Uruguay goalkeeper Gaston Guruceaga loves his pet dog Iker, a brown Boxer with little white paws.
“He looked like he was wearing gloves, which is why I went for him,” he told FIFA.com. “I called him Iker because I like the name and because I’ve always liked Casillas.”
Guruceaga might be missing his four-legged friend in New Zealand, but that has not stopped him from playing an integral part in Uruguay’s qualification for the last 16 of the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
“There was an awful lot at stake for us in this game,” he said, sipping on some mate, Uruguay’s national drink, in the wake of his side’s 1-1 draw with Mali. “We were in control of our own destiny but if we’d lost, we’d have made life very difficult for ourselves. It was important for us to get the draw and go through.”
Guruceaga was a key performer for his side in the qualifying competition and in their opening Group D match against Serbia, and did all he could to try and stave off defeat to Mexico in their second outing. Though the Charrúa custodian saw less of the ball in Saturday’s meeting in Hamilton, he was a calming presence as the Africans pumped cross after cross into the Uruguayan box, this after they had taken the lead from a free-kick awarded when he fielded a hasty back-pass from one of his team-mates.
“He’s a vital player for us,” said his appreciative coach Fabian Coito. “We’re seeing the emergence of a great Uruguayan keeper of the present and the future.”
That view is shared by La Celeste’s goalkeeping coach Carlos Nicola: “His biggest asset is his strength of character, which brings calm to the team when it needs it the most. And on top of that there are all his technical, physical and tactical attributes.”
Nicola also had praise for the 20-year-old’s ability to face down opponents in one-on-one situations: “It’s all down to the strength he has in his legs, which allows him to hold his position and not commit himself.”
I like the pressure that comes with the position. I thrive on the fact that I can’t afford to make any mistakes.
Capable of making himself big in dangerous situations and a commanding presence in the air, Guruceaga is the leader of a team determined to do justice to its status as the runners-up at Turkey 2013. Contemplating his role in the team, the shotstopper said: “There’s a captain in every side and behind him there are a group of players who try to lead the team on and off the pitch. I feel as if people listen to me.”
Guruceaga’s owes his lifelong love for goalkeeping to his grandfather, who played for his hometown team. When the youngster stepped on to a pitch for the first time, he made a beeline for one of the goals: “I went there because I was the tallest,” he recalled with a warm smile.
Explaining the other reasons behind his choice of trade, he added: “I like it because it’s different. You wear different gear to everyone else and I like the pressure that comes with the position. I thrive on the fact that I can’t afford to make any mistakes. It forces me to train as well as I possibly can.”
Turning dejection into dreamsAfter starting out in mini football, Guruceaga was spotted by Penarol at the age of 13 and has remained with the Montevideo giants ever since. Hugely disappointed to miss out on a place in the South American qualifiers for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 and on a subsequent slot in the finals, he has since channelled that dejection into pursuing his dream.
“I didn’t make it on that occasion but I knew that when I stepped up to this age group I’d be exactly the right age,” said Guruceaga. “I really thought about things and I’ve worked so hard, and I feel that experience has helped me get where I am today.”
An admirer of Manuel Neuer and Marc ter Stegen, Guruceaga enjoys a joke or two but is always focused on the job in hand. New Zealand 2015 is no exception. Of his family, only his father has made the trip to the world finals, and in choosing to keep distractions to minimum, the custodian is keeping in touch with the rest of his loved ones through phone messages rather than video calls.
That focus will be much needed in the Round of 16, where the Uruguayans are most likely to face Brazil, a team Guruceaga has every respect for.
“We know each other, though they’ve made a lot of changes to their line-up,” he said, looking ahead to next week. “Let’s see what happens. We’re not bothered about playing them because all we wanted to do was qualify. If we think too much about it, we might start losing sight of our objective.”