Talent rose, Brazil and Argentina sunk, and ‘Los Cafeteros’ shined in this year’s Sub-20 Sudamericano

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By Tom Robinson

Much like the most recent Copa America, the under-20 South American Championship also saw its fair share of surprises as the continental apple cart was well and truly upset when Argentina and Brazil crashed out early, leaving some of the less fancied nations to take centre stage.  Colombia emerged victorious after topping the final round robin stage and booked their place at this summer’s under-20 World Cup in Turkey along with Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.

The Sudamericano regularly provides glimpses of some of the most talented youngsters in world football, with notable alumni such as Ronaldinho, Aguero and Messi all gracing the competition in their formative years. A relentless schedule sees the games come thick and fast, providing these precocious tyros with great experience of tournament football. What’s more, due to the necessary rotation, it also rewards the squads with the greatest depth and overall balance.

This last point in particular seems to be a key concept that Brazil and Argentina failed to grasp. Both nations, as we’ve come to expect, were littered with outstanding prospects but neither seemed to be able to function as a collective unit. Ultimately, they paid the price: a humbling and thoroughly deserved early exit.

Going into the tournament, hosts Argentina named a squad brimming with attacking talent. Tricky winger Ricky Centurion and young forward Luciano Vietto were coming off the back of fine breakout seasons with Racing, promising playmakers Alan Ruiz and Manuel Lanzini had shown flashes of brilliance in the Primera and the much hyped Juan Iturbe was looking to reignite his career after his star had faded at Porto.   

However, much like the senior side, for all the attacking talent there remained a certain paucity of defensive options. But where Messi & co have the pedigree to compensate for any frailties at the back, Marcelo Trobbiani’s gamble to play all his attacking aces failed to pay off. The early warning signs were there when they failed to break down a dogged 9 man Chile in the opening game and things didn’t get much better. Bereft of ideas or leadership, the Albiceleste seemed to play with no set game plan and experimented with virtually a different formation each game. Having dominating this level between the mid-nineties up to 2007, Argentina have failed to impress in the last three editions and this most recent omnishambles highlights their stark decline.

Reigning U20 world champions Brazil also boasted an array of talent.  Adryan and Ademilson had dazzled at the under-17 World Cup two years previous, while Santos playmaker Felipe Anderson and new Chelsea full back Wallace were both highly regarded. Throw in Bruno Mendes fresh off a good season with Botafogo and the promising offspring of Mattheus and Rafinha, Brazil were rightly seen as favourites. 

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Just one win and four goals, though, saw them finish bottom of their group, leaving them to scratch their heads and wonder just what went wrong. The only players to come out with any credibility intact were classy centre back Doria – a target for numerous clubs in Europe – and the underused Fred of Internacional.

Nevertheless the significance of this failure, though not terminal, should not be underestimated. The fact it’s the first time that one of Brazil or Argentina have failed to reach a major FIFA tournament finals tells its own story and should hopefully serve as a catalyst for both nations review their youth policy in order to make the most out of the enormous reservoirs of talent they undoubtedly possess.

One nation that does seem to have good youth structure in place is Colombia and they reaped the rewards with a fine performance to top the final group stage. In Juanfer Quintero they possess undoubtedly one of the stars of the tournament. The wonderful playmaker, who joined Pescara in the summer, was at the heart of everything good about Colombia right from the off. He set the tone with a delicious backheel in the build-up to the goal in the opener against Paraguay before pulling the strings in a virtuoso performance versus Bolivia and netting a long range free kick against Argentina. 

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Quintero finished with 5 goals and four assists, proved to be vital as Los Cafateros emerged victorious. Blessed with fantastic vision, drive and creativity, it won’t be long before he’s a regular fixture in the national side.

A good team revolved around him and it would be a disservice not to mention them. Hulking centre back Jherson Vergara and midfield destroyer Jose Leudo added steel, while the energetic full back Helibelton Palacios and pacey winger Mauricio Cuero, who clocked up seven assists, provided width. Udinese saw enough in Brayan Perea to sign him up and are monitoring compatriot Juan Pablo Nieto.

Their triumph all adds to the growing optimism around Colombian football at the moment and there are some tentative whispers that, at senior level, they could be on the verge of something special. A fantastic second half to 2012 with Falcao on fire sees them well placed for World Cup qualification and Quintero & co will hope to follow in the footsteps of former U-20 stars James Rodriguez and Luis Muriel in what is probably the best group of players since Valderrama’s era

Runners-up Paraguay were somewhat of a surprise package but grew as the tournament progressed. Derlis Gonzalez looks a fantastic prospect, hitting the back of the net four times, Jorge Rojas tormented defences when allowed too much space and centre back pairing Teodoro Paredes & Gustavo Gomez also impressed. If Porto can be persuaded to allow Maurito Caballero to feature in Turkey this summer, the Albirojita could claim some scalps.

Uruguay bagged third spot with a squad featuring many graduates of the U17 World Cup runners up. Top scorer Nico Lopez spearheaded the attack and was the stand out performer with six goals. Nicknamed ‘El Conejo’ for his dental similarity to Luis Suarez, the Roma striker also showcased a deadly accuracy in front of goal and elusive off the ball movement. Forward Diego Rolan and corn-rowed midfielder Diego Laxalt were snapped up by Bordeaux and Inter Milan respectively, while Peñarol’s Sebastian Cristoforo and Cavani-lookalike Ruben Bentancourt also caught the eye.

Chile proved to be one of the most intriguing and frustrating cases. Four back to back wins in the first group stage made them early favourites but only just scraped 4th place in the last game with a win over Peru.  This was partly to the toll of their awful disciplinary record as they registered an astonishing seven red cards!

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In Bryan Rabello they had the other star of the tournament. The Sevilla youngster had great set piece delivery, great close control and popped up with a brilliant free kick against Peru. Alongside him, Nicolas Castillo was another revelation. His fantastic movement, strong aerial prowess and shooting ability saw him net 5 goals with an arrogant swagger of a man in form. The La U contingent consisting of Valber Huerta, Igor Lichnovsky and Sebastian Martinez enhanced their reputation while goalkeeper Dario Melo and winger Cristian Cuevas – close to a move to Chelsea - came to prominence.  They promise to be a real threat at the World Cup especially if they can prise Angelo Henriquez from Fergie’s protective clutches.

Peru were unlucky not to qualify in what was a tight, competitive final group and have a number of good players such as Reyna, Flores, Benavente and Guarderas, all of which bodes well for the continuing progress they are making under Sergio Markarian. Elsewhere hard working midfielders Carlos Gruezo and Eddy Corozo were the pick of the bunch for Ecuador and Venezuela’s Josef Martinez underlined his potential as well.

What remains to be seen now is whether the qualified nations can make an impact in Turkey this summer. All four qualified teams should harbour realistic expectations of at least making the knock out stages of what promises to be a thrilling competition. Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for the bruised egos of Argentina and Brazil as they look to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

This is Tom Robinson’s first piece for AFR. Tom’s regular contributor to the blog Lovely Left Foot, and can be found on Twitter @tomrobbo89. Comments below please.

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