Brazil, Argentina 'underdogs' as South America U20 Championships return
The serious stuff is about to start in one of the world's greatest showcases of emerging footballing talent. The second, decisive stage of the South American Under-20 Championships will soon be underway in Chile. Four nations have fallen by the wayside, while six remain to delight the army of European scouts and compete for the continent's four places in this year's World Under-20 Cup.
The second phase starts on Tuesday and comes to a conclusion 12 days later with a final round featuring the clash of Brazil and Argentina -- but not because the two traditional giants topped their respective groups. That honour goes to Ecuador and Venezuela.
These two may be the least traditional footballing nations on the continent: Ecuador did not make their senior World Cup debut until 2002, and Venezuela are still waiting. But at national team level, the past two decades have seen rapid development from the supposedly lesser sides, and this was borne out by the group phase of this championship.
Venezuela and Ecuador were the only teams to win three of their group games and were the top scorers. Venezuela managed five goals, and Ecuador scored eight. Venezuela showed enormous promise at this level two years ago, when they not only qualified for the Under-20 World Cup, but went all the way to the final, where they missed a penalty before going down 1-0 to England. Even more importantly, Venezuela believe the Under-20 generation from 2017 will play a key role in taking them to the senior World Cup in Qatar.
The case of Ecuador, meanwhile, highlights the splendid youth development work done by Independiente del Valle, a tiny club from the outskirts of Quito who in recent years have specialised in identifying and developing young players. They have five players in the current squad, and the left-footed pair of impish attacking midfielder Jordan Rezabala and the awesomely strong wide-man Gonzalo Plata have been the standouts so far.
Everyone else has found goals hard to come by including Brazil and Argentina, who laboured their way through to the second stage with identical records; two wins, a draw and a defeat with just three goals scored and two conceded.
There are plenty of explanations for the scarcity of goals: the heat of the Chilean summer, the games coming so fast with little time for recovery, the disappointing quality of the pitches. Plus the tactical organisation of the teams and the presence of a fine crop of defenders such as Venezuela's Christian Makoun, Colombia's Carlos Cuesta, the Uruguayan pair of Bruno Mendez and Sebastian Caceres and Bolivia's Jairo Quinteros, who all look like splendid centre-back prospects.
The second round, though, is where reputations will really be made, and much will be expected of Argentina's Julian Alvarez, Rodrygo of Brazil, Nico Schiappacasse of Uruguay, Samuel Sosa of Venezuela and another pair of bright Ecuadorians, Alexander Alvarado and Leonardo Campana.
Colombia have yet to show much attacking sparkle. They conceded just one goal in their four matches but scored only two. The second proved decisive. It came in the 95th minute of their last group game, and it ensured that they went through, while hosts Chile crashed out. The Chileans appeared to have saved themselves. After a poor start, they rallied to beat Brazil and needed just a draw against a Colombia side reduced to 10 men. But with the final kick of the game, a shot from Cuesta crept agonisingly over the line.
Chile, then, said farewell to the competition -- which could be bad news for the box office. For some of the matches over the next few days ,there might be more European scouts than paying public in the stadiums to watch the next generation of South Americans strut their stuff.