Lugano: Maturing Uruguay ready to spring surprise

ISTANBUL - Uruguay's long and tough road to World Cup qualification has transformed a young squad into an experienced and confident team who will head to South Africa with lofty ambitions, according to captain Diego Lugano.

This hard-won maturity and professionalism will make Uruguay a challenging and determined Group A rival for France, Mexico and hosts South Africa, the 29-year-old told Reuters at the training ground of his Istanbul club Fenerbahce.

"Today the Uruguayan team is a young one but with experience. Most of the players play with first teams in Europe, which gives us confidence and helps us believe we have the potential to be major competitors."

"The team has matured. It grew a lot during the qualifying rounds and we'll arrive in South Africa highly prepared."

Uruguay, a South American nation of just 3.5 million, has an illustrious soccer tradition. It won the first ever World Cup final in 1930 and a second title in 1950, but missed the most recent finals.

"La Celeste", as the team is known for its sky-blue jersey, finished fifth in the 10-team South American qualifying group for the 2010 finals, missing out on an automatic place. Uruguay went into a playoff with Costa Rica which they came through 2-1 on aggregate.

"The South American qualifying rounds are without doubt the hardest in the world. Not only are you playing against high level national teams but you also play in different climates."

"That prepares you for the World Cup... it has also helped us to mature," said Lugano.

The defender scored four goals during qualifying and hopes to continue his forays forward in South Africa.

"My work is to defend, to organise the team so as not to make mistakes, but also help to attack. Of course I dream of scoring goals, it's one of the best things that can happen to a player, though my first dream is to have a good World Cup."

EMOTIONAL BURDEN

Lugano, who joined Fenerbahce in 2006, is a pensive and articulate player, deeply engaged with his role as captain.

"In my experience to be a captain in Uruguay is different because Uruguay has a very strong history of good captains, who decide lots of things within and outside the team.

"That is sometimes heavy, an emotional burden. The nice thing is that I am a part of football history such as ours which is very rich in titles and rich in having great captains."

Lugano also credits coach Oscar Tabarez with bringing gravitas to the team.

"He made qualifying very serious, professional and very organised, something that is not very easy in our country. Trying to get everything working in a professional way is hard due to economic issues and also because of the mentality."

Uruguay will play France in Cape Town on June 11.

"The most difficult game is always the first in a World Cup as it sets the trend. In our case it is against a power like France. Although they go to the championship in bad shape they are one of the favourites given the number of good players."

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