Venezuela, Uruguay show Chile the way to success through U-20 progression
When Venezuela take on Uruguay in Thursday's World Cup qualifier, the importance of Under-20 football should be very clear.
The Venezuelans have no chance of making it to Russia. They are already building for the long term, hoping to make their senior World Cup debut in Qatar 2022. And they hope they have unearthed the generation that will get them there -- the squad that reached the final of this year's U-20 World Cup.
Nine members of that group have been called up for the upcoming matches against Uruguay and Paraguay. Three started last month's matches, a 0-0 draw at home to Colombia followed by a heroic 1-1 draw away to Argentina: outstanding goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez is already established as first-choice; dynamic central midfielder Yangel Herrera is well on the way; while powerful support striker Sergio Cordova made an interesting start to his senior international career with an assist against Argentina.
Others may well be given their chance over the next few days, and the future of Venezuela's national team surely belongs to them.
Back in June, Venezuela qualified for the final of the U-20 World Cup with a penalty shootout win over Uruguay and will probably be meeting one of those Uruguayans again. Midfielder Federico Valverde has been fast tracked into the senior side, and had a splendid debut in last month's vital 2-1 win away to Paraguay, a result that takes Uruguay close to a third successive World Cup.
Valverde opened the scoring with a deflected shot and brought a degree of cool creativity that the Uruguay midfield had been lacking. The win interrupted a run of three defeats followed by a goalless draw at home to Argentina where Uruguay appeared too terrified to cross the half way line. The introduction of Valverde was a much needed boost and now he has been joined in the squad by a colleague from this year's U-20 campaign, the similarly classy Rodrigo Bentancur, recently signed by Juventus.
This forms part of a Uruguayan pattern. There is a reason that a country with such a small population keeps rolling out competitive national teams and it has a lot to do with the work done at youth level.
Oscar Washington Tabarez has now been coaching the side for over 11 years; his entire project has been based on a recognition of the importance of the U-20s. Uruguay use their youth ranks to identify youngsters gifted enough to thrive in international football, then give them a crash course in the history and identity of the sky blue shirt before they are inevitably sold abroad.
Uruguay consistently enjoy excellent results at U-20 level and, more importantly, they keep coming up with players capable of gaining promotion to the senior ranks. Almost the entire senior squad are graduates of previous U-20 World Cups.
Chile may well soon have cause to regret the fact that their own work at U-20 level has not proved so efficient. They came up with one magnificent generation, who finished third in the 2007 U-20 World Cup -- the team that launched Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel, Mauricio Isla and many others of the most victorious group of players in the country's footballing history. But they are now reaching the end.
At best, their swansong will be next year's World Cup. But if results go against them then it could even end sooner. There is a real chance that they might not qualify for 2018 and the worrying thing is that it is hard to see where the replacements will come from. Unlike some of their peers, there are no bright U-20 Chile stars who look capable of sustaining the national team's recent success.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.