- One of a group of youngsters that Uruguay coach Tabarez has high hopes for
- Established himself on the right side of defence towards the end of 2019
- Hoping to make a name for himself in the qualifiers for Qatar 2022
"Si nos olvidamos de donde venimos, no sabemos hacia donde vamos."
If you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going… These wise words appear alongside the cover photo of Matias Vina’s Twitter account, and they certainly explain a lot about the 22-year-old who is currently bidding to make the Uruguay left-back spot his own.
After playing for his nation's U-20 side, Vina did not make the step up to full international status until September 2019, when he was part of the team that faced Costa Rica in a friendly. His performance that day was enough to cement his spot in the starting line-up for the remaining five internationals that year.
"It all happened really quickly for me, which is why I like to think back to that phrase that I first came across in 2016," Vina told FIFA.com. "It’s a way of not losing touch with my roots,."
Those roots can be traced back to Empalme de Olmos, a village some 40 kilometres outside Montevideo. His mother and grandmother had a significant influence on his upbringing, which could explain why he originally put his studies ahead of his football. Looking back, he does not regret that decision, even though it took a lot of faith on the part of Nacional to give him the chance to launch his career.
"I was quite a late arrival at the club," said Vila, who now plays for Palmeiras in Brazil. "I was 17, so that didn’t give me much time to make it into the first team. It wasn’t easy, especially since I then broke my collar bone and couldn’t play for the first six months.
"A lot of things started falling into place in 2017. I got a call-up for the U-20s and we won the South American Youth Football Championship for the first time in 36 years. I made my debut in the first team and we finished fourth in the U-20 World Cup in Korea [Republic].”
Vina played in the centre of defence at the South American Youth Football Championship and caught the eye with a crucial goal against Brazil during the final phase. With the clock having ticked over into time added on, he made his way up the pitch, brought down a long ball 30 metres out and slipped it past the advancing keeper with his left foot, giving Uruguay a 2-1 win.
"That really changed everything for me because at the time, I hadn’t made my debut for Nacional so nobody outside my village knew who I was. That goal got me noticed for sure, but it was hard to take it all in my stride and I’m still struggling with that today,” he says, looking back at the Brazil match.
Hard work turns frustration to elation
Being thrust into the spotlight did not necessarily give his career the boost that he was aiming for. "I had high hopes for 2018 but I didn’t get a chance with my club, and other guys in the U-20s were moving abroad to get themselves an opportunity,” says Vina, who played alongside the like of Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Betancur at the time.
"I honestly thought about packing it all in, but my mother told me not to give up on my dreams. So I took another approach to it and said that if I wasn’t getting playing time, that meant that there was obviously something missing in my game, so I really doubled down and focused on the future."
It was not long before Vina would start to reap the rewards of his hard work. He cut a more disciplined figure, becoming more than solid at the back while choosing the right moment to join the attack, all of which helped him to carve a niche for himself with Nacional, who won the league that year at the expense of their traditional rivals Penarol.
August 2019 then saw him get his first call-up from Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez. "Until I actually had a representative from the national team call and confirm, I couldn’t believe it. I’d always dreamt about it but since I was playing in Uruguay, I didn’t think that I was on the radar for international duty. When I met my team-mates for the first time, it was crazy. These were some of the players I’d been cheering on when I watched the last three World Cups in front of my TV!” he said.
After coming on as a substitute for Diego Laxalt against Costa Rica, Vina was overcome with emotion when Tabarez told him that he would be starting the next match against USA. "I get pretty nervous before every game, so you can imagine the state that I was in. So the day before, I only told my mother and I asked her to keep it to herself."
"To try to calm me down, she sent me a photo of me and my brother celebrating (Uruguay’s) win over Ghana in South Africa (in 2010). That pushed me over the edge – I went to the bathroom and cried my eyes out,” says Vina, who is not afraid to show his more sensitive side.
All eyes on the qualifiers
After rounding out 2019 in style by keeping Lionel Messi under wraps in a 2-2 draw in a friendly with Argentina, Vina made the move to Brazil – a country known for its full-backs – in January 2020.
"I wanted to see how I’d measure up in the Brazilian league, so that was part of my decision-making process. And things have gone well,” says Mati, who suffered a head injury in July when battling for a lost ball. Since then, he has had to wear protective headgear, which has only served to endear him even more to the Palmeiras faithful.
The left back admits that the COVID-19 pandemic came at the wrong time for him with regard to the qualifiers for Qatar 2022™. "It’s a real shame because I was on the list of players who’d been called up, and the enforced break has already meant that I’ve had to miss out on the Copa America," he explains.
When asked whether Uruguay can grab one of the direct qualification spots, as many pundits believe, he is quick to confirm his ambitions. "I’ve yet to go through a qualifying campaign with Uruguay, either for the Copa America or the World Cup, but what I do know is that we are now one of the big guns in South American football. We now need to go out and prove it on the pitch."
Vina is also 100 per cent committed to the Celeste cause. "If you’d asked me back in 2018 if I thought I’d be part of the squad, I’d obviously have said no. But now I’ve got this chance so I see things from a different perspective. I’ve got to work hard to keep my place in the squad and then make it to the World Cup. And I think that I can definitely be a part of it."
Matias Vina on…
- …his two assists in six matches for Uruguay: "I played up front until the age of 15, so I still know how to get on the end of a cross and what to do in the opposition penalty area!"
- …his status as a lucky charm: "I helped my village team win the league for the first time in 30 years, then I managed to do the same with the U-20s, Nacional and now Palmeiras, who hadn’t won the state championship in 12 years. Long may this run continue!"
- …Messi’s jersey: "Suarez helped me to swap shirts with him. My mother’s been burgled, so I always keep the jersey with me since then. So now if I play against him and he gets away from me, I’ll be able to grab him by the shirt as I know exactly what it looks like!"
- …continuing his studies: "I wasn’t able to do it because I didn’t have the time, but I will get back to them – both for my own sake and for my family who made so many sacrifices to enable me to carry on on both fronts."
- …his interests outside football: "I like spending time with my family and friends… I’ve always preferred talking with my mother or watching a film with my grandmother to going out to night clubs."