• De la Cruz is the brother of Carlos Sanchez, a fixture in the full national team
  • The youngster was one of the star performers as Uruguay won a first South American title in 36 years
  • Scored three goals in the continental championships

“The next time you decide to chip one…”

Nicolas de la Cruz will not forget that message/threat in a hurry, especially as it came from none other than his older brother, Uruguay international Carlos Sanchez, a person he describes as “an idol and role model”. The comment came De la Cruz’s way just after he had seen Venezuela’s goalkeeper save his chipped Panenka-style penalty in Uruguay’s opening match of the 2017 South American U-20 Championship. The match ended in a goalless draw, but what happened next was indicative of the character of the attacking midfielder and his willingness to learn, as he inspired his side to the continental title and a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.

“I missed the penalty and I didn’t want to speak to anyone, not even my mother,” he told FIFA.com. In their very next match, Uruguay were awarded another penalty, prompting De la Cruz to show the iron-like determination that his coaches have come to appreciate, by stepping up to convert the spot-kick. His brother’s words flashed up in his mind as he did so: “He came up in my thoughts. He’s given me a lot of great advice as a brother and a footballer.”

Sanchez and De la Cruz speak a lot, exchanging messages and video calls when the former is in Mexico and the latter in Uruguay, or sharing a nice cup of mate on the occasions Sanchez returns home. “When he’s in Uruguay I take the chance to speak to him,” said the younger of the two. “He’s always telling me not to let the years slide by, to make the most of everything I’m experiencing. I keep the rest of the advice he gives to me to myself, because it’s personal.”

Though the two siblings harbour dreams of one day running out together for their country, De la Cruz has an immediate objective to fulfil: to become a world champion. “That’s what we came here for,” he said. “We achieved something historic at the South American Championship and made our contribution to Uruguay’s rich footballing past (Uruguay’s U-20 continental title was their first in 36 years). We want to get through the group phase now and make our presence felt in the knockout phase.”

With a view to achieving that goal, they have decided to adopt the same approach they took in becoming South American champions, by locking themselves in “a bubble”, as he put it. But what exactly does that involve?

“We spoke about it before we came here and we spoke about it again on arriving here in South Korea,” he explained. “Being in a bubble means that nothing gets in and nothing gets out, that it’s just us on our own. Though our families and loved ones are always in our thoughts, when it comes to competing there’s just us and nothing can distract us. You can make a bad decision, but when you’re in a bubble, there’s nothing that can bring you down.”

The bubble came to De la Cruz’s aid when he missed that penalty: “The squad is a big help and I got a lot of support from my team-mates. It was really important for me, for example, to share a room with Rodrigo Bentancur, who plays for Boca Juniors, a big club where there’s a lot of pressure. He gave me a whole heap of advice.”

Uruguay take on Italy in their opening game on 20 May before facing Japan and South Africa in what he describes as a “very tough” group. “It’s good for us to start against Italy. The harder the better,” says the No11, who is brimming with confidence. “We played Korea Republic the other day in a friendly and it gave us a taste of the atmosphere we can expect at the World Cup. We’re not used to that pace of play but we’ve got players who are really good on the ball and play with a lot of intensity. So, as the days go by we’re making sure we’ll be in the best possible shape.”