And they play in black and blue, Fede Valverde says, Everton blue. The Real Madrid midfielder is laughing now. Last week was not, it turns out, the first time he had played against Liverpool; it wasnt even the first time he had beaten them. That was five years ago: 30 March 2016, Uruguayan clausura, Peñarol v Liverpool Fútbol Club at the Estadio Campeón del Siglo. Theres a difference, though. Theyre not pronounced the same: Uruguays is Liverpúl, he says, stressing the final syllable, before revealing the colours and the score: One-nil, goal from Carlos Valdez.
Valverde was 17; within four months, having played 13 games for Peñarol, he had signed for Madrid, heading to another world. A league champion in Spain, he watched on television as 6,166 miles away Liverpool, the name inspired by the ships docking in Montevideo, finished top of the 2020 clausura, the first title in their 106-year history. They played very well, deserved it. Theyre a good club who bring through youth. Their grounds very nice, the grass is good.
That is not always the case but Valverde would not change it for anything. It is what made him after all, beginning when he was three in a city where there is a football ground on every corner.
In Uruguay, not every pitch is grass even in primera so imagine baby football. Theyre dirt pitches, gravel. You go to take a corner and theres an animal next to you. It makes you grow up, fight, stronger. Its lovely to come back from a game with your face covered with dirt, hair solid with mud, boots full of stones. The most beautiful thing a kid can experience is to get on the bus every weekend in your kit, share that with friends and family.
Football is essential for Uruguay, people die for their teams, theyre mad for their team. And when youre a kid the first thing they throw to you is a ball. We have such a small population [3.5 million], so producing so many players fills you with pride.
Which is why Valverde even became a bit of a Liverpool fan in 2013. The English Liverpool. Most Uruguayans support teams with Uruguayans in and when Luis [Suárez] was there, I supported Luis. It happens with [Edinson] Cavani at Manchester United too. That year, the whole country supported Liverpool. This year they will support Madrid, then? Valverde smiles. I suppose so, yeah.
I had to decide whether to continue studying or play football, as I missed a lot of school. To make it, I had to leave
The key is in the culture, he says. After the clásico, one paper described him as an uncontainable whirlwind, ultra-competitive, a blur of energy and edge. Thats how they bring us up, he says. Everyone comes to beat you, everyone wants the prize. And thats where you say: No, I want it.
It is there, too, when he talks about days spent with Suárez and Atlético Madrids José María Giménez now friends off the pitch, still enemies on it. Asked if they talk football, Valverde shoots back: First, we kill each other. Sometimes we leave football to one side because its nice just to enjoy the family, the kids. But even if were playing with the kids, having a laugh, the footballs always on in the background. There are always comments, winding each other up.
It is easy to imagine them in the garden elbows out, the tackles terrifying. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Valverde says with a grin. If you dont win, you get upset. My son [Benicio, 1] is too small, the balls too big. But when I play my wife, I dont hold back: I fly into her. Either she goes past or the ball does, never both!
Valverdes wife, Mina Bonino, is Argentinian and a huge River Plate fan, the footballing debates at home constant, no backing down. This conversation starts with Valverde cracking up and refusing to name Nacional, Peñarols great rivals I cant, I cant, theyll kill me! he protests continues with him insisting: My son will be a Peñarol fan and Ill always defend Uruguay at home, and throughout is a deep fondness for the football and the place that formed him.
I started aged three at Estudiantes de la Unión in my neighbourhood, a humble, working-class place, he says. His father, a security guard, also played although Fede enjoys reminding him he wasnt particularly good. His mother had a stall selling toys and clothes where one day a Peñarol scout approached, asking: Are you the mum of that skinny kid that flies? But he never had his eye on any of them, insisting: Only the ball made my eyes light up. He says: They fought for me, all that sweat, work and tears, and to have them here now, to see them so well, enjoying my son, gives me a strength I cant describe.
Fede Valverde and Barcelonas Clément Lenglet challenge for a high ball in last weekends clásico, which Real Madrid won 2-1. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images
There was a moment of change in my life one I regret now too because Id like to have stayed at school when I had to decide whether to continue studying or play football, because I was missing a lot of school. To make it, I had to leave. I was 14 or 15, playing for the national team at youth level. There was a lot of travel, I missed classes, I would fall behind, it was hard. My parents didnt want me to leave school but the two things didnt fit. I decided: My dreams football, the thing Im good at is football, Im going to dedicate myself to football. Thankfully, it came off.
His parents werent his only guide; soon his boyhood hero was, too. I had the great fortune, a magic wand, that at the time I made my debut at Peñarol, the club I love, Diego Forlán signed. That was Valverde puffs out his cheeks. I didnt know what to think, what to say. But he was amazing and not just with football; he helped me understand, to not lose my head. When big clubs appeared, he said: Keep calm, youre young, enjoy each day. If theyve come for you, its because you have something. Let that motivate you.
I dont know if fear [is the word]. When youre chasing your dream, theres nothing that can stand in your way. But there are obstacles. Maybe for some leaving home at 18 isnt [a problem] but for me it wasnt easy. At Madrid they give you everything, you have thousands of people helping, but the love of your mum and dad is different. Yet when you have an objective, theres no barrier.
Madrid were not the only club struck by Valverdes qualities, a style he describes as running until his legs burst. It is as if he has four lungs and he has heard it said that there is something of Steven Gerrard about him, although he shies from the comparison. Gerrards an idol, a star who won magnificent things, an incredible player with those diagonal passes, the shooting, busting through with the ball. Lovely. I could spend 24 hours watching him, a pleasure. But he did what he did; I have to fight for my [own] name.
Speaking of stars, the three men alongside him arent bad. And as for his manager Valverde laughs. Yeah, he replies, I cant complain.
With Zinedine Zidane, he says it is about the person as much as the player. Of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos he says: Theyve won everything in Spain and internationally, Champions Leagues coming out their ears. Put them together, theyd make the perfect player: Case is always alive to everything: strong, fast, he sees spaces opening, spots players coming to press. Luka is dynamic, the pass between the lines. And Toni has the patience and ability to play without pressure, as if he was in his backyard.
What could be better for me than sharing a dressing room with them? You only have to watch them to learn, and if they give advice you listen. Case was especially helpful, easing my adaptation, on top of me all the time. When theres a healthy rivalry, you become a better team and I love having that competition, three players who make it almost impossible to get in. I like the challenge, fighting to play. And when you get to play with them, you enjoy it even more.
Against Liverpool they delivered another lesson, that trio seemingly timeless, although Zidane has suggested Madrid are at the limit physically, which Valverde, back from injury, says may make his own contribution more significant in the final weeks. Despite a slight knock he is set to start on Wednesday night in a game in which he does not expect Liverpool to be drawn into attacking wildly, risking exposure on the break.
When a team loses, people usually say they played badly, buts a game of two teams, and often its about the virtues of the other side. Liverpool will have made mistakes, like on the [second] goal, but Madrid played well: defended well, pressed well, attacked well. Its more that what we did was positive. Nor does the fact they lost 3-1 and didnt have a good first half mean itll be all roses for us there. They have to win, but we wont stand there arms open waiting to see what Liverpool do. We have our own weapons and our aim isnt to draw or lose by a single goal.
The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.
I would love to have played at a packed Anfield: all that pressure, their fans up for it pfff, thats the magic of football. Its not the same without the extra energy from the fans, but you adapt. Ive played at grounds with no grass and no stands, that arent the best but you still go out there to enjoy the game and to win. Well try to beat Liverpool.
For Fede Valverde, it would not be the first time, or even the second.

You may also like