29. Federico Valverde
Uruguay may be small in size in comparison to some of their South American rivals, but they do know their way around producing talented players. While their factory line produces skilled players across the pitch, such as José María Giménez, Mauricio Lemos and Maxi Gómez, there seems to be a special preference for the midfield. It is in the middle of the park where a host of young, talented midfielders are slowly emerging. Lucas Torreira is slowly making his mark in Italy at Sampdoria, Rodrigo Bentancur has made a bright start at Italian giants Juventus, while Nahitan Nández has gotten off to a great start to life at Boca Juniors. But just when you think there’s an abundance, maybe even a surplus, of riches, enters Federico Valverde, a rough diamond that could transcend the lofty expectations of La Celeste’s hinchas.
Born on July 22, 1998 in Montevideo, Valverde spent his formative years at Peñarol, with his youth career spanning from 2008 to 2015. Highly rated from a young age, it was not at this club where he first made headlines as a footballer, but at the South American Under-17 Football Championship in 2015. Scoring in three of the first four games, he then added to his burgeoning tally by scoring in two of the last five games, ending up with a total of seven goals (including two penalties). Despite Uruguay’s poor showing, Valverde finished the tournament as the second-highest scorer, an indication of his immense potential.
Those performances sparked the interest of big clubs such as Arsenal, who were ready to offer €4M for the starlet. But Real Madrid’s €5M bid was more enticing, even discounting the disparity in the two bids, for Madrid are a side few youngsters would reject. Announcing the deal in May 2015, Valverde was to stay in Montevideo for another season until he turned 18. That decision was a smart choice, for gametime was the first and only prerogative in his development at that point.
Debuting for Los Carboneros shortly after his 17th birthday, Valverde only made 13 appearances for the club with just two assists, no surprise considering his tender age. Then-coach Paulo Bengoechea was sold on the player right from the start, waxing lyrical on Valverde.
“He is a great footballer, with a great technique. I’ve never seen a player so good at 16.”
Bengoechea helped advance his progression, and was careful to protect him from the wolves. His development was thus steady at
Peñarol, albeit limited to a great extent to the training ground. That was no downer, but gametime was a necessity, a necessity that he received when he moved to Real Madrid Castilla last season. Making his debut versus Real Unión, he was a mainstay in the first XI, playing in 30 of the 38 games. Despite it being the third tier, it was still the steady path of development that he required. His acclimatization to Spain, a new environment, country and style of player, was slowly eased, especially as he remained in Madrid. He also played 540 minutes in the UEFA Youth League, another example of the exposure he received at Castilla, facing off against the youth teams of Sporting Lisbon, Dortmund, Monaco, Ajax and Benfica. With just three goals and two assists across all competitions, it was no ground-breaking season, but the 2870 minutes he played was vital in furthering his education as a young footballer.
A season of regular gametime seems to have done him a whole world of good, especially when you consider his displays at the Under-20 World Cup this summer. Unlike his exploits in 2015, Valverde was no goal-scorer this time, with just a solitary goal, but he assumed the role of puppeteer in the side, keeping his side ticking with in all-action displays in midfield. His role in facilitating Uruguay’s attacking play, as well as his composure (his penalty vs. Portugal being a clear example) saw him win the Silver Ball, but he may as well have won the Golden Ball. It was a clear sign he was ready for much more this season.
A box-to-box midfielder, Valverde can play in an attacking role, though he has accrued the majority of his minutes in central midfield. Nicknamed ‘El Pajarito,’ or little bird, one of his major attributes as a player is his ability to drive forward with the ball. He looks to take initiative on his own shoulders, trying to create something on his own when he receives possession. In that regard, he is a positive player, preferring to initiate attacks on his own. This is not restricted by whether he plays further forward or in a deeper role; he is such a dynamic player, it is no wonder that he models his game on Steven Gerrard. With his technique and intelligence, he is also able to beat his man in a one-on-one, a skill acquired from his time as an attacking midfielder.
Valverde’s range of passing is varied too, which makes him well-suited for a deep-lying midfield role. Whether or not he has to play a long ball or an incisive through-ball, he is able to do it with minimal fuss. His stamina and height helps make up for his spryness, allowing him to harry opponents and press them across the pitch, and with time, he will bulk up physically.
His scoring exploits in 2015 also point to his effective finishing, even if chances don’t come by often in his withdrawn role. It is clear that pressure does not affect him, as he exudes confidence in his gameplay, but the controversial celebration at the U20 World Cup, which he garnered criticism on the basis of alleged racism, was a sign of his immaturity off-field. His immaturity is the only noticeable blip on an otherwise talented player.
That groundwork paved the way for his loan to Deportivo la Coruña this summer, seemingly the final stage of his development. It is a step up in quality, but there is no doubt that he can recreate the magic he has displayed on numerous occasions throughout his career. Having completed the full game in their 1-0 win over Alavés earlier this week, Valverde was one of the clear positives in the side. With a bright start to his temporary stint, eyeballs across Europe are slowly twisting their way towards him.
Real Madrid have a newfound penchant for picking talented South Americans from across the continent. Whether Valverde has a long term future at Real Madrid or not, he’s on course to having a great future. A solid season at Deportivo could lead to his inclusion in the World Cup squad, and a strong showing there (if granted the chance), well, could define his career. His goal in the 2-1 win over Paraguay, on his full national team debut, has pushed Uruguay towards the cusp of World Cup qualification. It’s evident a slow, steady start to his career has set him well for his breakthrough, as he is a raw diamond that is being polished quickly. Keep your eyes peeled, for this season is set to be Federico Valverde’s time to shine.