SAMARA, Russia (AP) One towering player stood out for his superior technical skills during a recent pickup game at a beach in the World Cup host city of Samara.
He controlled the ball, pausing with it at times and forcing the game to swirl around him before bursting past children and grown-ups who chased after him. And when he found himself unmarked, he shot with force, kicking up sand and scored to goal. That’s when someone walked up and asked if it would be OK to snap a selfie with him.
Well spotted. The pickup player was the former captain of the Uruguayan team that reached the World Cup semifinals in 2010. Diego Lugano is now enjoying the tournament as just another fan.
”I’m here with my children and with my Uruguayan friends enjoying the World Cup, the part of it that I hadn’t lived, which is the party that surrounds it,” Lugano told The Associated Press on a break from a friendly game where his 10-year-old son, Thiago, was also playing, in the hours before Uruguay beat Portugal 2-1 in Sochi to reach the quarterfinals.
His long-time teammates Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez have been leading the way this time.
Lugano led a Uruguayan team that finished fourth at South Africa in 2010. He was part of the squad at Brazil in 2014, when Uruguay reached the knockout stage, but his participation was limited by injury. The small South American country of some 3.3 million is a soccer giant: It won the World Cup in 1930 at home, and then in 1950 when it defeated Brazil. La Celeste has competed in 12 World Cups.
”Uruguay has had a very good team process in the past 12 years. Not much has changed,” the 37-year-old Lugano said. ”What has changed is the new presence of one player or another, but the commitment, the values, the grit, and the sense of identity remains. That’s why all of us who are no longer part of the team still feel identified and represented by the guys.”
Lugano supported the team from the stands of the Samara Arena during Uruguay’s 3-0 thumping of host Russia.
Uruguay was the only team not to concede a goal in the group stage, and it reached the knockouts for the third consecutive World Cup.
The win over Portugal was the fourth in a row for La Celeste, something the Uruguayans haven’t done since 1930, when four wins were good enough to win the title.
”We’re solid, we’re strong. We have very strong competitive points, and that makes us a main character in the Cup, we can beat anyone,” Lugano said.