SALTO, Uruguay, May 28 – Lucas Motta flicks the ball to a teammate and shouts for a return pass, “One-two! One-two!” — like every kid in the town of Salto, his dream is to follow in the footsteps its most famous sons.
Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez were born in this northern Uruguayan river town just three weeks apart in the late austral summer of 1987.
Down the years, tiny Uruguay, with its population of 3.5 million, has turned out an impressive list of stars of world soccer, players like Diego Forlan and Enzo Francescoli, and won the game’s biggest prize in 1930 and 1950.
Salto stands proud in that tradition, cradle of one of the hottest strikeforces at the World Cup in Russia.
On the windows of the clubhouse of the 103-year-old Nacional de Salto football club, two huge photos show the local stars as children.
“Many people see in them the future of their offspring,” says Jose Luis Pertusatti, the club’s secretary, adding that in Salto, “people identify” with Suarez and Cavani.
“They see them as being part of their history,” says chairman Francisco Cano.
A life-sized statue of Barcelona’s Suarez beams a toothy smile along the city’s main street. The statue of “El Pistolero” is painted in the sky blue of the national team.
On a wall by the river, a mural shows “El Matador” Cavani wheeling away after scoring yet another goal, his long black hair flowing.
To follow Paris Saint-Germain’s Cavani “is a dream that drives me every day,” 13-year-old Lucas tells AFP.
“Today we are small, and it’s a pastime, but after that it will become a job. I want to do it so I can help my family.”
His mother Susana, 34, reminds her boy that school and study must come first. “Cavani is a humble player, you have to be like him.”
Cavani was the top scorer in the French league in the season just finished with 28 goals for Paris Saint-Germain. Suarez heads to Russia having scored 25 La Liga goals for Barcelona. He has scored a record 50 goals for Uruguay in 97 internationals. Cavani has netted 42 in 100 appearances.
– Footballing tradition –
The local Nacional youngsters train under the watchful gaze of Gonzalo Vlaeminck.
“Studies come first, football comes later. Studies will serve you longer than football,” he tells them.
“I think kids perceive differences and football puts everyone on equal terms,” said Pertusatti.
Football can be a key to a child’s development, he said, but it has a downside. “It puts pressure on a kid that he can’t always take.”
Vlaeminck, the coach, agrees. “When you play football you sometimes lose the objectives and the essential values in your life….they are children, they have too much pressure.”
“With Suarez and Cavani, there’s been greater interest (in football) among the people, and more particularly in the national team,” says Cano.
But he says the passion felt here for football goes “far beyond” the two marksmen. The town lives and breathes soccer, boasting 36 small football clubs like Nacional.
“There is a very special aura here,” says Pertusatti, convinced that other Suarezes and Cavanis are waiting to be discovered in a city “touched by a magic wand.”