In 2005 a 17-year-old Lionel Messi scored his first competitive goal for Argentina in the inaugural match of that year’s South American Youth Championship. Three weeks later he bagged the final goal of the tournament, which just happened to be the winner against Brazil.
Already a known quantity at Barcelona, where he had been playing his youth football since the age of 13, Messi’s first, true taste of international attention came that January in Colombia, where journalists, talent scouts and everyday fans were blown away by the pale, awkward kid with a hint of a mullet who seemed to have the ball attached to his foot with a string.
Similar breakthroughs occur at each instalment of the South American Youth Championship, or Sub-20, and while no one is expecting to discover the “next Messi” at the 2013 competition that kicks off Wednesday in Argentina, there will no doubt be one or two players whose performances will offer tantalising peaks at promising careers at the highest level of the sport.
In 2011, for example, Neymar’s nine goals more than doubled the total of the next-highest scorer, and in the tournament’s final match his brace helped Brazil to a 6-0 win over Uruguay and a record 11th title.
That Brazil team stands as one of the best to have ever contested the Sub-20, what with Danilo, Juan Jesus, Casemiro, Henrique, Oscar and Lucas Moura playing alongside Neymar, who by then had already scored his first senior international goal and showed himself to be a man among boys over those three weeks in Peru.
No team stands out quite as much ahead of the 2013 championship, and as the squads arrive in San Juan and Mendoza as many as five of them can entertain realistic hopes of lifting the trophy in the first week of February.
Following is a look at the contenders, the players to keep an eye on and a few other items to get you prepared for one of the most fascinating tournaments on the international calendar.
Matches will be played in San Juan and Mendoza, each of which were involved in the 2011 Copa America. Both cities welcomed their guests with cold temperatures and, occasionally, snow during that tournament, and the harsh conditions made for some of the most dreadful football of what was a mostly dreadful competition. Mendoza, for example, staged four matches that combined to produce just four goals.
But that was in the Argentine winter. The Sub-20 will take place in early summer and the hot, dry climate should contribute to some watchable football, such as that was played during the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia.
Matches in San Juan will be staged at the 25,000-capacity Estadio del Bicentenario, which is just under two years old and serves as the home ground for Primera Division side San Martin. Mendoza’s Estadio Malvinas Argentinas is the sort of stern, bowl ground that was built so often during the 1970s and can accommodate 45,000 spectators. Constructed for the 1978 World Cup, its primary tenant is Godoy Cruz.
Two years ago Brazil’s roster was a who’s who of up-and-coming talent from top to bottom. Manager Emerson Ávila doesn’t have that sort of star power this time around, but a creative midfield populated with the likes of Fred (Internacional), Mattheus Oliveira (Flamengo), Rafinha (Barcelona) and Felipe Anderson (Santos) should be able to provide exceptional service to an attacking corps that might otherwise struggle to find the back of the net.
Scouting report: Fred
The 19-year-old ingratiated himself to former Internacional manager Dorival Junior and was part of the side that won the 2012 Campeonato Gaúcho. A playmaking midfielder who patterns his game after former Inter teammate Oscar, now at Chelsea, he scored six goals in 33 league matches last season and was one of the few bright spots in a team that finished a disappointing 10th in the table.
Argentina manager Marcelo Trobbiani has promised an attacking lineup at the 2013 South American Youth Championship and earlier in the week was experimenting with a 3-4-2-1 formation. Juan Manuel Iturbe (River Plate) is one of the more highly-rated prospects coming into the tournament and will operate on the right wing, opposite Adrián Centurión (Racing). Lone striker Luciano Vietto (Racing) will have Alan Ruiz (San Lorenzo) and Manuel Lanzini (River Plate) in support.
Scouting report: Juan Manuel Iturbe
Currently on loan to River Plate from Porto, he already has a Portuguese League winner’s medal and turned out seven times for Porto in all competitions last season. Raised in Paraguay, he represented La Albirroja on seven occasions at U-17 and U-20 levels but a fallout with the national team hierarchy saw him switch over to Argentina in 2010. Small and quick, he’s comfortable across the attacking line but particularly in support of a dedicated centre-forward.
Chile were miffed when Manchester United attacker Ángelo Henríquez went on loan to Wigan—a move that took him out of the Sub-20 picture—but manager Mario Salas still has a handful of quality youngsters on which to call, and La Rojita arrive in Argentina with aspirations of bettering their second-place finish in 1975 and winning their first South American Youth Championship. Bryan Rabello (Sevilla) is the name that most stands out in Salas’ squad, but striker Nicolas Cástillo (Universidad Católica) has experience in Chile’s first division, as do Sebastián Martínez and Nicolas Maturana (who will wear the number-10 shirt), both of Universidad de Chile.
Scouting report: Bryan Rabello
Few players come into the Sub-20 under as much pressure as the 18-year-old, who has played three matches for Sevilla this season but primarily turns out for Sevilla Atlético in Segunda B. A Clausura winner with Colo-Colo in 2009, he’ll serve as Castillo’s primary line of supply in Argentina and will no doubt be desperate to score a goal or two himself, having struggled to find the back of the net in Spain.
Until they were blitzed by Brazil in the final match of the tournament, Uruguay were one of the better defensive sides at the 2011 South American Youth Championship. They won’t abandon that identity altogether this time around, but the presence of some highly-regarded attacking prospects in manager Juan Verzeri’s squad likely means they’ll have a few more goals in them as well. Nicolás López, 19, already has a senior goal for AS Roma and Rúben Bentancourt, also 19, is currently learning the ropes at PSV Eindhoven.
Scouting report: Rúben Bentancourt
He arrived to much fanfare in 2011 when he joined PSV from Danubio. Upon putting pen to paper he described himself as “strong in the air” and added he hoped to “win the ball and score a lot of goals” for the Dutch side. Yet to nail down a place in PSV’s first team, he’ll get his opportunity for regular, first-team football at the Sub-20.
Colombia’s 2011 South American Youth championship was nothing short of a disaster, where after scoring only a single goal in their last five matches they finished bottom of the Final Stage with only a single point. Hopes are rather higher in 2013, even though striker Andres Renteria was not released by his club (Santos Laguna). Manager Carlos Restrepo will have goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla (Atlético Nacional), already a senior football veteran, between the sticks, and number-10 Juan Fernando (Pescara) will look to draw on his senior experience in Serie A as he attempts to turn striker John Córdoba (Jaguares) into one of the tournament’s true dangermen.
Scouting report: Harrison Mojica
A place opened up for the 19-year-old Deportivo Cali forward when Renteria wasn’t granted a release. He can play on either wing, has a bag of tricks and packs a cannon of a shot.
In their own words
“I want to get out of [my father’s] shadow. My father has written his story, and now I want to write mine. I’m still looking for my identity on the field; my career has a lot ahead of it.” –Brazil midfielder Mattheus Oliveira, son of 1994 World Cup winner Bebeto.
“Let’s just play a tournament—it’s not life or death. These young players must be given tranquility, as well as security and trust.” –Argentina manager Marcelo Trobbiani.
“The short time we’ve had is not an excuse. I have to adapt so that the players are convinced that this way of working is going to qualify us for the U-20 World Cup…We should be grateful to have players of this quality.” –Chile manager Mario Salas, who was only appointed to the job in November.