South America's young guns primed for Venezuela
This Friday, South American football turns its attention to Venezuela, where nine of the continent's ten sides will be battling it out for the two coveted berths at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005. Despite being assured qualification as hosts, Peru will still be participating in the tournament, where it is hoped their young side can gain valuable championship experience.
Between 1 and 17 April, the land of the Vinotinto will come alive as South America's teenage prodigies showcase their talents. Referring to the U-17 tournament and the 2007 Copa América, which Venezuela will also host, Conmebol President Nicolás Leoz, said: "This will be a good test ahead of 2007, which will undoubtedly be a watershed for Venezuelan football. Hosting the U-17 Championship will provide experience to the host cities as they'll see first hand just what is required to stage a continental tournament".
The significance of the tournament becomes evident when you consider that the continent's strongest sides, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, took three of the top four places at the last FIFA U-17 World Championship at Finland 2003. And although the trio will start in Venezuela as favourites to qualify for Peru 2005, it would be unwise to rule out perennial battlers Paraguay or indeed the hosts themselves. The remaining four contenders, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru, will all be hoping to spring a surprise of their own.
The match format will see the ten sides divided into two groups of five, with each country playing the other four group members during the first stage. The top two from each group then qualify for a four-team final stage, which will again be decided on a league basis. The sides that finish first and second will represent the region alongside the hosts at Peru 2005 between 16 September and 12 October.
Group A: Champions back for more
Reigning world champions and perpetual favourites Brazil are back, this time under the tutelage of Nelson Rodrigues. The ambitious coach is hoping his young side can play a similar style of play to that of Carlos Parreira's senior side.
"This team will vary its formation depending on who we're facing, but ideally we'd like to go with 4-4-2," he said.
However, it will be no easy task for the young Brazilians, most of whom are still well below the standard of their seniors counterparts. Speaking about his varied role as manager of the young side, Rodrigues remarked: "You need to be different things to different players. Sometimes you've got to be a coach, other times a psychologist, but most of all you have to be a quick thinker who can solve problems out there on the pitch".
Alongside Brazil in Group A are Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela, the latter hoping to build on home advantage and the enormous popularity that football is currently enjoying there.
Lino Alonso, who coaches the host nation's side, is very optimistic about the future of his promising young team: "I have a talented squad, full of players that are ready to make the grade in the country's first division. Hopefully we can show that ability when it matters most."
Group B: Argentina out to defend their title
With Hugo Tocalli's successor Miguel Angel Tojo now at the helm of the country's U-17 side, Argentina will be keen to retain the South American title they won two years ago in Bolivia and build towards what would be their first world title in this category.
As for their chances, Tojo had this to say: "The players are becoming more and more attuned to our philosophy, which makes our task that much more achievable. The team is coming into this South American Championship in good form."
At first glance, the biggest threat to the Albicelestes would appear to come from Colombia. The Cafeteros' coach Eduardo Lara certainly has reason to be confident having already led the U-20 side to victory in the South American Championship and taken the U-17s to fourth place in Finland 2003.
Uruguay, Chile and Peru make up the rest of Group B, the latter with the security of having already qualified for "their" tournament. José Pavoni, the Argentine coach of the Incaico, is hopeful that his young charges can get the requisite international experience ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Championship later this year.
"It's going to be an exceedingly difficult tournament. We've been drawn in the toughest group, so we're not setting ourselves any fixed goals," he said. "What's important is that we'll be able to assess where we stand after our games."