Just like old times for Uruguay

Uruguay’s run to the semi-finals at South Africa 2010 ended an 11-year wait for a place in the last four of a FIFA World Cup™ competition, an achievement the country’s juniors have now proudly built on, one year and two days later, by booking a semi-final slot at the U-17 World Cup in Mexico.

For a nation that has been crowned world and Olympic champions on two occasions but has been out of the spotlight in recent years, such successes are a source of both relief and pride.

“It’s very important because these competitions show us how well we’re doing our jobs and how good our players are,” Uruguay’s U-17 coach Fabian Coito told FIFA.com. “Obviously they’re different categories and you see different things but they’re both important in their own way. They’re the top competitions in their category and getting in among the top four is very important. It’s hard to reach a World Cup in the first place. It’s hard to get through the group phase. And it’s even harder still to be one of the best four teams in the world.”

Back on the map Time was when Uruguay was one of the few nations expected to reach the last four of major tournaments. Creating such lofty expectations was no small achievement for a country with a population of less than four million and a surface area some 48 times smaller than neighbouring Brazil. Yet despite their relative lack of resources, the defiant Uruguayans regularly punched above their weight, becoming world champions in 1930 and 1950 and winning Olympic gold in 1924 and 1928.

It’s hard to reach a World Cup in the first place. It’s hard to get through the group phase. And it’s even harder still to be one of the best four teams in the world. 

Though the U-20s have done their bit to build on that legacy by reaching FIFA U-20 World Cup semi-finals at Tunisia 1977, Japan 1979, Malaysia 1997 and Nigeria 1999, La Celeste has been a fading force since those distant halcyon days. Nevertheless, in reaching the last four at Mexico 2011, a tournament first for the country, the U-17s have followed the example set by the full national team last year, adding a little more lustre to Uruguay’s reputation.

So are these two landmark achievements in any way related? “I think so,” replied Coito. “South Africa 2010 definitely had an impact. We have a set-up in which El Maestro Tabarez is in charge of all the other national coaches, which means we can interact with each other and provides a link between the full national side and the youth team.”

Raising the barUruguay’s young prospects have no shortage of role models to base their game on and look up to these days. Aside from Diego Forlan, the winner of the adidas Golden Ball at South Africa 2010, fellow strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez are also setting an example for Coito’s colts to follow.

And while the Charrúa teenagers are blazing a trail of their own in Mexico, they are keeping very close tabs on the progress of their elders at the 2011 Copa America in Argentina. “You could say they’re like team-mates now,” added Coito. “It’s a huge source of motivation for Uruguayan football, and it’s only going to encourage us to keep on working and keep trying to be among the best.”