South Americans set for Bolivian battle
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Be they odds-on favourites or rank outsiders, the ten teams participating in this year’s South American U-17 Women’s Championship all share the same dream: taking part in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, due to be held in Azerbaijan from 22 September to 17 October. Only the top three sides at the continental championship, taking place in Bolivia from 9 to 25 March, will get the chance to perform on the world stage, so the competition will be fierce.

Sucre will host Group A’s fixtures, during which Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay will all lock horns, while Santa Cruz welcomes Group B sides Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela. The top two in each group advance to the final round, where the four remaining teams will all play each other to decide the destination of the continental title and the identity of the three qualifiers for Azerbaijan.

With the tournament fast approaching, runs the rule over the two pools.

The weight of history
Group A stands out for two reasons: not only does it bring together five teams that have never taken part at a FIFA Women’s World Cup at youth level, but four of them occupy the bottom quartet of places in the competition’s all-time league table.

Against this backdrop, the statistics would appear to heavily favour Argentina, who missed out on a qualifying berth in 2010, when they finished fifth, and in 2008, when fourth spot was all they could manage. In addition, they boast five players who just recently helped the country to secure a ticket for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012.

“This age category is a bit of a mystery because we don’t have that much of a history in it, but we believe that we have the potential to qualify for Azerbaijan,” said Argentina’s Carlos Borrello, standing in for regular coach Yasushi Kawakami, who is unable to attend due to illness.

For Bolivia, who were denied a chance to compete in the final round on goal difference in 2010, this year’s competition represents a different sort of challenge, due to the responsibilities and expectations of being the host country. “The girls are very much aware of the tremendous importance of qualifying for the U-17 World Cup and making history, but we are trying to manage their nerves,” explained Bolivia coach Napoleon Cardozo.

Peru’s fifth-placed finish of 2008 seems a distant memory now, but even that would constitute a significant improvement for Ecuador and Uruguay, who have each managed just one win in the eight matches they have played in the tournament thus far.

One favourite, four challengers
In contrast with the other section, the five sides that make up Group B have all appeared at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup at least once. The overwhelming favourite nonetheless remains Brazil. They arrive at the South American Championship as defending champions and as the only country in the region to have contested both of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup events organised to date.

In addition, La Canarinha have lost only one match in the history of the tournament, to Paraguay in the final round of 2008, a defeat that cost them the title. Certainly, Edvaldo Erlache’s charges will have to forge their own path, but the potential of their huge and proven talent-pool can often make all the difference in this age category.

Two years ago it was Chile and Venezuela, in that order, who accompanied Brazil to Trinidad and Tobago. Rocio Yanez’s Rojitas’ squad features in-form forwards Naira Kapstein Forner and Montserratt Grau Rodas, who scored 31 goals between them in the most recent Chilean U-17 Championship. As for La Vinotinto, leading them once more will be Panamanian tactician Kenneth Zseremeta, who guided his Venezuelan players to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup for the very first time in 2010.

In 2008, Colombia were crowned South American champions and Paraguay finished a respectable third. Neither nation was able to repeat that performance two years later, but both associations launched distinct development programmes that are now bearing fruit. Las Cafeteras will travel to Bolivia with a group comprised almost entirely of players from Colombia’s various regional leagues, with just one squad member currently competing in the top flight. 30 per cent of Las Albirrojas’ squad, meanwhile, are players that have emerged from inter-school football tournaments.