Who might emerge -- as Messi once did -- at South America Under-20 Championships?
Venezuela are the only South American nation never to have made it to a World Cup. But they are convinced that their time will come in 2022 -- and their optimism is based on much more than mere faith. Two years ago they went to the final of the Under-20 World Cup, where they missed a penalty before losing 1-0 to England.
In Venezuela, they believe this generation will carry them all the way to Qatar -- an illustration of the importance that South America attaches to its under-20 teams.
There is a reason that Uruguay have re-emerged as a force in the global game -- and it is bound up with the under-20 side. In 2006, when coach Oscar Washington Tabarez took over, he began a project based on his musings on the effects of globalisation on Uruguayan football. Such a small country would obviously be unable to hold on to its best players, and an impoverished domestic game would not serve as a criteria for excellence. Instead, Tabarez set about to use Uruguay's youth teams to secure the long-term future of the senior side. He and his coaches would identify players good enough to play top-level global football -- those with speed of thought, movement and technical execution. They would develop them in-house, giving them an intense course in the identity and importance of Uruguay's sky blue shirt.
The best were brought through the under-15 and under-17 teams. But the true test was at the under-20 level. Those who performed well could expect to be fast-tracked into the senior squad. Indeed, almost the entire squad sent to Russia 2018 were graduates of the under-20s. And one of the revelations of the tournament, midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, came from the class of 2017.
Two years ago, then, Venezuela unveiled their best-ever generation. Uruguay paraded Bentancur. Brazil did not perform well but managed to develop Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta. And since their own Russia 2018 disappointment, Argentina have given senior debuts to the likes of centre-back Juan Foyth, midfielder Santiago Ascacibar and striker Lautaro Martinez.
The question now is this: Who will emerge from the class of 2019?
The next edition of the South American Under-20 Championships kicks off on Thursday in Chile. Four places are available in this year's Under-20 World Cup, staged in Poland in May. South America's senior national team coaches will be watching closely. So will European scouts, who will descend on Chile in droves.
There will be plenty of jewels on offer. Argentina's Julian Alvarez looks like a sensational prospect at centre-forward. Brazil winger Rodrygo has already been sold to Real Madrid. Colombian centre-back Carlos Cuesta oozes class. Uruguay's captain Bruno Mendez was outstanding last November, when an injury crisis opened up a chance for him to step in and make his senior debut at centre-back against Brazil. Paraguay have huge hopes for playmaker Ivan Franco. Others will doubtless emerge from relative obscurity over the next few weeks, picking up valuable experience on the way to global stardom.
As Lionel Messi did 14 years ago. For the 2005 version of the tournament, Argentina called up a tiny 17-year-old who had played one friendly in the Barcelona first team. They knew little about him, only that there were rumours of something special and that Spain were also chasing him. Messi was not given the No. 10 shirt. He looked hopelessly small and fragile alongside the other players. But as soon as he got on the ball, everyone knew they were in the presence of greatness, and before that year was out he had won the Under-20 World Cup in Holland, started to establish himself in the Barcelona team and made his senior international debut.
The rest, of course, is history. But the place where it all began to pick up momentum was the South American Under-20 Championships.