Mention ‘Fray Bentos’ to most English football supporters and the salivation inducing image of a steaming steak and kidney pie will likely spring to mind. Few realise that Fray Bentos is also the name of a small industrial border town in western Uruguay, home to the meat-packing plant that did until the late 1950s provide the meat sold in the UK as ‘Fray Bentos Corned Beef’. It was in these humble environs, on 2nd December 1990, that the wife of a bricklayer gave birth to the fourth of the couple’s seven children: a son named Gaston Ramirez.
Young Gaston quickly displayed a high aptitude for football and at the age of 15 was plucked from his modest roots by Montevideo giants Penarol, the club he and his father supported. Taking the decision to leave school without finishing his education, Ramirez upped sticks to the capital with a promise to his father that he would one day win a league title with Los Aurinegros.
Four years later he fulfilled that promise. Ramirez had been afforded his debut in March 2009, but didn’t truly blossom until Diego Aguirre was appointed coach in early 2010. Ramirez had played under Aguirre in Uruguay’s Under-20 national team and enjoyed the confidence of the wily coach. He played every match in the second half of the 2009/10 season, laying on goals for team-mates in addition to scoring six himself as Penarol became league champions for the 48th time in their history.
Interest from Europe inevitably followed, and a €3M move to Italian side Bologna was agreed in August 2010. Moving to Italy was a big step for a 19-year-old from provincial roots and without a completed formal education, but his adaptation was aided by the significant Uruguayan contingent already at the club, including midfielder Diego Perez and striker Henry Gimenez. They regularly met for traditional Uruguayan asados (communal meat barbecues) and were on hand to help whenever issues arose.
On the pitch, Ramirez managed a credible four goals and two assists in his first season in Serie A. He steadily improved as the campaign wore on – all four of his strikes coming after Christmas – and then hit the ground running in his second season, a period in which he doubled both his goal and assist totals. His other attacking contributions, including key passes, successful through balls and successful dribbles per match, also improved. Ramirez was one of the three most fouled players in Serie A.
With excellent close control, a loping running style and a left-foot equally capable of power and subtlety, Ramirez possesses a number of natural gifts. The superb technique displayed by his delightful back-heeled finish in a 2-0 win over Fiorentina in February contrasts with the sheer power of his long range effort that rattled past Juan Pablo Carrizo to give Bologna a 1-0 win away to Catania in May. Inventive and forceful, he was at the heart of the club’s ascent to a 9th place finish.
Such performances attracted attention, but did not lead to any of Europe’s top clubs making a concerted push for the attacking midfielder’s signature. But just as it appeared Ramirez would spend another year at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, in from the left-field stepped newly promoted Southampton, whose chairman Nicola Cortese was keen to make a big signing to announce their return to the Premier League.
It took around two weeks for both clubs to reach a deal, but from the moment Saints’ interest became concrete, Ramirez was certain they were the club he wanted to join. The offer of an increased salary was clearly a sweetener, but the opportunity for mutual progression was also important. “They believe in me and above all they have told me they are going to grow as a club”, he beamed.
Rather than become just another cog in the wheel at a big club, Ramirez can, at Saints, benefit from a team likely to set-up to make the most of his unique talents. As his struggles to replicate his club form with the Uruguayan national team have shown, he needs a team to be built around him if he is to perform at his best.
At international level Ramirez is yet to strike up a partnership with a fellow attacking player equivalent to those he enjoyed with Jonathan Urretaviscaya at Penarol, and last season, with Alessandro Diamanti at Bologna. In Adam Lallana, Southampton already have a player who seems tailor made to operate at close quarters with Ramirez, perhaps with the two swapping between the wide and central attacking midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1, a system Saints coach Nigel Adkins experimented with in pre-season.
The only issue – especially for a newly promoted club keen to ensure a prolonged stay in the top flight – is that it may take some time for Ramirez to acclimatise to the demands of the English game. His performances against Senegal and Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics displayed his propensity to go missing in high intensity matches, which are ten a penny in the Premier League. He will be required to adapt his game to suit new surroundings, learn a new language and settle in a new country without the same support network of countrymen he benefited from at Bologna.
Given time to do so, there is every likelihood he will be a success. It will take hard work and dedication, but Ramirez’s undistinguished upbringing has imbued him with the right work ethic to ensure that he can overcome such hurdles. During a visit to Fray Bentos this summer he was asked to send out a message to the town’s children. “With effort, perseverance and humility you can achieve”, he said. “I always try to convey that nothing is impossible."