Brazil hit heights once more
© AFP

Brazil continued their domination of South American youth football by becoming regional U-20 champions for the 11th time this weekend. Their triumph at the South American U-20 Championship Peru 2011 saw the young Brazilians pick up a third continental title in succession, and earn a berth at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 as well as the Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

Runners-up Uruguay will also be flying the flag for CONMEBOL at both competitions, while Argentina and Ecuador, who finished third and fourth respectively, will have to make do with the showpiece event in Colombia from 29 July to August 20 this year. As hosts, Los Cafeteros qualify automatically.

Qualifying sides
Brazil’s
stats at Peru 2011 prove beyond doubt they were worthy champions. They won seven of their nine games, losing just one and drawing another. They had the most potent attack with 23 goals and the second-most secure defence, conceding just seven. Unsurprisingly, they also provided the top scorer in Neymar, who averaged a goal a game with nine strikes.

A Seleção’s only defeat was a 2-1 reverse against Argentina in the six-team final group phase, although they bounced back with a 1-0 win over Ecuador and a 6-0 rout of Uruguay to wrest back top spot and secure the title. “There are no superstars in this group - we’re like one big family. We’ve been working towards this since December and now we have our just desserts. My goal now is for us to win the world title and Olympic gold,” said Neymar, who finished two goals short of Hugo Rodallega's record 11-goal haul from the 2005 edition.

Uruguay, in contrast, blew hot and cold. In the initial group phase, they managed just four points from as many games, only just making it through to the latter stage with the lowest total of the six finalists. Once there, however, they racked up ten points from their first four games to become the first team to secure berths at Colombia 2011 and the Olympics. The former will constitute their third successive appearance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, although no less gratifying will be their return to the Olympic Games, a tournament they have not graced since 1928, when they won their second successive gold medal.

"It was a pity to finish like that, but we should take comfort from what has been a major achievement for us here. Hopefully we can exact some revenge in Colombia,” said defender Leandro Cabrera after his side’s 6-0 drubbing by Brazil in the final game. And while Juan Vezeri’s men missed out on their first regional U-20 title since 1981, they at least had the consolation of taking home the Fair Play award.

Meanwhile, Argentina, six-time world champions in this category, will be keen to make it seven in Colombia after finishing runners-up two years ago in Egypt. However, their third place finish in Peru means they will not be at London 2012 to defend the titles they won in 2004 and 2008. A top-two finish seemed on the cards after they topped their group with ten points from a possible 12, but subsequent 1-0 defeats to Ecuador and Uruguay (having beaten the latter in the first round) put paid to that. “We achieved our primary objective and can take satisfaction from that, but we could have achieved more. We blew our chance of making it to the Olympics in the Uruguay game. We had control of our own destiny then but we couldn’t answer the questions asked of us,” said Albiceleste coach Walter Perazzo.

Ecuador, for their part, celebrated their return to the world stage after a ten-year hiatus. Sixto Vizuete’s young charges were consistently solid at the back, conceding the fewest goals of the six finalists. Moreover, they showed tremendous character to see off Chile 1-0 in their last game, when their opponents were in a position to deny them the final qualifying berth. “This is the fruit of all the work we’ve been doing over the last four years, from the moment we won gold at the Pan American Games at Rio de Janeiro 2007,” said Vizuete.

The others
For Chile, fifth place was a major disappointment, representing as it did their second successive absence from a tournament they finished third in at Canada 2007. Also less than content were the hosts of this year’s finals, Colombia: “I need to do an in-depth analysis of what happened, but what is clear is that we came into this tournament under considerable pressure, and we couldn’t deal with it,” said coach Eduardo Lara.

Tournament hosts Peru were left with a bitter taste in their mouths after missing out on the final phase on goal difference to Uruguay, while Venezuela will have been equally frustrated not to have emerged from their group after representing their continent last time out in Egypt. Paraguay never looked like matching their second-placed finish at the 2009 Sudamericano, while Bolivia once again brought up the rear with a solitary point.

Players to watch
Neymar
did nothing but enhance an already-burgeoning reputation with his goalscoring exploits in Peru, while his Brazilian team-mates Lucas and Casemiro also impressed greatly in attacking- and central midfield respectively. For Uruguay, defender Leandro Cabrera, midfielder Camilo Mayada and striker Adrian Luna all look exciting prospects, while Argentina’s pacy withdrawn striker Juan Manuel Iturbe is another with a great future. Midfielder Rodrigo Bataglia and goalkeeper Esteban Andrada also had fine tournaments for La Albicelete.

Sharpshooters Edson Montano of Ecuador and Edwin Cardona of Colombia will be hoping to make a name for themselves at the finals, while two men who will not be there but nonetheless impressed in Peru are Chilean front man Bryan Carrasco and Venezuela's attacking midfielder Yohandry Orozco.