For those looking for a sneak preview of the names that will light up World Cups and the UEFA Champions League in the near future it’s eyes down for a full house in Venezuela.
Scorching heat and searing ambition mark the play bazaar of the South American under-20 championships in the north-east tip of the continent.
From January 19th through to February 8th youngsters from the top 10 Latin American footballing countries will contest the championship. As well as aiming to achieve glory for their nations the players will also be hoping to leave their mark on the scouts in the stands.
A host of luminaries have already chosen the Suamericano tournament to showcase their talent to the world. Enzo Francescoli, Romario and Adriano have all topped the goal scorers chart at this prestigious championship.
With so much pride at stake the super-powers of South America never take this competition lightly. Brazil have won the tournament a record nine times, Uruguay have seven titles and Argentina have bagged four along the way.
This year’s championship will be contested in three stadiums throughout Venezuela. The three stadiums will be Puerto Ordaz, Maturin and Puerto La Cruz which were all put to use when Venezuela hosted the 2007 Copa America
Venezuela stepped in to host this tournament when Peru were stripped of their right to play host by FIFA last year due to political interference from their football association.
The competition’s format is two initial groups of five teams which play each other once. Group A is made up of Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and hosts Venezuela. Group B contains Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay. As with every group stage competition the championship has a ‘group of death’ and that tag is bestowed on Group B in Venezuela.
The top three sides in each group then proceed to a final group stage of six teams. The country on top after this six team round-robin will be crowded the 2009 South American under-20 champions.
Only the four top teams from the event will qualify for the FIFA under-20 World Cup in Egypt later this year. Seven of the last eight winners of this youth World Cup have been CONMEBOL sides.
In total the competition will feature a whooping 35 games, an ample dose for any football fan with an eye on the latest players to drop off the South American production line and into Europe’s top leagues.
The Albiceleste come into the tournament with a very strong pedigree. The winners of the under-20 FIFA World Cup in Canada two years ago have Argentina’s 2008 Olympic gold medal coach Sergio Batista in charge. Even though Franco Di Santo and Pablo Piatti have not been released by Chelsea and Almeria respectively the squad is still as strong as any at the competition. Batista was able to prize away Emiliano Insua, the left-back who was enjoying a run in Liverpool’s first team in the Premier League.
One to watch: Eduardo Silva (Lanus)
Oscar Villegas has kept together the majority of the under-17 group which excelled in their age bracket two years ago in Ecuador. Several of the team are also first team regulars for clubs in the Bolivian top-flight. Villegas has been brave enough to include three 16-year-olds in his squad who he believes are ready to step up. Anyone who doubts Bolivia’s ability to go far at the tournament can’t have seen their recent friendly defeat of Argentina.
One to watch: Diego Suárez (Dynamo Kiev)
The holders of the South American under-20 championships are never likely to field a weak side. The man in charge of the current Canarinha is national boss Dunga’s right hand man Rogério Moraes Lourenço. All of Brazil’s squad play in their homeland courtesy of the legislation which now makes it illegal for players to ply their trade abroad before their 18th birthday. It’s not even as if the national side were struggling, with seven World Cup titles in the under-20 and under-17 categories already beside their name. The Brazilian youth teams have also managed to collect silverware at a further seventeen South American tournaments.
One to watch: Douglas Costa (Gremio)
A tricky task lies ahead for Colombia as first they try to advance from the initial group stage. Coach José Helmer Silva has only recently taken up the post and must organise his troops well if they are to stand any chance in the competition. Failure to qualify for the last under-20 World Cup could provide the spur needed for the only nation to have broken Brazil and Argentina’s dominance of this competition in the last 25 years. Another plus for the Colombians is that their fans do not have far to travel and should turn out in numbers to support their team.
One to watch: Camilo Vargas (Independiente Santa Fe)
Expectation is high in Chile after the country finished third in the under-20 FIFA World Cup in Canada three years ago. The trouble is that coach José Sulantay and most of the team have since moved on. Replacement coach Ivo Basay must work with the players he has at his disposal to manage expectations as best as he can. Chile have already been robbed of the influential Eduardo Vargas who was forced to withdraw with an injury.
One to watch: Marcos Medel (Audax Italiano)
Many of Ecuador’s squad have already tasted success when their country scooped the gold medal at the Pan-American Games two years ago in Rio de Janeiro. Coached by Julio Caesar Rosero, known simply as The Emperor, Ecuador will be going all out to bag one of the four under-20 FIFA World Cup spots up for grabs. Anything less than qualification for the tournament in Egypt later this year would be viewed as a disappointment for this talented bunch.
One to watch: Joao Rojas (Tecnico Universitario)
With the senior team riding high in the qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa it is hoped that success can trickle down to the under-20 squad. Paraguay have not won this competition since 1971 and have failed to reach the last two under-20 World Cups. Argentinean Adrián Coria coaches a team with players who have already left Latin America to play in Europe.
One to watch: Fernando Duarte (Vasco da Gama)
The Incas have the son of one of their favourite sons in charge of their team at these championships. Although Héctor Eleazar ‘Tito’ Chumpitaz has never coached at the top level it is hoped he will provide the magic to steer Peru to some level of success. The players will also have extra motivation to succeed after their country was robbed of its right to host the tournament after a dispute with FIFA. Further bad news came for Peru when striker Jairsinho Baylón was ruled out for four months and so misses the championships.
One to watch: Carlos Zambrano (Schalke 04)
Legendary Uruguayan striker Diego Aguirre leads the Celeste in their quest for glory in the 2009 under-20 South American championships. The trophy has eluded Uruguay for the past 27 years but now the country can boast a side with genuine aspirations of bringing the silverware back to Montevideo. Certainly coach Aguirre is not thinking just of World Cup qualification but “to win the Sudamericano” trophy which has escaped his country’s grasp since 1981.
One to watch: Jonathan Urretavizcaya (Benfica)
The hosts will surely never have a better chance to qualify for their first under-20 FIFA World Cup as they are cheered on by their home crowd in every match. The fact that the head coach of the senior team, Caesar Farías, is taking charge of the side for this tournament is testament to how important a good showing is to the nation of Venezuela. With squad members already snapped up by clubs in Italy and Spain the team should be good enough to stay in the competition long enough to keep the locals interested. Also local laws mean more young players now play in the Venezuela First Division and this is bearing fruit for the youth squad.