It takes something special for a 20-year-old to receive his first international call-up in a World Cup qualifying play-off, but Uruguay certainly have something special on their hands in Nicolás Lodeiro.
The impish playmaker has been thrilling crowds in Uruguay since breaking into the Nacional first team at the beginning of the 2008-09 Apertura and he was rewarded for his eye-catching performances with a place in Uruguay’s squad for their two-legged play-off against Costa Rica last month.
Coach Oscar Tabarez handed Lodeiro a starting role in both the 1-0 victory in San Jose and the 1-1 draw in Montevideo that secured La Celeste’s berth in South Africa. Wearing his trademark number 14 shirt, he produced two displays of startling composure for a player making his senior international bow in his country’s biggest matches for four years.
“I was in Montevideo for the game, and came away enchanted with Lodeiro’s performance,” said Tim Vickery, the BBC’s South American football correspondent.
“I’ve been raving about him all year – excellent left foot and vision of the game, chooses his options with great intelligence – but to play so well in such a high-pressure situation was remarkable.”
It crowned a memorable 2009 for Lodeiro, who won the 2008-09 Primera División and reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores with Nacional for the first time since they last won the tournament in 1988.
He began the year at the 2009 South American Youth Championship in Venezuela, where he led Uruguay’s Under-20 side to a third-place finish behind Brazil and Paraguay and was one of the revelations of the tournament, scoring three goals.
September saw him captaining his country again, this time at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt. Uruguay came from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 draw against eventual champions Ghana in the group stage, with Lodeiro scoring Uruguay’s first and then creating an injury-time equaliser for Abel Hernandez, before losing 3-1 to Brazil in the last 16.
Comparisons with newly-crowned Ballon d’Or Lionel Messi are perhaps inevitable, given Lodeiro’s left-footedness and diminutive stature (he is only 5′ 7″), but he is stockier in build than the Argentine and typically plays in a deeper, more central role. He shares Messi’s ability to operate in tight spaces and also boasts a penalty-box dexterity similar to Messi’s international team-mate Sergio Agüero.
It’s been a while since Uruguay, two-time world champions and arguably the first great international team, made a big impact at a World Cup. That might be about to change once Lodeiro steps off the plane in South Africa.