- The 22-year-old is one of Uruguay’s rising stars
- Started three of La Celeste’s last four Russia 2018 qualifiers
- Gives his views on Uruguay’s generational handover
The South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ saw Uruguay engage in a process of renewal, blooding a number of young players who made a significant contribution at the end of the qualifiers, and helping La Celeste earn a direct ticket to the world finals for the first time since Italy 1990.
The influx of new faces led to the average age of the starting XI that clinched qualification against Bolivia in Montevideo in October 2017 dropping to 25.9, exactly two years younger than that of the side that had begun the campaign against the same opposition in La Paz two years earlier.
“That’s right. Coach [Oscar] Tabarez managed to blend the players who’ve been around for a while with us new boys,” the 22-year-old midfielder Nahitan Nandez told FIFA.com.
Nandez was just one of the youngsters who broke into the team when the spectre of a fifth consecutive play-off was still hovering over the side. Joining him were defender Gaston Silva (23) and midfielders Federico Valverde (19), Rodrigo Bentancur (20), and Georgian de Arrascaeta (23), who followed in the footsteps of the slightly more experienced pair of Jose Maria Gimenez (22) and Matias Vecino (26).
“Uruguay have been doing a lot of good work at youth level for years now, which is why we were able to make the step up,” added Nandez. “When you move up to the senior team, you know your team-mates and you also know the way in which you have to work and behave. The more experienced players are very grounded too, which all helps you to settle in.”
319 - the number of minutes that Nandez spent on the pitch in the Russia 2018 qualifiers. He started three of Uruguay’s last four games in qualifying, missing the last one through suspension.
His journey so far
Nandez’s transition to the senior set-up has not been without its difficulties, however. The youngster made his full international debut in 2015, after captaining La Celeste at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand, then came on as a substitute in the opening two matches of the Russia 2018 qualifiers, only to then go nearly a year-and-a-half without being called up.
“You go through phases as a footballer, and though you’d like to be at your very best the whole time, that’s not always possible. That period helped me to grow,” explained the former Penarol man, whom Tabarez has used as a right-sided midfielder, though he can also operate in the centre of midfield.
His return to the Uruguay fold in the middle of 2017 coincided with a move to Argentinian giants Boca Juniors, where he has been an undisputed first choice since his arrival. Few doubt that he will be in the Uruguay squad at Russia 2018 or that he will have an increasingly influential role to play for his country in years to come.
As he waits for confirmation of his place in Tabarez’s plans for Russia 2018, Nandez is focusing on the present: “My mind’s on the World Cup and the squad list obviously, but I’m not going to drive myself mad about it. I’d rather make the most of what’s happening now, and I have to be ready to perform for my club, which is what will give me a chance of making the World Cup.”
Nandez’s view on Russia 2018
- Group A, with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt: “We all followed the draw and gave our views on it, and we’re agreed that it’s a tough group to analyse. We’re confident, though.”
- Taking on the hosts: “We Uruguayans like to be up against it. It’ll be an occasion to enjoy, though.”
- Uruguay’s objective: “To try and prepare as well as we can, so we can perform. You can’t really set any other objective than that because football matches hinge on so many different factors.”
The lowdown on Nandez
His temperament: “I was a bit wild when I was a kid. I was always on the go and I got into a few scrapes. I’m calmer now. My mother brought me up right.”
A childhood memory: “I was seven and I kept asking for a decent football. They bought me one, I went to the street corner with my friends, and within five minutes, a car had run over it. I’ve never forgotten that.”
One thing he didn’t like when he was a boy: “Scoring. When I played in Maldonado, I didn’t score a lot, but that had to change when I went to Penarol, a big club, at the age of 17. My game’s more about goalscoring now than anything else.”
On being a father, of Matilda: “It’s changed my life and made me grow up. She’s 18 months old, and instead of kicking the ball, she carries it around. She might turn out to be a keeper.”
Did you know?
- In February 2017, aged 21, Nandez became the youngest player ever to captain Penarol.
- The youngster had short hair when he arrived at Boca Juniors. On scoring a couple of goals, his team-mates nicknamed him 'Baby Rooney', though now they call him 'Uru'.