U-20 South American Championship a path to stardom for many
In the run to three finals in the last three years, the Argentina team has been carried by two outstanding players, the Barcelona pair of Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi. Both men are products of the South American Under-20 Championships.
Mascherano appeared in the tournament 14 years ago, when it was held in Uruguay. He impressed as a gutsy central midfielder with a safe range of passing, a crunching tackle, good positional sense and the capacity to rise to the occasion, and dig deep when his side needed it most. His potential was obvious, and he was fast tracked into the senior squad. He had yet to get on the field for his club side, River Plate -- and that was still the case five months later, when he made his senior international debut in a friendly. Within a year it was impossible to imagine an Argentina side without him -- which still remains the case all these years later.
Lionel Messi was unleashed onto an unsuspecting world two years after Mascherano, in the 2005 South American Under-20 Championships in Colombia. At the time he had played just one friendly for Barcelona, and the main reason that Argentina had selected him was to head off any attempts from Spain to claim the player. He was tiny, two years younger than his opponents and he found the physical grind of the completion -- with 9 games inside a month -- hard going. He was sometimes used as a substitute. But everyone there was aware that we were in the presence of something very special. Before the year was out he had won a senior cap for his country.
This is the South American Under-20 Championships at their best, a conveyor belt of talent. With Under-23 football no longer a fixture on the continent's international calendar, the Under-20s are the nearest thing to the senior side. So, when the latest version of the competition kicks off in Ecuador on Wednesday, the senior coaches will be looking to see who performs well under pressure. An army of scouts will also be on hand to run the rule over the latest products from the South American production line. Over the next few weeks, some previously unknown players might begin their rise to the top.
One who has already built a name for himself is Colombian defender Carlos Cuesta. He is just 17 -- still eligible for the next version of the Under-20 Championships in two years' time. But giving away two years to his opponents is unlikely to phase him. Cuesta has already given ample signs of his promise in senior football with the continental champions Atletico Nacional.
His breakthrough game came in mid-October, away to Coritiba of Brazil in the Copa Sudamericana. Nacional were depleted by injuries, and the youngster was on the bench. Before the half hour mark he was on the field, replacing injured right back Daniel Bocanegra. Very soon Nacional were a man down, as centre-back Francisco Najera picked up a second yellow card. Cuesta had been thrown into the deep end; away to dangerous, highly motivated opponents, switched between right-back and centre-back in a side that played for over an hour with ten. He came out in fine style, calm, classy, unflustered, this was a 17-year-old who deserved to go straight into any scout's notebook.
With Nacional caught in a fixture pile up, the last few months of 2016 gave Cuesta some more first team opportunities -- and he impressed every time, reading the game well, trying to organise those around him and timing his tackles with great precision. In the semifinal of the Colombian championship one gloriously timed tackle put Santa Fe dangerman Jonathan Gomez out of the game.
Cuesta looks to be an extraordinary talent. But there is a huge gap between promise and reality. It will be fascinating to see whether the 2017 South American Under-20 Championships can help him bridge it.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.