Uruguay, Venezuela to face off in all-South American U20 World Cup semi
Brazil failed even to qualify, Argentina got over the line by a miracle and Ecuador were clearly boosted by home advantage, so no one who followed the South American Under-20 Championships since the start of the year will be surprised that the continent's best two teams in the current World Cup in South Korea have been Uruguay and Venezuela. This Thursday, they meet in an all-South American semifinal.
Uruguay have been consistent performers at this level in the last decade. Four years ago, they reached the final only to lose out to France on penalties.
The Under-20 sides are a testimony to the wisdom of the project implanted in 2006 by veteran national team coach Oscar Washington Tabarez. In a globalised environment, he reasoned, it was clearly impossible to expect Uruguay's clubs to be able to hang on to their most promising players. The local FA, then, would step in, scouring the country for talented youngsters, looking for players with the speed of movement and thought and the technical skills needed to hold their own in top-level football and giving them an intense course in the history and identity of the Uruguay team, building up a relationship of affinity with the sky-blue shirt which would come in handy once the players were -- inevitably -- sold abroad.
In the last few years, the Under-20s have become a production of talent for the senior Uruguay side, allowing a country of little more than three million people to continue to punch well above its weight. Several of the current crop seem destined for long international careers.
The case of the 2017 Venezuela side is perhaps more surprising, and maybe even more important. Venezuela had never before reached the quarterfinals of any world tournament and here they are in the last four, with a group of players of whom great things will soon be expected at the highest level.
For all the difference in tradition, Venezuela should not be overawed by Thursday's meeting. The teams met twice in that qualification competition earlier this year. In the group phase, they played out a tight, 0-0 draw. And in the decisive second round, Venezuela struck in the last half hour to record a memorable 3-0 win.
The standout fact here is that Venezuela played the continental champions -- Uruguay finished a massive five points clear of the rest -- without conceding a single goal. Venezuela have taken that form into the World Cup. When Jeremy Ebobisse of the United States scored against them -- right at the end of the quarterfinal, when Venezuela were already two up -- it was the first goal they had conceded in the tournament, and this was their fifth game.
Goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez might be a touch on the short side for the position, but he is wonderfully agile. He has already appeared for the senior side in World Cup qualification, and plenty of those in front of him will also be pushing for promotion, especially centre-back Williams Velasquez.
The significance of this defensive tightness is clear; Venezuela's hopes of making the senior World Cup for the first time have been scuppered by a lack of pace at the back. Then-coach Noel Sanvicente went into the Russia 2018 campaign with the hope of playing an ambitious game. Inevitably this left the defence exposed, and they were too slow to cope. A flurry of defeats soon put paid to any hopes of making it to Moscow.
The defensive strength of this team -- along with the midfield drive of Yangel Herrera, the attacking thrust of Adalberto Penaranda, the foot-tied-to-the-ball dribbling of Yeferson Soteldo -- make the 2022 and 2026 World Cups a realistic target.
And many of their opponents Thursday will also hope to be there. The lanky, left-footed elegance of midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, the greyhound pace of striker Nicolas Schiappacasse, the dynamic shooting of Nicolas De La Cruz -- all hold promise for Uruguay.
And Thursday's semifinal, whoever comes out on top, is excellent experience for the senior challenges to come.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.