The South American U-17 championship has long been a stepping stone for some of the world's brightest talents. Argentinian midfielder Fernando Redondo, Bolivia's Marco Etcheverry and the one and only Ronaldinho have all graced the tournament with their skills, and from next Saturday the next generation of South American stars will be exhibiting their wares in Ecuador. At stake are four sought-after tickets to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 .
As you might expect, Brazil and Argentina are the favourites to hoist the continental title. Nevertheless, the competition will be fierce with the first three in each group going through to a final six-team group, where the four qualifiers for Korea will be decided. FIFA.com is here to run the rule over the contenders.
Group A: Brazil casting a long shadow
With no fewer than seven South American championships to their name, the Brazilians are obvious candidates to claim top spot in the qualifying group. In fact, the Verdeamarelhos have claimed an astonishing five of the last six tournaments, missing out only at Bolivia 2003, when Argentina took the title.
This time round Edgar Pereira's young charges have one goal on their minds: to reach Korea and avenge the defeat of their immediate predecessors in the final at Peru 2005. With that objective in mind, the coach has selected the cream of the domestic crop, including the exciting prospects Lulinha and Alex, of Corinthians and Vasco da Gama respectively. As for the rest of the squad, Pereira is confident they are up to the job. "We're very happy with the way the boys worked and got on with each other at Granja Comary," he explained. "We made the most of our time there and the team spirit is excellent. We'll do well at the South Americans."
Under the guidance of Homero Mistral Valencia, the Ecuadorians hope to make home advantage count as they go in search of a finals place for the third time in their history, their two previous appearances coming at Canada 1987 and Ecuador 1995 .
Coach Valencia is confident his team has what it takes to excite the home fans. "We've got some quality players in the middle of the park, and that's where most games are won and lost," he commented. "All the same, we need to be solid in all departments. What we're after is a little bit of balance."
Juan Jose Ore's Peru will be out to show that they have built on the success of organising the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years ago, while Bolivia, with Oscar Villegas at the helm, are keen to spring a major surprise and return to the finals after a 20-year absence. As for Chile, Jose Sulantay's brief is to end a barren run of ten years and to honour the memory of squad member Sergio Ibarra, who died last month. "The boys want to perform well for him and that might make us a bit too anxious to succeed," explained Sulantay. "That's something we're working on though."
Group B: Argentina out for revenge
Two years ago Argentinian youth football suffered one of its biggest disappointments of the last decade when the U-17s surprisingly missed out on qualification for Peru 2005. The Albicelestes reacted sensibly to their shock exit, however, giving coach Miguel Angel Tojo the opportunity to gain revenge with a new crop of players.
"What happened two years ago was a wake-up call, but that's in the past now," he said. "We've got a different group of players here and we have to try and reach our objective." Tojo is fortunate enough to be able to call on the players of the calibre of Mariano Oliva, the River Plate defender who also had a trial with Chelsea, and Federico Laurito, currently with Italy's Udinese.
Joining the Argentinians in Group B are Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.
The Uruguayans are the only one of the five to appear at Peru 2005 and will be looking to Ronald Marcenaro to repeat that success. "I'm happy with the team going into the tournament," he confided. "Naturally, we'll have to get used to the altitude but I've got every confidence the boys can cope with that." To help him with his preparations over the last few weeks, national coach Oscar Tabarez has been lending his invaluable assistance.
Like the Celeste, Paraguay and Colombia have every intention of continuing their excellent records at youth level. Expert youth coach Eduardo Lara will be guiding the Cafeteros through the tournament, while Paraguay, whose last finals appearance came at Trinidad and Tobago 2001 , are coached by former international midfielder Gustavo Sotelo.
Last but not least, Venezuela are the only side never to have qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, although hopes are high that Amleto Bonaccorso can work the oracle this time. Serafin Boutureira, the president of the Vinotinto delegation, summed up the sense of expectation in the Venezuelan camp: "We are preparing hard and our first objective is to get through the first round. After that, anything can happen."