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From little bird to Real's enforcer - How Atletico's nemesis Valverde made the Madrid midfield his own

17:00 GMT+4 15/01/2020
Federico Valverde Real Madrid 2019-20
The Uruguayan is in the spotlight for his cynical foul in the Supercopa but he has been making waves for the right reasons for some time now

Football can be a funny old game on occasion. Just ask Federico Valverde.

The Uruguay international had been steadily making himself a vital part of the Real Madrid machine, competing for a regular place in one of the most talented, competitive midfields in the world. At the weekend, though, Valverde finally hit the headlines – just not for the reason he would have wished.

Valverde cut down Alvaro Morata with a desperate, scything tackle while the Atletico Madrid forward was bearing down on goal. He was promptly punished with a red card but his cynical foul stopped Morata from scoring what surely would have been the winner at the end of the Supercopa de Espana final in Jeddah.

It was reminiscent of Uruguay team-mate Luis Suarez handling on the line to deny Ghana a goal in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010, and yielded similar results. Madrid survived the final six minutes of extra time to take the final to a penalty shoot-out, which they won 4-1, to claim the first trophy of Zinedine Zidane's second spell in charge.

And while Valverde's contribution made him an anti-hero, he won the seal of approval from another man who was never any stranger to football's dark arts during his playing days.

“It was the most important passage of play. I told him that anyone would have done the same in his place,” beaten Atletico boss Diego Simeone told reporters after the game.

“I think the MVP award [for Valverde] makes a lot of sense because he won the game with that action.”

The 21-year-old was just another young hopeful dreaming of stardom when Suarez threw himself across the net in South Africa almost 10 years ago. Like so many Uruguayans, he grew up immersed in football and took to the game almost before he could walk.

In his book Nuestra Generacion Dorada, Diego Munoz tells how Valverde began playing for 'baby futbol' side Estudiantes de la Union at just three years old: “He was so small that he wore nappies under his shorts.”

Wiry and softly spoken, the Montevideo native began his football apprenticeship at Penarol at the age of 12, having caught the attention of Nestor Goncalves, son of the eponymous Manya legend and lead talent-spotter for the Uruguayan giants.

Valverde's fragile physique and willowy legs earned him the nickname pajarito (little bid) but Goncalves immediately saw past those disadvantages to glimpse his real potential.

“My first impression was the intelligence Fede had to get out of trouble, even though he was physically much smaller than the rest... that made him have to figure things out with his brain,” Goncalves revealed to Marca in October

“If you don't have that talent at that age, it is very hard to gain it later on. Fede's playing style is very quick and intelligent. The potential he has is enormous.

"One characteristic of talent is adaptability and Federico grew as he became more experienced. When he left here, I told him that he wouldn't see me again, but we would meet in the national team.

"And so it was.”

On Goncalves' advice, Uruguay Under-15 coach Alejandro Garay called him up at the end of 2012, and Valverde went on to represent the Celeste at every age group until Oscar Tabarez gave the youngster his senior bow in 2017, less than a month after his 19th birthday.

The midfielder was by then already a Madrid player, having moved six days after turning 18, and impressing on a loan spell with Deportivo.

A renowned scholar of the game and head not just of the senior squad but the entire Uruguay set-up, Tabarez had also been following Valverde's progress for years.

“I have known Valverde since he came to the [Celeste youth academy] Complex when he was 13,” the veteran coach told reporters following his national team debut, a 2-1 win over Paraguay in Asuncion. “I have followed all his progress. He was a very different footballer to what he is now.

“He was tiny, skinny. And he was different in terms of his personality: he was extremely shy. But the youth trainers at his club and in the national team could see that he had things normal players do not have, above all a vision of the game which was surprising at such a young age.

"I was not 100 per cent sure he would turn out as good as he has, because I knew I was putting a lot of pressure on him... but I think he has taken a big step and I have the satisfaction of his contribution to our win and that he answered me. He made sure I was not wrong.”

Now, still at the very start of his career, Valverde seems to have the world at his feet.

His emergence at Madrid has allowed Zidane to ease the pressure on the ageing Luka Modric, while he has also deputised for Toni Kroos on the other side of the Merengue midfield and, with three goals and two assists so far in 2019-20, shown that he can be a threat in the opposition area.

Such is the Uruguayan's impact that two perennial transfer targets, Christian Eriksen and Paul Pogba, have slipped down Madrid's list of priorities.

He may be in the news now for the hatchet job on Morata, but Valverde is developing at an incredible rate at the Bernabeu and it is his exquisite passing and inspired vision that will keep him on the front pages for years to come.