Turning starlets into stars

Uruguay's Under-20 players performed admirably at the World Youth Cup, but face a greater challenge in continuing their careers. 

Somewhat unfortunate to have lost to France in the final of the World Youth Cup, Uruguay flew home to a hero's welcome in Montevideo on Tuesday, with a procession planned from the airport all the way to the city's legendary Centenario stadium.

For many of them, though, this will only be a brief visit. Star man Nicolas Lopez has spent the past year in Italy with Roma. Right back Guillermo Varela joins Manchester United. His partner on the other flank, Gianni Rodriguez, is already with Benfica. Jose Maria Gimenez, a magnificently promising defender young enough to play in the next World Youth Cup, has been snapped up by Atletico Madrid. Left-sided midfielder Diego Laxalt joins Inter Milan. Strikers Diego Rolan and Ruben Bentancourt are with Bordeaux and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.

More will surely follow. Captain and centre back Gaston Silva, central midfielder Sebastian Cristoforo and support striker Giorgian De Arrascaeta have all put themselves in the shop window.

This is Uruguay's curse. With a population of only a little more than three million, it is impossible for the country's clubs to hold on to their best players. Once the global market opened up, Uruguay was forced to say a hurried goodbye to its young footballing talent.

And this is the context that makes the national under-20 side so important. The power of economics takes the players away, but the power of sentiment can ensure that they remain useful to the senior national side.

Uruguay explicitly use their youth ranks to build a bond of affection between talented young players and the sky blue shirt. Youngsters are given a crash course in their country's footballing identity, in what it means to pull on the shirt in a land where it is said that "other countries have their history, Uruguay has its football." The idea is that, wherever the club game takes them, in football terms they are Uruguayans for life.

The project is overseen by head coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, who had been ruminating on the effects of globalisation before taking charge of the national team for the second time some seven years ago. A teacher by trade, "El Maestro" Tabarez has brought all of his wisdom and experience to bear in what is presumably the last major job of a long and illustrious career.

A key part of the project is the identification of talent to be groomed, with Tabarez well aware that a key requisite for success in the modern, global game is speed -- if not of movement, then speed of thought, or the technical excellence that permits speed of execution.

Over these past seven years, Uruguay have consistently performed well at both under-17 and under-20 levels. Reaching the final in Turkey last Saturday was no fluke, merely the most eye-catching in a series of solid campaigns.

But it is still way too early to measure the success of the 2013 Uruguay Under-20 side. That comes in a few years, when the long-term objective -- to groom players for the senior side -- may or may not have been accomplished. And it is clear that the class of 2013 still has a massive hurdle in front of it. The gap between under-20 and senior stardom is huge, as Uruguay found out a year ago.

The 2012 London Olympics were an important competition for Uruguay -- and not just because they were competing in the football tournament for the first time since changing the game by winning the gold medals of 1924 and '28. It was also the moment when the graduates from the promising under-20 sides of 2009 and 2011 could show their worth. This was especially important since the senior side have been together for some time now, and are clearly aging in key positions. The Olympics, then, was a perfect halfway house, a stage for under-23 players to strut their stuff and be quietly assimilated afterward into the senior ranks.

That was the theory. In practice, nothing went to plan. Uruguay were eliminated in the group phase after three undistinguished performances in which not a single reputation was enhanced. A year on, little has changed. The senior side are a year older. Those great hopes of the 2009 under-20 side, Nicolas Lodeiro and Gaston Ramirez, are still struggling to make an impact at the highest level, and the fear is that much the same might turn out to be true of many of the 2013 generation.

Those who have moved to Europe at such an early age face a battle to get near the first team. Careers could stall as a result of too long spent in the reserves, or spells out on loan at clubs with no long-term stake in the youngster's development.

Uruguay have done what they could, identifying the talent and providing the structure. Much of what happens now is out of their hands. As they follow the progress of their youngsters scattered all over Europe and Latin America, they must hope that starlets turn into stars.