In a surprisingly one-sided final Uruguay deservedly beat Italy 1-0 to win the Under-20 World Cup to send a nation into raptures. Olympic gold medalists in 1924 and ’28, senior World Cup champions in 1930 and ’50, the Uruguayans have been waiting a long time for a title of this magnitude.
There was delirium in a packed stadium in La Plata, Argentina, where thousands of Uruguayans had made the short trip across the River Plate, as well as back home where the league programme had been cancelled so that everyone could watch the big game.
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And there is more delirium to come on Wednesday. Marcelo Bielsa’s reign as senior national team coach gets underway with, on paper at least, a relatively gentle friendly against Nicaragua. Before the game the Under-20 champions will be presented to the crowd in Montevideo’s Centenario stadium. For some of them, this will not be the highlight of the evening.
Bielsa always loves working with youth. His highly successful spell in charge of Chile started just after the country’s Under-20 team had finished third at the 2007 edition, and Bielsa was quick to thrust opportunity and responsibility onto its graduates such as Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Mauricio Isla. And in his debut Uruguay squad he has named seven of the Under-20 side.
Attacking right-back Mateo Ponte has since gone down with a muscular problem, and missed the closing stages of the Under-20 tournament. But the rest of the defensive unit is well represented — recognition for the fact that in only one game (the 3-2 group phase defeat to England) did Uruguay concede. Goalkeeper Randall Rodriguez transmitted security, and was well protected by a fine pair of centre-backs — the Spain-based left footed Facundo Gonzalez and the magnificently calm and classy Sebastian Boselli, a strong candidate to be considered player of the tournament.
Also included is team captain Fabricio Diaz, a central midfielder with a set of golf clubs in his feet. Diaz was not always at his best in the tournament, but came good when it mattered, and was probably the best player on the field in the final. And there is space for two of the strikers — the stocky, clever, two-footed Anderson Duarte, who came good in the knockout stages, and Luciano Rodriguez, whose late goal against Italy won the title.
Strong and with sound technical skills, Rodriguez was the breakout star of the qualifying tournament at the start of the year. He endured a frustrating time at the full tournament, with near misses followed by a ludicrously harsh red card which ruled him out of the quarterfinals and semifinals. Come the big day, though, the Italians were unable to get a grip on him.
Rodriguez spent last year in the Uruguayan second division. But he, and several of his teammates are surely going places. And this, of course, brings us to the whole point of all age limited football. Titles are all very well — winning them is a good habit to have. But the most important thing is always the development of individual players.
By way of contrast, Brazil won the Under-20 tournament in 1993. But of the entire squad, giant keeper Dida was the only one to enjoy a significant future in the senior national team. Centre forward Jardel played a handful of matches, without coming anywhere near the success he enjoyed in Europe with Porto. And no one else even played a serious competitive international. So what was it all for? With its giant size, Brazil can afford to have a scattergun approach to Under-20 football.
But with a population little over three million, Uruguay cannot. There is not the slightest doubt that Uruguay’s 21st century re-emergence is a direct consequence of the hard work put in at this level. Time is spent identifying youngsters with potential and then developing them both as footballers and as Uruguayan citizens — they will inevitably be transferred abroad early, and so it is essential that they leave home with a sound understanding of the Celeste shirt, of who and what it represents.
The likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani were early graduates of this Under-20 process. Since then lots more have gone down the same path. Just as Bielsa is doing now, for nearly two decades Uruguay have consistently been able to freshen up their senior squad with those who have made a good impression in the Under-20 side.
And plenty of their neighbours are trying to do something similar. The Colombia squad to face Iraq and Germany over the next few days does not include James Rodriguez or Radamel Falcao Garcia. But left back Andres Salazar is in, as are Watford’s attacking midfielder Yasser Asprilla and exciting winger Oscar Cortes — all of whom were impressive in the Under-20 World Cup. Ecuador — who face Bolivia and Costa Rica — have promoted 16-year-old sensation Kendry Paez, bound for Chelsea in a couple of years. The left footed attacking midfielder or support striker showed flashes of real quality in the Under-20 tournament, and appeared to relish the responsibility placed upon him. He is easily young enough to play in the next Under-20 tournament in 2025 — but Ecuador will hope that by then he is already an established international helping them towards the senior World Cup the following year.
Now that Under-20 football makes way once more to the senior teams, this South American generation can look ahead — in addition to next year’s 2024 Olympics — the upcoming editions of the Copa America and the World Cup. Once all those tournaments are done, we can look back at this year’s Under-20 side and come to hard conclusions about whether anyone else apart from Uruguay has something to celebrate.