Qualifying time arrives in South America
© AFP

The cream of South America’s youth players are congregating in Ecuador for the 14th continental U-17 championships, which will decide which four teams will represent the CONMEBOL Zone at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, which begins on 18 June.  

The South American championships kick off this Saturday and run through 10 April. The ten sides have been drawn into two sections, with Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay making up Group A, and Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Venezuela forming Group B.

The first three teams in each pool will advance to a final six-team round-robin group. As well as collecting a ticket to Mexico, the top four teams in that section will also qualify for the Pan American Games Guadalajara 2011.

All to play for
The favourites to top Group A are Argentina. The ten-time finalists have two FIFA U-17 World Cup titles to their name and have finished runners-up on five occasions. A member of the Albiceleste squad that won the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, coach Oscar Garre is hoping his charges can claim the South American crown for the first time since 2003, when they halted Brazil’s run of four straight wins.

Uruguay will be out to emulate the success of the senior side at South Africa 2010 and the U-20 team, who will be on parade at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 and the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. Present at two of the last three world finals, Fabian Coito’s charges have the ultimate goal of winning the continental title for the first time, having been denied by Brazil in 1991 and again in 2005.

We’re not like the U-20s. We don’t have a Neymar or a Lucas, and that means we have to depend on our abilities as a unit.
Brazil coach Emerson Avila

Hosts Ecuador staged the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1995 but have not successfully negotiated a qualifying competition since 1987. Coach Xavier Rodriguez has their route to Mexico mapped out, however: “The schedule could work in our favour because we start with games against Bolivia and Peru and then we have a break. The aim is to take six points from those matches and clinch qualification against Uruguay and Argentina, who are the favourites.”

Peru and Bolivia will no doubt have something to say about that. Former striker Juan Jose Ore is preparing for his third consecutive South American championship in charge of the Peruvians. Having memorably steered them to Korea Republic 2007, where they eventually reached the quarter-finals, he failed to repeat the feat in the qualifying competition for Nigeria 2009. The Bolivians, meanwhile, are hoping to book a place in the finals for the first time since the inaugural tournament in China in 1985.

Eternal favourites
Not surprisingly for a team with nine South American titles in their possession, including the last three, not to mention three world crowns in the category, Brazil are the side to beat in Ecuador. Emerson Avila has a tightly knit squad at his disposal and can call on several members of the team that finished runners-up at the regional U-15 championships in Bolivia in 2009. Among them is striker Lucas Piazon, who top-scored in that tournament with ten goals.

Rather than flashes of individual brilliance, however, coach Avila is banking on a team performance: “We’re not like the U-20s. We don’t have a Neymar or a Lucas, and that means we have to depend on our abilities as a unit. Tactics are also going to be vital, although there’s no question that individual skill can also give us the edge.”

One of their main challengers in the section are Paraguay, the team who pipped them in that U-15 tournament in Bolivia. And just as they were then, La Albirroja will be under the command of Gerardo Gonzalez, who has high hopes of another successful campaign: “We respect each and every one of our rivals but we’re all starting from zero. The goal is to get to Mexico.” If the Paraguayans fulfil their objective, it will be their first appearance at the U-17 finals since Trinidad and Tobago 2001.

Colombia can also count on a master strategist on the bench. Not only did Ramiro Viafara take Los Cafeteros to Nigeria 2009, he then oversaw their unprecedented run to fourth place. Statistics also suggest the Colombians, who are gunning for their sixth world finals appearance, will be in strong contention. Out of their South American rivals only Brazil (12 times) and Argentina (10) have qualified for more FIFA U-17 World Cup tournaments.

Low profile, high expectations. That would appear to be Chile’s motto as they head to Ecuador. “We want to impress, play our game and fight for a qualification place,” said coach George Biehl, who is aiming to take La Roja back to the big stage for the first time since Egypt 1997.  Finally, Venezuela have the chance to end their unwanted status as the only South American country never have qualified for a FIFA U-17 World Cup.