I always dreamed of becoming a professional footballer, but there aren’t that many opportunities in Uruguay. That’s what makes my story so special.
I grew up in Fray Bentos, a small town of 25,000 inhabitants, and I come from a very big family with six siblings and great parents. I was also lucky to have many aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents around me, and my first experience of football was my dad and neighbour taking me to play.
I began when I was just three years old, playing for 18 de Julio, my local team and the team my family supported. I can still remember my first pair of boots actually – I’ve got some very happy memories of my childhood.
Despite the town’s size, you can find quality football everywhere in Fray Bentos. The town has 11 football clubs and the local rivalries are very passionate. In fact another professional footballer, Gaston Ramirez, is from the same town.
I used to see Gaston many times whenever he was back home or on his holidays. He was an example to all of us because he was a local person who was playing for the national team. At the time we weren’t friends but we have since played together, when we were at Sampdoria, and now I can say that I know him very well and he’s like a brother to me.
I wanted to follow in his footsteps to play for my country, but for my football career to progress I needed to move to Montevideo.
Moving from Fray Bentos to the capital was quite a leap. In Montevideo I played for Montevideo Wanderers for a year in 2013. It was hard. I left many things behind, such as family and friends. Suddenly you can no longer do all the things you are used to doing.
You have to devote yourself to football and continue with your studies in a different city. It´s all about getting used to new rhythms. Montevideo is a big city with many people, and many things to do. Luckily my sister lived in Montevideo at the time and she helped me adapt. I handled the change thanks to my attitude and sacrifice.
When I started to feel more settled off the pitch, an incredible thing happened to me. At the end of the season, Montevideo Wanderers decided to send four youth players for a trial at Pescara in Italy.
I wasn’t one of the four, but I’d had a good season, scored a lot of goals and been selected in the Uruguay youth squad, so the club decided to make room for me. We went for the trial in December 2013 and, of the five of us that went, I was the only one who ended up moving to Europe. It was a wonderful experience, I was able to make the most of it and now I’ve been in Europe for nearly six years.
Of course, it’s a big challenge leaving Uruguay at 17 to go to another country, a very big country where they have their own customs and everything is different… But in my head I knew that it was the opportunity of a lifetime for me to make it, and to help my family and everyone else around me.
Like I said, we have a really big family and at the time my father was the only one who worked. It was all quite difficult, but that stuff gave me the strength I needed to carry on, work hard, make sacrifices and show dedication.
If I hadn’t moved to Europe, I don’t think I would have been called up for the national team. I’d never even played for the youth sides but then, during a great final season with Sampdoria, I received a call from the national team coach. That was a great day.
My first cap was in the China Cup in March 2018, when I played against the Czech Republic. It was a dream come true because every player and every Uruguayan child dreams of wearing the blue shirt of Uruguay at some point in their career.
I just remember it being an incredible experience to meet and spend a few days with the national team players because, before that, I’d followed them on television or on the PlayStation. I think, because it had been something I’d been waiting for my whole life, I really made the most of my opportunity. I had a good tournament in China and I soon found out that I was on the 23-man list for the World Cup.
That was a huge moment for me. Obviously we were knocked out by the champions but we left everything on the pitch and fought right until the end. There were many strong candidates to win the competition who were knocked out prematurely, and there were also many strange results and surprises.
One of my favourite moments came in the game against Portugal. We produced a terrific effort against them and it was one of the games I enjoyed the most. There was also a moment in that game when I had no other choice than to head the ball on the floor. I just didn’t want the player to get into the box so I decided to go in with my head instead. The video went viral on social media, so that was a bit crazy!
Later in the competition, France beat us and we eventually finished fifth, which made us the best South American team in the World Cup. It’s important to emphasise that in this World Cup we had eight players playing their first major tournament. There’s a new generation with players who are having an impact in big clubs. It is important that we get to know each other while learning from the most experienced players. That should be valued and not forgotten, which is why I’m very proud of how the team performed.
I gave my life for my country and now I have this opportunity with Arsenal. This chance is unique, every child and every footballer dreams of making it to this kind of club. At the start everything was very new for me because I came from another country, another life and another lifestyle. But I am a very normal guy, very natural.
I devote my time to training and improving as a footballer. I live with my girlfriend and sometimes we go and visit all the emblematic things in town. London is one of the most important cities in the world and I feel very happy here. I am adapting to many new things and I hope I can stay in London for a long time.
The weather can be a challenge, of course, and the Premier League is in my opinion the toughest tournament in the world. You have to be physically and mentally ready to play plenty of games. We play every three days, then there are international games too. You have to make sure you take care of your diet and rest because our bodies are our working tool, but I absolutely love the challenge.
It's also been great to be able to play alongside some truly world-class players. I sit in the dressing room between Mesut Ozil and Alex Lacazette. Mesut and Laca are fantastic players and people. They bring in that quality touch that the team needs. They dictate the tempo in every play of the game. Laca is in great scoring form, which is really important for us.
When I arrived at the club they told me that my closet in the locker room was going to be in between Laca and Mesut. I would have never imagined or dreamed of something like that. I am privileged to live all this at the age of 23.
Unai Emery has also helped me a lot since I arrived. It´s very important that he can explain things to me in Spanish, especially at the beginning when it was all a bit more complicated due to the language. Unai and his staff can give me some directions in Spanish when needed, which is really helpful.
My first target was to establish myself in the team. I feel like I’ve done that now. I wanted to understand the Premier League’s style of playing, because this is very different to Italian football. We have big targets but my biggest target is to keep on improving as a player and as a person so my team-mates get to know the kind of person I am. I want to carry on working hard. There’s no more important path than hard work.
I had a nice reminder of that a few weeks ago. After training I went to my local supermarket to pick up a few things. I was looking through the shelves and saw some Fray Bentos tinned meat. Can you imagine that? My hometown’s name in a British supermarket, nearly 7,000 miles away! It made me smile and remember how far I’ve come too.
It was very hard for me to get where I am now. That´s why it´s so enjoyable. I’ve had to work so hard to get to this stage in my career but for me, the hard work has only just begun.
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