You get the sense that Lucas Torreira has always had to work that little bit harder than his peers to get where he wants, though he is not shy about sharing his story, warts and all. Quite literally, as you will shortly find out.
It began when Torreira moved from his hometown Fray Bentos, synonymous in the UK with the company who make tinned meat pies which were originally processed and packaged in the small Uruguayan port town until the 1960s, to the country’s capital, Montevideo, to play for their academy.
Torreira lived with his sister and worked jobs to pay his way, including one selling El Pais newspapers from five o’clock in the morning. Then the piece of luck always necessary for any unlikely narrative to continue came when a group of Italian businessmen chose four young Montevideo Wanderers players for trials at Pescara, an Italian Serie B side. Torreira was not even in that quartet, and only a late addition, but became the only one of the boys to sign a deal.
“It was very difficult to leave Uruguay,” Torreira says, looking back. “It’s never easy to leave your country, your family, your friends. It’s a different culture, a different language and really another world. I left at just 17 to go to such a big country as Italy. I’m very grateful to everyone at Pescara, they were very welcoming to me from the first day and it’s a real family atmosphere around the city.”
Such was his desperation to succeed and not wanting to cause a fuss, Torreira kept quiet for months when he developed warts on one of his feet. He played on as usual, but could barely walk away from the training ground and it was only noticed when he visited a club doctor with a foot injury. “I had these warts on my feet that meant I could not train properly and my boots would hurt,” he recalls.
“But at no point did I hold up my hand and say I was in pain. It was an opportunity to change my life, and change the lives of my family and really make a name for myself. It went on for a long time, the pain, until one day they took me to the doctor and I was able to get the treatment I needed.”
In a game now dominated by musclebound adonises bestriding the pitch, what strikes you about meeting the Arsenal midfielder in the flesh is quite how small he is. “One metre, 76 centimetres, more or less,” he says, with endearing precision.
It puts him a whole foot smaller than Patrick Vieira, pictured left, the Arsenal legend who he is attempting to replace and whose terrace chant he has already stolen. Torreira, though, has to find other ways to compensate for a physical attribute of which nature has robbed him, and after what will be a debut season of 50 Arsenal appearances when he plays in the Europa League final this evening, the 23-year-old has become known for his surprising aggression and tenacity.
“It comes from inside, from this body,” he explains. “I play football because it’s my job but also because I love the game. I’m the kind of player who gives 100 per cent for every ball and every club that I represent – of course right now that’s Arsenal. I like to fight for my dreams, I work very hard, and I invest an incredible amount of time into doing what I love.
“I don’t think height is something that really impedes players from being good footballers. Think about Leo Messi, for example. He’s one of the greatest players in history and I don’t think he’s very tall. When you’re on the field, the most important thing is your movement, your confidence, and your desire to achieve big things.”
Word was already spreading in Uruguay about Torreira as he moved to Serie A with Sampdoria but since his £26.4 million transfer to Arsenal last summer that has blown up. Especially now, as he proudly points out, he is the last remaining Uruguayan in European football.
“I have seen through social media, through messages that people have sent to me, through TV, that loads of people are interested,” he says. “You see kids, not just in my hometown but all across Uruguay with Arsenal tops on now. At the moment I am the only player from Uruguay left in the Europa League or Champions League so I’m well aware that I’m going to have the whole country following the final and I’m really proud to be able to represent them.”
He is showing them – and everyone – what can be achieved when a small guy dreams big.