South American stars in the making
South America's football extravaganza begins in earnest on Friday local time with some of the world's biggest superstars set to strut their stuff on the pitches of Argentina for the next three weeks. But while the Copa America will of course give the likes of Lionel Messi, Diego Forlan and Robinho a canvas on which to demonstrate their renowned artistry, it will also provide a platform for some lesser-known names to flourish.
Here, ESPNsoccernet looks at some of the players who could enhance their reputations at their continent's showpiece event.
Argentina: Marcos Rojo, 21 (Spartak)
Palermo star Javier Pastore may be the young Argentine hogging the headlines of late, but he almost certainly won't feature in Sergio Batista's first XI at the Copa America. The same can't be said, however, for his team-mate Marcos Roja. The Spartak Moscow defender has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past 18 months and, as the youngest member of a squad oozing with talent, it is testament to the 21-year-old's abilities that he has emerged as a regular starter under Sergio Batista in 2011, keeping more experienced Manchester City full-back Pablo Zabaleta out of the side.
A centre-half by trade, Roja will be used as a left-back in the tournament, with his anticipation, coolness on the ball, pace and aerial threat from set pieces proving a real asset since he made his debut against Portugal in February. It was a match before which he famously said: "I've never faced Cristiano Ronaldo, only on the PlayStation. There I do well, he can never get past me." He coped excellently with Ronaldo that night, too, and a move away from Russia to one of Europe's bigger leagues surely awaits.
Bolivia: Jhasmany Campos, 23 (Oriente Petrolero)
Despite his relative youth, Campos has been string-puller-in-chief for club and country for more than four years now. He burst onto the international scene after producing some stirring displays for Bolivia in what was an ultimately doomed CONMEBOL Under-20 Championship campaign in 2007 and made his debut for the senior side soon after.
Boasting craft and guile in abundance, Campos is also an accomplished finisher - as his volley against Peru at the last Copa America proved - who has no problem trying his luck from distance. His partnership with fellow Oriente Petrlero midfielder Joselito Vaca helped the club win the 2010 Bolivian Clausura championship and their understanding continues to benefit the national team, along with the pair's experience of Copa Libertadores football this year.
Colombia: Pablo Armero, 24 (Udinese)
With Juan Zuniga down the right and Armero down the left, Colombia arguably possess the most devastating pair of full-backs at this year's tournament. Armero has enjoyed a stellar season at Udinese, where his link-up play with Alexis Sanchez played a part in many a Bianconeri goal, as the club qualified for the Champions League for the first time in six years.
Armero will wear No. 7 on his back in Argentina and one would be forgiven for mistaking him for a winger at times, as he has become feared in Serie A for his marauding runs forward. The former Palmeiras defender has been linked with a host of Europe's biggest clubs and revealed earlier this year that he "would prefer to play the attacking football of Barcelona or Arsenal". Watch out for his trademark celebration, which involves enthusiastic hip-shaking that would make Shakira envious.
Costa Rica: Joel Campbell, 19 (Saprissa)
The new darling of Costa Rican football, Campbell has exploded onto the scene in 2011 and by the end of August, he will have competed in four international tournaments in five months. Possessing a ferocious left-foot - used to great effect when scoring six goals and winning the Golden Boot at the recent CONCACAF Under-20 Gold Cup - Campbell arrives in Argentina with confidence high, having also bagged a stunning goal on his full international debut at the Gold Cup last month.
It remains to be seen whether the Saprissa striker will continue to be used only as an impact sub, but there is every chance he could lead the line for one of the youngest squads at the Copa America. Campbell has taken each step in his burgeoning career in his stride thus far and a direct approach and willingness to run at defenders makes him a dangerous proposition; expect his influence to be restricted by a squad lacking the necessary quality to compete, though he should thrive at the Under-20 World Cup next month.
Brazil: Lucas, 18, (Sao Paulo)
The reigning champions have no shortage of talented youngsters at their disposal, with high-profile European transfer targets Ganso (injury recovery permitting) and Neymar expected to cement their already-excellent reputations over the next few weeks. But one player who is certain to be catapulted into the consciousness of the globe's elite clubs - if he is given the chance to shine - is 18-year-old attacking midfielder Lucas.
Comparisons have been drawn between the Sao Paulo starlet and Kaka and they certainly possesses the same ability to glide across the pitch and pass opponents with consummate ease. Wearing the yellow No. 10 shirt that the Real Madrid man made his own at senior level, Lucas was one of the outstanding players at the CONMEBOL Under-20 Championships earlier this year, producing a virtuoso display and netting a hat-trick in the final game against Uruguay, a 6-0 thrashing that handed Brazil the title. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all been tentatively linked with the wunderkind, interest that may soon become more concrete.
Ecuador: Felipe Caicedo, 22, (Manchester City)
A rollercoaster career that appeared to have plateaued somewhat is now on an upward curve again for this six-year veteran of the national team. Caicedo made a blistering start to life as a professional footballer, with an international debut at 16 and a €7 million move to Manchester City at 19 unquestionably the highlights. But after initially impressing at Eastlands, the arrival of Sheikh Mansour and his band of merry galacticos saw Caicedo farmed out on an unhappy loan spell at Sporting CP before he began to find his feet again at Malaga.
But it was a switch (on loan again) to Levante that really reinvigorated the powerful forward as he scored 13 goals in 27 games, including a vital equaliser against Barcelona in May to effectively seal the club's La Liga survival. Caicedo has plenty of pace to burn and is particularly adept when it comes to one-on-one situations; with Antonio Valencia providing him with the ammunition, goals should be forthcoming in Argentina.
Paraguay: Lucas Barrios, 26, (Borussia Dortmund)
It may have taken Paraguay a while to get wind of Argentina-born Barrios' eligibility and ability - he only made his international debut last year just weeks before the World Cup finals - but he has now established himself as an integral part of the national team's attack. A stunning debut season for Borussia Dortmund in 2009-10, which saw him finish as the club's top scorer with 19 goals in 33 games, earned him an international chance and a last-minute World Cup shirt, though he failed to score in three starts and two substitute appearances at the finals after impressing in the warm-up games.
However, Barrios continued to go from strength to strength in 2010-11 and was once again Dortmund's hero as his 16 goals in 32 games fired them to the Bundesliga title. Confident and in form, he is a natural predator, accomplished in the air and capable of conjuring a finish from anywhere inside the penalty area; Barrios could be a good bet for the Golden Boot.
Venezuela: Yohandry Orozco, 20, (Wolfsburg)
An incredible individual goal against Peru at the CONMEBOL Under-20 Championships earlier this year, which was the latest to be labelled a "Gol Maradoniano" because of its likeness to Diego Maradona's famous effort against England, propelled Orozco into the limelight.
The attacking midfielder was a revelation in the tournament and his equalisers in draws with Argentina and Peru - the game that saw that famous slaloming dribble and precise finish - provided Venezuela with two of their three points in an otherwise disappointing showing. Orozco's displays attracted the attention of Wolfsburg and he was snapped up in January, though he has yet to make an appearance for the Germans. At 5ft 4 in, his low centre of gravity will make robbing him of the ball a challenging duty for the continent's finest defenders.
Chile: Arturo Vidal, 24 (Bayer Leverkusen)
I can almost hear the cries of 'What, no Alexis Sanchez?' screaming from the page on which this is written, but his name has been everywhere in recent weeks. While Sanchez is of course likely to sparkle in Argentina, it is Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Vidal who will be the glue holding Chile together. A true box-to-box presence for club and country, Vidal has developed into one of the Bundesliga's most complete players over the past two years and was the driving force behind Leverkusen's assault on the title in 2010-11.
With marked qualities of aggression and tenacity, Vidal is usually utilised in a holding midfield role, but a remarkable haul of 13 goals and 12 assists last season exemplifies that he is far more than just a pitbull. He originally shone on the continental stage in 2007 as the second top scorer at the CONMEBOL Under-20 Championships and the 2011 Copa could see him leap to new heights. Bayern Munich are among those clubs keen to acquire his services this summer, though that list is likely to lengthen considerably.
Mexico: Giovani dos Santos, 22 (Tottenham)
Fresh from a man-of-the-match display in the Gold Cup final, which he capped with a staggeringly good individual goal, Giovani will spearhead Mexico's challenge at the Copa America, as they look to add to their victory in CONCACAF's showpiece event last week. In what will be an even more inexperienced squad than was first named, thanks to the expulsion of eight players on Tuesday, the Tottenham playmaker stands out as a seasoned national team veteran, with 40 caps to his name at the age of 22.
A player with bags of flair and finesse, the raw talent of a player who Barca handed a first-team debut to at 18 has never been in question. It is Giovani 's attitude off the pitch that has caused consternation, though, particularly for frustrated Spurs boss Harry Redknapp. Ten league games in three years for the North Londoners amid several loan moves suggests a wasted talent, but the Mexican maestro has continued to turn it on for his country and the next few weeks should put him firmly in the shop window.
Peru: Raul Ruidiaz , 20, (Universitario)
This diminutive speedster may be new on the international scene but he could find himself thrust into action at the Copa America; with first-choice strikers Claudio Pizzarro and Jefferson Farfan both missing, Ruidiaz may well be the man asked to play alongside Peru's only recognised centre-forward, Paolo Guerrero.
Having excelled for club side Universitario as both a winger and a forward since breaking into the first team, his electric pace - undoubtedly his most dangerous weapon - has made Ruidiaz one of the most feared attackers in the Peruvian Primera Division and Udinese have been tipped to sign him as a replacement for the wantaway Alexis Sanchez.
Uruguay: Abel Hernandez, 20 (Palermo)
Palermo's precocious striker has the rather unenviable task of trying to break into one of world football's most potent frontlines, but with Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani ahead of him in Uruguay's pecking order Hernandez has at least been able to learn from some of the best in the game.
The departure of Cavani, who Hernandez has previously described as a "big brother" figure, from Palermo last summer has given the 20-year-old more opportunities to prove himself at club level and he became a regular starter for the Rosanero in the second-half of the season. He is strong, skilful and has the qualities to play either as a support striker or lone frontman; Hernandez will be especially determined to take any opportunities afforded to him at the Copa America as he missed out on the 2010 World Cup squad.
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