Diego Godin heads to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil on the back of the best season of his career.
Fresh from scoring a goal in the 1-1 draw against Barcelona at the Nou Camp which effectively secured his club, Atletico Madrid, their first Liga title for 18 years, he also scored in the Champions League final only to suffer a 4-1 defeat to rivals Real Madrid.
The defender was part of the Uruguay side that reached the semi-finals four years ago in South Africa, and will be a key player as ‘La Celeste’ look to emulate the team of 1950, who lifted the trophy the last time Brazil hosted the tournament.
Q The tournament in Brazil will be the second World Cup of your career. Were you able to take any lessons away from the tournament in South Africa?
A Yes, experiencing a World Cup gives you an understanding of how to tackle a tournament like this.
The biggest lesson is knowing that we’re going to play against some great national teams and that the most important match is the first one (against Costa Rica on June 14).
Then to win the first match, because that sets the tone of how you play in the group stage. The biggest goal for each team, mine as well, is winning that first match and going on to secure a spot in the next stage.
The match against Ghana in South Africa that took you to the semi-finals of the tournament was one of the most intense matches of the 2010 World Cup.
What are your memories of the match and your eventual victory in the penalty shootout?
It was amazing, because it was one of the most exciting matches that I’ve experienced, for everything that happened. We started out losing and we turned things around.
To be playing against Ghana with the entire continent of Africa supporting them, and to be able to turn it around when they got a penalty off a handball in the last minute of injury time can’t be described.
To win it on penalties with a Panenka-style goal (by Sebastián Abreu), it was amazing, it was one of the most incredible matches I’ve played. We then celebrated but were thinking about how to face the semi-final.
For us, playing in a World Cup was unthinkable before, we couldn’t imagine playing in a World Cup semi-final, we had a great time and we almost made it to the final.
Do you think the current Uruguay team is better than the team that played in 2010? Has anything changed after making it to the semi-finals in 2010, and winning the Copa America in 2011?
For me it’s not better or worse, it’s different, because while there might be a difference in players it’s not much – the same group has been playing together for many years.
We might change one player for another but the base is more or less the same. This same team was practically the core of the group that were fourth in the World Cup in South Africa, that won the Copa America and qualified once again for the World Cup in Brazil.
The team with which we hope to play really well because we have great players that have been playing together for many years now.
The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup, Uruguay beat the hosts in the final, how confident are you that history can repeat?
It’s the hope of an entire country, the excitement of an entire country, after what was such an enormous feat, the greatest in world football: winning the World Cup in Brazil.
But we’re focused on enjoying the World Cup; making it past the first round is the biggest objective of Uruguay and the rest of the teams and we don’t imagine ourselves beyond that.
People are very hopeful because of what was, remembering that maracanazo, and because we’re very close to Brazil and many people from Uruguay can go to the World Cup, but we’re not thinking beyond that at the moment.
In the group stage you will have to face Italy, England and Costa Rica. Which of these teams is the biggest threat?
I’d say Italy. It’s the national team with the longest history and the most titles and they’re doing things better now. They’re also a serious contender for the title as well, so we respect them a lot.
We respect all the teams a lot, but looking at the group I think Italy is the strongest. But we respect all the national teams. England has a great team.
Costa Rica, who we’ve already faced, has also grown significantly over the past four years.
Against Italy you will likely have to look after Mario Balotelli. How difficult an opponent do you expect him to be?
Yes, he’s going to be the big point of reference when we play against Italy.
Balotelli is a great player who proves it on the pitch, and one of the biggest challenges to try and win that match is going to be controlling Balotelli, who is a leader and a player who can easily win games on his own.
Your team-mate Cristian Rodriguez has promised to travel to San Cono on horseback if you were to win the World Cup. What will you do to mark the occasion?
I don’t know. I can’t imagine winning a World Cup or what one would do. It would be an immense joy to celebrate it with my teammates, friends, with my family, with everyone, but I’m not making any promises.
Diego Godin and his team-mates will wear the new Uruguay World Cup kit by PUMA. For more information about PUMA at Brazil 2014, head to www.puma.com/football.
England captain Steven Gerrard has hinted he could retire from the international stage after the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil.
Gerrard will lead Roy Hodgson's side to south America in June, where they face group stage fixtures against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.
The 33-year-old is hopeful England can defy their underdog status at the tournament and make a serious challenge for their first World Cup crown since 1966.
But the Liverpool midfielder, who turns 34 next week, acknowledges this could be his last taste of the international scene.
With Liverpool back in the Champions League next season, Gerrard knows the demands on his body will be even greater and he could well decide to step away from England duty to prolong his club career.
"I'm not going to leave anyone hanging," Gerrard was quoted as telling several English newspapers on Sunday. "Don't worry, as soon as the World Cup is over I'll sit down with the manager at the right time and I'll make the decision.
"I can be open and honest with you now that I haven't made that decision because I haven't had the chance to chat with the manager at length over it.
"But I'll be chatting to (Liverpool manager) Brendan Rodgers, Roy Hodgson and a few important people around me whose opinion I respect, players I've played with. I'll chat to them all and make the right decision at the right time.
"It will be very close after the World Cup I'll make that decision. It does to depend on how the World Cup goes, how I perform, how the team performs. Am I still going to be wanted after the World Cup? These are all the questions we'll have to sit down and answer.
"I won't stay around if I'm not wanted. I hope I perform to the level where I am wanted and I've got that difficult decision to make."
Gerrard is only six caps shy of David Beckham's England outfield record of 115, which he would equal by featuring in all of the Three Lions' pre-tournament friendlies and group matches.
"To get close to David Beckham, to match him, or to go ahead of him would be an unbelievable achievement," Gerrard said. "He's a hero of mine, I was lucky enough to play with him. He's a top role model and a top player as well."
Gerrard's more immediate aim is to deal with the mental scars of Liverpool's failed attempt to win the English league title for the first time in 24 years.
Brendan Rodgers' side needed to win their last three matches to claim the Premier League trophy, but Gerrard made a costly slip against Chelsea, gifting a goal to Demba Ba which set up a 2-0 win for the Blues at Anfield that effectively handed the title to Manchester City.
Opposition supporters have gleefully taunted Gerrard since then but the Reds captain insists that mistake will not affect his performances at the World Cup.
"I am good, I am excited, I am really looking forward to it," he said. "Both for club and country I am in good form and I am excited like everyone else.
"I know everyone wants to know what frame of mind I am in because of the slip that happened to me against Chelsea but I am over it, it has gone, I can't change it.
"Of course I was disappointed in it from a personal point of view and the title slipping away from Liverpool with three games to go was a blow.
"But you've also got to look at all the positives as well. I can't just focus on one mistake I made over 38 games. I am in a good frame of mind, I am excited and I can't wait to get started at the World Cup."
Holland star Nigel de Jong says Louis van Gaal is “the general” to lead Manchester United back to the top.
But the midfielder has warned fans of Old Trafford’s fallen giants not to demand instant success as his current national team coach prepares to rebuild the side.
After David Moyes’ failed 10-month reign, United have turned to 62-year-old Dutchman Van Gaal on a three-year contract once the World Cup is over.
De Jong, who won the league title with Manchester City in 2012 before moving to Italian giants AC Milan, says English football is a challenge, but van Gaal’s experience and titles at top clubs like Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich will help.
“I think he will do well,” he told Sport360° exclusively. “The Premier League is not easy and it’s a big club, but I think he will do well because he has the experience at big clubs over the years.
“United need a manager who stands above the group and he’s that kind of coach. He’s very strict, he demands the best, but he can gel a team very well.
“He is a general, a kind of schoolteacher who tries to teach you a lot of things about how the game is going to be played. With the young players he can mould them into great footballers because he has so much experience.
“The training sessions are always good with Holland, the exercises are always good with a high intensity.
“With van Gaal and United they have to rebuild the team because we saw what happened this year. It takes time to get success, though, and you can’t expect miracles
immediately with van Gaal there.”
One factor that could help van Gaal settle quickly and flourish is he will have his Dutch captain Robin van Persie to lead his United attack.
“Of course this might help Robin too,” added De Jong, 29. “Robin’s a great footballer, a great person and one of my best friends off the pitch. I don’t think he needs a motivator to get the best out of him and van Gaal does what’s best for the team.”