UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Sensational Cavani signifies rebirth of Uruguay as a soccer power

Before they used to say "You were the champions? Sure, when football didn't even exist, but today they're looking at us in a different light," Edinson Cavani said in an interview in El Pais this month about the impact of Uruguay's World Cup campaign, which saw the country reach fourth place after decades of absence from center stage.

Hand in hand with the resurging of Uruguay as a world force, Edinson's own flight has taken off. The young forward from Salto -- Uruguay's second biggest city with a population just short of 100,000 -- is currently setting Serie A on fire. His 20 goals have him leading the top-scorer chart, and as befits any young prodigy the January transfer rumor mill had him linked to all expected speculation; he may move to Manchester City in the summer, or some other Premier League club; Real Madrid bid 20 million euros ($27M) for him this winter, Mourinho really wanted him; the president of his current club, Napoli, has declared him nontransferable. According to La Gazzetta dello Sporto he's the phenomenom the world envies.

Recenty Cavani scored Napoli's 1000th away goal, with the club closing in on the heels of current top-of-the-table Milan. At the same time his pronouncement regarding the state of his nation's football retained its truth value when the Uruguay U-20s beat their Argentina counterparts with a footballing master class and secured a ticket to the London Olympics 2012. This is the first time in over 80 years that Uruguay will compete in Olympic football, having been the very first gold medalists in the discipline.

It was in the U-20 South American pre-Olympic tournament played in Paraguay in 2007 that Edinson first struck observers outside his immediate circle. Although Uruguay did not qualify for Beijing 2008, his own performance was outstanding, and secured him a transatlantic transfer to Palermo (with reported interest from a variety of major clubs playing no small part in adding to his market value). He also played in the U-20 World Cup in Canada, where Uruguay was eliminated by the USA, but again, his superlative play made a lasting impression.

His debut with the adult international squad was during a friendly in which he came on for Diego Forlan, 74 minutes into the match. Just a few days short of his 21st birthday, he stepped onto the pitch at the Centenario stadium -- a construction identified by most Uruguayans as the main national monument in the country -- and took all of 3 minutes to score his first goal with the light blue [Celeste] strip.

Last summer in South Africa he got to play side by side with Forlan, as manager Tabarez asked him to play out of position and mark his territory along the wings. "The Maestro talked to me and asked me flank the wings," said Cavani to 10minutos. "When one wears the Uruguayan national strip, inasmuch as its within my reach to do so, I'm willing to do whichever task is required.

"It was the possibility and the opportunity to show the team I was willing, and at the same time I took as a step to learn to play in other positions. I was always happy to live that moment inside the pitch."

He did score one goal during the tournament, against Germany no less. And returned home to a hero's welcome, emphatically highlighting his joy at sharing the glory with his fellow townspeople who saw him grow up. "Every joy we lived at the World Cup, I always remembered my city." said Cavani.

In mid-July he completed his transfer from Palermo to Napoli. He lives with his wife Soledad and they are expecting their first son. He relishes the fact that Sole and he started dating in 2006, before he even played in the first division and seems positively ill at ease with fame and exposure. A devout Christian by conversion, he says he plays for Christ and makes light of the fact that teammates occasionally mock him, calling him Jesus.

In Napoli, references to him as the Mesiah are not in jest though. As he continues to leave his will and his football on the pitch, he is rewriting the image of his country's history and its football. Uruguayan TV recently played a clip of an Italian commentator ode to Cavani as he narrates a spectacular goal -- Mamma Mia, matador! is clearly intelligible over and above any language barrier. What a talent is Cavani!!:

Uruguay have historically exported an inordinate number of elite players relative to its population, and Cavani does not pretend his intention of remaining in Europe is entirely driven by a desire for a secure economic future for him and his family. He says as a child he never lacked anything -- "we always had food and clothing" -- and both his parents insist on continuing working even though he has offered to support them. He says before moving to Palermo he read about the place on the Internet, and was concerned by the inevitable word mafia cropping up again and again. He was indeed assaulted at gunpoint about a year ago, as was his compatriot Abel Hernandez last week. The similarity in the incidents lead Maurizio Zamparini, president of Palermo to repeat that Cavani did not leave the club because of this. These incidents have nothing to do with football and could happen in any city.

Indeed, Uruguay has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in Latin America, according to the Association for the Fight For Civic disarment, who aim to generate awareness about the dangers of gun possession. Not as a sport, or among collectors, but the increasing number for self-defense and motivated by crime. Today, one in three Uruguayans owns a firearm.

Edinson was born on St. Valentines day 1987, and 50 years earlier, give or take a handful of days, Salto's greatest export to world culture took his own life. Horacio Quiroga, recognized as the greatest story-writer in the Spanish-speaking Americas, was haunted by the accidental death of his own father cased by a shotgun. Quirogas' legacy lives on, however, and although better known for his stories of the jungle, his exploration of love and madness, he is responsible for a literary masterpiece about football: He wrote of the flavor of the strong male alcohol that is glory and described this as being able use his body as a cue thereby being able to to play billiards with the ball, sending it one touch running into the goal itself.

Edinson Cavanti can boast as much. His fate need not meet the tragedy of Quiroga's own, or his characters, but his storytelling on the pitch is no less worthy of the heroic status he is achieving in his homeland; future new generations proving superior to the old while persevering the solid eagerness to play.