Weekly Wonderkids: Episode 16

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One of Football Index’s unique attributes as a platform is that it allows traders to pick and choose which players to buy and sell, which to stockpile, and which to keep an eye on in the future. Traders can spot a promising footballer, buy stock in said player, and watch them flourish as the player’s profile grows on the world stage. If you truly believe that a teenage prospect who’s only registered a handful of substitute appearances will go on to become a Golden Boot winner, you have the power to put your money where your mouth is and add him to your portfolio.

Each Monday, Zach Lowy will analyse a new U-23 player who Football Index traders should consider buying in a new weekly series called “Weekly Wonderkids.” With this series, you’ll be able to discover which youngsters you should place your trust in – and money – and why.

Name: Federico Valverde

Age: 21

Club: Real Madrid

La Ligue de Vérité.” Thus read L’Équipe’s cover on the eve of Real Madrid’s visit to the Parc des Princes on September 18, translating to: “The League of Truth.” It was a high-stakes, star-studded clash between two of the richest sides in Europe, a match that would separate the men from the boys.

Paris Saint-Germain were facing an uphill battle from the start, with Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Julian Draxler and Kylian Mbappé all missing out due to suspension or injury. Nevertheless, Thomas Tuchel’s men trounced Los Blancos by a margin of 3-0, in what would be the most humiliating Champions League defeat of Zinedine Zidane’s time in charge in Madrid.

Despite having a Galáctico-filled lineup that boasted the likes of Toni Kroos and Eden Hazard, Los Blancos were out-pressed, out-passed, and out-played. They needed a shot in the arm, a burst of energy, a player who could allow their wings to take flight.

Who better to allow them to take flight than ‘The Little Bird’ himself? Since being thrown into the starting line-up on September 25, a week after the PSG defeat, Federico Valverde has revolutionised the midfield and form of Real Madrid.

Humble Beginnings in Uruguay

Born on July 22, 1998, in the capital city of Montevideo, Valverde was hooked on football from the very start. At two years old, he forced his father to nail together a net on the wall between the family’s kitchen and living room. Valverde spent hours kicking the ball against the wall, eventually causing the plaster to fall off.

A year later, he convinced his parents to enroll him in the academy of Estudiantes de la Unión, although he was unable to play in official matches until he was six. Nevertheless, in a friendly against Danubio, a three-year-old Valverde scored a goal and took off his diaper to celebrate, much to the shock of the spectators.

When he was four, Valverde had a dream. He was playing in a jam-packed stadium with a white jersey on his body. His father, a die-hard Peñarol supporter, preferred him to be wearing a yellow-and-black shirt.

In 2008, Valverde went to try out for Peñarol, one of the two biggest clubs in Uruguay. Shy and nervous, Valverde leaned against a tree next to his mother, until Néstor Gonçalves, a La Celeste legend and the club’s youth coordinator, approached him, asking: “Hey, are you coming to play? Play!” The nine-year-old Valverde blushed in embarrassment and rushed to join in with the other kids. He impressed Gonçalves, who remarked upon seeing him, “This kid looks like a gem. These kinds of kids amaze you in a way that you never forget.”

It wasn’t long before Valverde was impressing everyone who came across his path. One of his teachers, Teresa, used to construct paper footballs for him to play with, but he’d always destroy them, so she started to make them with socks instead. Gabriel, his youth coach, nicknamed him ‘El Pajarito’, or ‘The Little Bird,’ for the way he would fly across the pitch with the ball glued to his feet.

At 13, Valverde was called up for Uruguay’s U15 team, and he had a special visitor: Óscar ‘El Maestro’ Tabárez, who has presided as Uruguay’s manager since 2006. “He was extremely shy, but all of his youth coaches at the club and national level saw that he had things that the average player didn’t have, above all a surprising vision for such a young age,” said Tabárez.

It didn’t take long before some of Europe’s biggest clubs began to take notice of him. In January 2015, he flew to north London to train with Arsenal, but their low-ball offer failed to satisfy the Peñarol leadership. Manchester United, Chelsea and Barcelona passed on the chance to sign him, refusing to meet the club’s asking price. Meanwhile, Valverde scored 8 goals in 7 games during the U-17 Sudamericano in Paraguay, but it wasn’t enough for Los Gorriones Celestes, who missed out on qualification to the U-17 World Cup. Nevertheless, it didn’t sway the interest of Real Madrid, who snapped him up for €5million plus bonuses.

Wading Through Castilla and Coruña

Despite being showered with excessive praise since he was in diapers, Valverde’s parents ensured that his feet remained firmly planted on the ground. “My family reminds me every day that I’m not anybody.” His mother Doris, who cleaned houses and sold second-hand clothing, drove him to and from Peñarol’s training sessions, whilst his father worked as a security guard at a casino.

Valverde spent the 2015/16 season playing alongside one of his idols, Diego Forlán, for Peñarol’s first team, and after just a few months, he won his first professional title with the Apertura title. Still just 17, he won a place in Jorge da Silva’s starting line-up after the winter break and lifted the league title with Peñarol.

He landed in Madrid upon the completion of his 18th birthday, and within weeks, became an automatic starter for Santiago Solari’s Castilla team, even playing at center back once. But after one season in the third division, the club hierarchy decided that it was time for him to take the next step and go out on loan to a La Liga side. After leading Uruguay to fourth place in the 2017 U20 World Cup, in which he won the Silver Ball award, Valverde headed for Galicia, where he would join Deportivo de La Coruña. He impressed on the sporadic occasions that he played, but it wasn’t enough for the Branquiazuis to stay up in the Primera. 

On October 23, 2018, Valverde made his debut for Real Madrid, fulfilling his childhood dream of donning the white shirt and playing in front of a packed stadium. He became a regular sub under Solari, who assumed the managerial role following Julen Lopetegui’s dismissal, before gaining his first start in a Copa del Rey match against Melilla.

With nothing left to play for after the Champions League elimination to Ajax, Zidane experimented with Valverde more and more in the starting line-up, preferring him to the out-of-form Toni Kroos. Real Madrid undertook a massive overhaul the following summer, with Marcos Llorente and Mateo Kovačić being allowed to leave on permanent transfers, and with Dani Ceballos heading to Arsenal on loan to gain more playing time. Nevertheless, Zidane made it clear: he wanted Valverde in his team next season.

Breakthrough Under Zidane

Despite a summer shopping spree that saw the likes of Luka Jović, Ferland Mendy, and Éder Militão arrive at the capital, Los Blancos started the 2019/20 season off on the wrong foot, conceding nine goals in their first five matches and dropping points to Real Valladolid and Villarreal. 

After being limited to just two late cameos, Zidane returned Valverde to the starting line-up against Osasuna. Over the next two months, the young Uruguayan would eventually become an indispensable pillar of the midfield. During that period, Madrid dropped points in four matches; three of those coming with Valverde on the bench. In contrast, Madrid won seven of the eight matches Valverde started in, with the only draw coming away to Atlético Madrid.

In the return leg at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid played PSG off the pitch, with Valverde putting in one of his finest performances of the season. However, Zidane took him off for Luka Modrić in the 76th minute, and as a result, Madrid lost all control. Within seven minutes, Les Parisiens scored twice to force a draw. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Real Madrid chased after a Galáctico-style central midfielder last summer, pursuing Paul Pogba, Christian Eriksen, Tanguy Ndombele and Donny van de Beek. They ended up signing a full-back, a goalkeeper, a centre-back, a striker, and a winger, but the middle of the pitch was the one area they failed to reinforce. Not to worry; Valverde has filled the void, relegating Modrić to a bench role and carving out a starting spot for Los Blancos.

At the ripe age of 21, the little bird is flying high in the sky.

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