by Mohamed Moallim
Just the other day I was thinking of a possible future Ajax XI with the current players available today. Yes, I understand given the recent history of the club some of the jewels in the crown may not even be there after the summer, but it was looking at the squad to remind myself who was available at my disposal that I saw one name I all but forgot about, a player that the team could easily build around, Nicolás Lodeiro.
For a club historically known for showcasing some of the brightest young stars, it’s easy to forget the ones that do get away, whether due to bad luck with injuries or simply never fulfilling potential. Some do make it elsewhere but in the case of one Lodeiro, Ajax would very much like him to make it.
His journey to Amsterdam is the same as many who’ve made the trip from overseas. Born in 1989 in Paysandú, Uruguay – not that far from the Argentinean border. Lodeiro made his first tentative steps into the world of football when he joined his local side Barrio Obrero and it wasn’t long before one of the giants of Uruguayan football spotted his potential.
He joined Club Nacional de Football’s youth team at the age of 14 – the pedigree of the club is incomparable to most with 42 national titles and three Copa Libertadores (only four sides have won more) will tell you as much. Four years later he would make his début for the senior team.
Slowly and surely his potential was beginning for all to see. His uncanny ability to glide past opposition full-backs and defences with his speed and close control coupled with his dribbling began to draw comparisons with a giant of the Uruguayan game in the shape of Enzo Francescoli. High praise indeed, but it was his performance in the 2008/2009 Copa Libertadores that may have grabbed the attention of clubs in Europe.
Nacional reached the semi-finals that season losing out to Club Estudiantes de La Plata of Argentina; on a personal note Lodeiro bagged three goals and several assists in their campaign. A versatile tenacious player who can play on the wings but more comfortable as an attacking midfielder where he can bring his lethal left foot into play may have sealed the deal for Ajax to move in for him in late 2009.
It also helped with two Uruguayans already at the club in Luis Suárez and Bruno Silva. Suárez is said to have helped with negotiations and Lodeiro was more than happy to join. After making his Ajax début off the bench against FC Twente on February 7, 2010 everything was set for him to take off but a string of injuries meant he was only able to make nine more appearances – all but one from the bench – and scoring just the once against Go Ahead Eagles in the Dutch Cup.
Maybe performing at the World Cup could remind Ajax of the talent they acquired and there was every chance he could feature in Uruguay’s first tournament since 2002. His rapid rise also saw him make progress on the international scene, first helping guide Uruguay’s U-20 side – scoring three goals – to a third place finish in the 2009 South American Under-20 Championships. Also that year he took part in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Egypt, where he continued his personal good form in the age group, scoring twice in Uruguay’s four games.
And he was rewarded by making his senior debut for the national side in their 2010 World Cup playoff game against Costa Rica playing in both games, where Uruguay won 2-1 on aggregate; he was even named man of the match in the second leg at home. I like many had him down as possibly one of the star young players of the tournament. Given Uruguay’s possible route in tournament they had every potential to go far (as they showed) with the squad they had and Lodeiro could showcase his brilliance. How slightly wrong I was.
World Cup woe
With 65 minutes gone in Uruguay’s opening game against France in Cape Town, coach Óscar Tabárez decided he needed to make an impact substitute to sway the deadlock contest to his sides favour. On the bench he had just that player, the 21-year-old mercurial attacking midfielder stroke winger. On he came and within 16 minutes he duly delivered his coach’s request, sort of.
With France starting to take the ascendency and Uruguay’s defending becoming desperate he decided to take matters in his own hands, with Bacary Sagna making one of his rampaging runs he lunged and caught the French full-back. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura didn’t hesitate to shown him his second yellow card, after being booked two minutes into his first World Cup game.
It was a huge blow for him and Uruguay, though they held on for a goalless draw. But this was nothing compared to what would happen later on in the competition. After returning from suspension to play the final 16 minutes against South Korea in the first knockout round, Lodeiro played the entire second half in what has since become their controversial quarter-final tie against Ghana where he suffered a fracture in his right foot ruling him out for the semi-final against the Netherlands, his adopted home.
The injury meant Lodeiro missed pre-season with Ajax, but returned to the club for further treatment and just when it seemed he would be putting the injuries behind him, just days after resuming training he sustained another foot injury, ruling him out for a further two months. Afterwards he went on the clubs television channel where he bemoaned the setbacks:
“My injury made me very sad,” he said. “I thought: a new season, new opportunities. I so wanted to win my place.”
Showing great commitment to the club, Lodeiro chose to continue his rehabilitation in the Netherlands rather than in South America, which his national FA were keen on. “That way I know my colleagues better,” he added.
In the months between his setback and recent return to training in late February, Ajax parted company with Martin Jol and replaced him with Frank de Boer. The former Ajax youth team coach set about implementing his vision – which he shared with mentor Johan Cruijff – in turning around the clubs fortunes.
And with a strong emphasis on playing the 4-3-3 system which Ajax became synonymous with during their heyday the need for a creative attacking midfielder and winger is very much in vogue, hence Frank de Boer’s assertion that Lodeiro has a bright future at the club if he first overcomes the injuries that have derailed him.
He may have not yet made the great impression Christian Eriksen has – even linked with a move away after his first couple of months – but with his undeniable talent which Ajax forked out €4m for, his journey has yet in truth began and when it does, in his own words “certainly I will show fans of Ajax how much I like football.”
Mohamed Moallim is a new contributor to Just Football focussing on Dutch football and football history. Read more from him at La Croqueta.