Europe.
“They first got in touch when I was on loan at Empoli and then again in 2015, when I was back at Fiorentina,” he explained. “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable and it wouldn’t have been right. Representing a country is a major responsibility and if you don’t feel it, then it’s just not worth doing. I knew deep inside that if I did well, then the call would come from Uruguay.”
Things happened fast from that point on, very fast.
“I arrived in Montevideo the Tuesday before the Brazil game and on the Thursday, in the first training session in Recife, I was one of the first-teamers. I thought it was just El Maestro Tabarez (Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez) testing me out, but I played from the start. I didn’t feel nervous; just a little bit anxious in the tunnel. I couldn’t have wished for a better debut.”
Returning from his two-year suspension from international football, Luis Suarez made all the headlines in the lead-up to that match in Brazil, and proved his worth to the Uruguay cause by scoring the visitors’ opening goal as they came from 2-0 down to force a vital 2-2 draw.
As for the talented Vecino, who lined up in midfield alongside the more defensive Egidio Arevalo Rios, he passed the test with flying colours, with the press, fans and, most importantly of all, Tabarez all impressed by his debut performance. So impressed was the Uruguay coach, in fact, that the player has remained a first choice ever since, with his only absences from the starting line-up being enforced by injury and suspension.
Onwards and upwards
Tabarez has been watching Vecino closely since the 2011 South American U-20 Championships, when he scored the goal that took Uruguay to London 2012, their first appearance at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament since 1928. The midfielder also formed part of the Uruguay side at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011.
At the time, Vecino was still playing wide on the right or just behind the forwards. “The change came at Empoli, where I was getting regular games under Maurizio Sarri [who is now in charge at Napoli], though it was Paulo Sousa, on my return to Fiorentina, who put two holding midfielders in front of the defence. All the same, I like to get forward into the opposition box, even if it’s just to support my team-mates.
Explaining his admiration of fellow holding midfielders Sergio Busquets and Toni Kroos, Vecino said: “I don’t know if I’m the same kind of player, but I watch them and learn. Neither of them is particularly strong but they win possession just by reading the game so well and being in the right place.”
Standing 6’2 (1.89m) tall, Vecino idolised Zinedine Zidane as a child, the Frenchman figuring large in his first FIFA World Cup™ memories, of France 1998.
Vecino will hope to turn in a Zidane-like performance on 23 March, when Uruguay, who lie second in South America's Russia 2018 preliminaries, play host to leaders Brazil at the Centenario. With Uruguay having won their six home games to date and Neymar and Co on a six-match winning streak themselves, something will have to give.
“I can see it being a tight match, with neither side giving anything away,” said the Fiorentina man. “We can’t afford to get carried away by the atmosphere in the stands.” Uruguay also have the suspension-enforced absences of Suarez and Fernando Muslera to contend with, as Vecino acknowledged: “We’re going to really miss them, but we’ve had other players absent in these qualifiers and the team’s responded. There are no excuses.”
Like the rest of his compatriots, Vecino is anxious to avoid a fifth consecutive intercontinental play-off: “I can still remember the pain we all felt at school in 2006, when Australia knocked us out on penalties.”
Asked if the two upcoming qualifying matches will decide whether Uruguay make it to Russia or not, he said: “We’d have to beat Brazil and then get something in Peru. There are no guarantees at this stage of the qualifiers, though. The ideal thing for us at this stage would be to maintain the cushion we have over the teams just below us, at the very least.”