Uruguay’s little bird takes wing

  • Federico Valverde turned in an outstanding performance on his Uruguay debut

  • “I knew I was asking a lot of him,” said Celeste coach Oscar Tabarez

  • “He’s a phenomenon,” said Luis Suarez of the teenager

"Don’t come here and tell me that Valverde has to be in the national team. It’s going to take him time. For a player to work his way into the national side, he has to perform and pick up a lot of experience." (Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, June 2017)

“I wasn’t 100 per cent certain it would come off because I knew I was asking a lot of him (Valverde). He took a huge step forward though. I’m pleased with how he contributed to the win and that he gave me a response.” (Oscar Tabarez, 5 September 2017).

Given the short space of time between those two sets of quotes, you could be forgiven for thinking that the wise old campaigner that is Oscar* *Tabarez had ended up contradicting himself. What those words actually reveal, however, is the speed with which Federico Valverde – the young player Tabarez was talking about – has developed in recent months. Further proof of that came with the 19-year-old’s stellar performance in Uruguay’s vital 2-1 victory over Paraguay in the South American qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

In making his international debut in Asuncion, the teenager repaid El Maestro’s faith with a commanding display in midfield. Together with Matias Vecino, he disrupted Paraguay’s rhythm whenever they had the ball, and brought clarity, direction and pace to Uruguay’s play whenever they had it. The best example of that came when the youngster played a delightful ball into space for Edinson Cavani, who was unable to put the chance away. Then, thanks to a deflection off an opposing player, he gave his side the lead thanks to another of his specialities: long-range shooting.

“Those who said he wasn’t ready don’t know him,” said Tabarez afterwards, taking aim at sections of the press. Known since his childhood as Pajarito (“Little Bird”) owing to the way he runs, Valverde is far from the archetypal combative Uruguayan defensive midfielder.

Valverde was 13 when Tabarez first came across him at the Complejo Celeste, the national team training centre. "He was a very different player then to what he is now. He was very shy, and small and thin, but the coaches with Uruguay and at his club saw that he had qualities that players his age don’t usually possess.”

Pablo Bengoechea, the talented former Uruguay international, gave Valverde a first-team debut at Penarol when he was only 16. His skills attracted the attention of Real Madrid, who bought him in 2015. On his arrival in the Spanish capital the following year, he played for the club’s reserve side, Real Madrid Castilla, in the Spanish third tier. In a difficult season for the team, he was one of their better performers.

Then, in June this year, the young Uruguayan won the adidas Silver Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017. Uruguay finished fourth in the competition, with Valverde their undisputed leader. An intelligent, hard-running midfielder, the 19-year-old is an ideal link man in the transition from defence to attack and is also blessed with a cultured right foot, which he uses to great effect in open play and dead-ball situations. He also knows where the goal is.

Now on loan at Deportivo La Coruna, for whom he has yet to make his debut, he was called up by Tabarez for Uruguay’s latest double-header. After sitting out the draw with Argentina, he got his chance in Asuncion thanks to Alvaro Gonzalez’s suspension.

The youngster came in for praise from his team-mates after inspiring a win that took Uruguay a step closer to next year’s world finals, with Luis Suarez first in the queue: “Valverde is a phenomenon. This is just another demonstration of the faith El Maestro has. He’s not scared to bring in players who are bang in form.”