The history of football is raft with stories of players who had all the necessary talent to be the best in the world but were never able to fully realise their potential. Whether it is flawed lifestyle choices, injuries or a weak mentality, it often seems it is those blessed with superior talent that struggle most to forge a successful career in the upper echelons of the game.

Anyone who witnessed the spindly, buck-toothed Alvaro Recoba effortlessly weaving through defences in the white of Nacional in 1996 would have had no doubt that they were among the lucky few privy to the foetal stages of a career surely destined for greatness. With razor sharp close control, a magic turn of pace and a beautiful left foot, capable of power and precision in equal measure, it seemed as if the sky would be the limit for the young Uruguayan.

Among those spectators was former Internazionale great Sandro Mazzola, who returned to Italy certain he had spotted the next big thing in the world game. A word in the ear of Inter president Massimo Moratti saw Recoba move to the San Siro the following summer and his rise to stardom looked to be well on course when he marked his debut with two spectacular strikes to seal a comeback victory over Brescia on the opening day of the season.

That initial level of performance proved impossible to maintain, however, as Recoba struggled to adapt to the greater physical demands of the Italian game, appearing only sporadically throughout the remainder of his debut season in Serie A. Revitalised by a loan spell at little Venezia the following campaign, Recoba returned to Inter in 1999/00 with a point to prove and enjoyed a superb season, scoring ten goals and providing countless others for his team-mates.

His reward was a new contract, making him the best paid player in the world. But trouble was around the corner, as injury problems and a four-month ban for his use of a fake passport curtailed the momentum his career had begun to build. Injuries would never be far away in the years to come and despite showing flashes of brilliance the Uruguayan was never again able to put together a consistent run of high quality performances.

Easily downhearted when he wasn’t picked and often appearing too lackadaisical when he did take to the field, it became clear that Recoba didn’t have the necessary mental toughness to elevate himself to the level of the true greats of the game. After a loan spell at Torino and a season and a half with Panionios in Greece, he recently announced that he will return home to his first club Danubio for 2010.

As Recoba returns to the league in which he made his name, Uruguay’s next big hope is well on the way to establishing himself as one of the hottest prospects in world football. At the start of 2009, Nicolas Lodeiro was a promising attacking midfielder on the Nacional bench; by the end of it he was a starter in both legs of the playoff with Costa Rica that secured Uruguay’s place at the World Cup in South Africa.

His meteoric rise began at the South American U-20 Championships in January, where his inventive performances just off the front two were key to Uruguay’s third place finish, qualifying them for the U-20 World Cup later in the year. He carried that form into Nacional’s Copa Libertadores campaign, scoring three goals and performing superbly on their run to the semi-final.

Lodeiro captained Uruguay at the U-20 World Cup and scored twice as they comfortably qualified from their group before falling to Brazil in the first knockout round. Despite the disappointing early exit, senior team coach Oscar Tabarez had seen enough in the young playmaker to gamble on him for the World Cup playoff with Costa Rica.

There, Lodeiro offered a clear indication that the hype surrounding him was justified as he shook off a nervy debut in the away leg in San Jose to put in a startling performance in the second leg in Montevideo.

Operating just behind Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan, Lodeiro was a bundle of imagination, his low centre of gravity and deceptively strong physique allowing him to extricate himself from the attentions of the Costa Rica defenders and create space for little through balls, accurate crosses and a couple of attempts on goal. One moment in particular encapsulated his potential; picking the ball up just inside his own half, in tight confines he skipped past two Costa Ricans as if they weren’t there, powered forward and laid in Suarez for an attempt at goal. Uruguay had gone from defence to attack in a blink of an eye and it was all Lodeiro’s doing.

Barring injury he is now a lock for a place in Uruguay’s World Cup squad and is beginning to garner attention from Europe. Reports in recent weeks have suggested that Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Napoli are all keen on the little left-footed schemer. If he shines in South Africa there are sure to be many more clubs willing to part with their cash in order to secure his signature.

Despite the plaudits, Lodeiro is trying to keep his feet on the ground, something that should bode well if he wants to go one better than Recoba and turn his undoubted potential into a career at the peak of the world game. “I am very calm [about the rumours of European interest]. The truth is that it is always good to have people talking about you because it means you are doing well and people are following your progress. But today I have to concentrate on pre-season with Nacional because that will form the basis for the rest of the year.”


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Photo courtesy: Bonival