Nigeria awaits South American elite

The 13th South American U-17 Championship concluded this weekend with little change to the status quo in the continent's youth football. Brazil retained the Sudamericano in impressive fashion and will travel to Nigeria for the FIFA U-17 World Cup this October in confident mood. Korea 2007 participants Argentina and Colombia will also be at the finals in Africa, as will Uruguay, who made amends for the disappointment of missing out on qualification two years ago. takes a look back at a dramatic three weeks in Chile.

With eight Sudamericano titles from 12 attempts, Brazil's qualification for the finals was always on the cards. Even so, Luis Nizzo's charges still had to justify their favourites' tag and defend the title they won two years, and this they duly did so with a mix of attractive football and consistent goalscoring (an average of 2.4 goals-a-game) to give themselves a shot at a fourth FIFA U-17 World title. Not content with sealing a berth for Nigeria, the Seleção fought every inch of the way, eventually prevailing 6-5 on penalties against Argentina in the final after a 2-2 draw.

Despite losing the decider, Argentina need not reproach themselves. They were the only side to finish the tournament unbeaten, became the first team to book their place in Nigeria and showed tremendous spirit to come from 2-0 down in the final against their arch-rivals to set up a thrilling conclusion. "It hurt to lose the final, but we're not losing sight of what we achieved here and what we're aiming for [in Nigeria]," said the Albiceleste coach, Jose Luis Brown, who will be hoping to oversee Argentina's first world title in this category.

Meanwhile, Colombia and Uruguay took a more circuitous route to qualification, only sealing their berths on a dramatic final day. Ramiro Viafara's Cafeteros were the only team to beat Brazil in Chile (2-0), yet they could only manage second spot in Group A, obliging them to contest a four-team play-off for one of the two remaining berths. A similar fate befell Los Charrúas, second in Group B behind Argentina.

Uruguay, who missed out on the finals of Korea 2007, would make light work of the final group, however, drawing with Bolivia (1-1) and defeating Colombia (2-0) and Ecuador (3-1). Colombia, in contrast, were made to sweat after losing to La Celeste, but did enough with wins over Ecuador (3-0) and Bolivia (2-1) to secure their passage. "It wasn't easy, but we made it through thanks to the love these lads have for their country," said a clearly proud Viafara after the final game.

Falling short
The biggest surprise of the tournament was the elimination of hosts Chile in the first phase. La Rojita had high hopes of making a return to the category's premier event after a 12-year absence, but two defeats, one draw and a solitary victory put paid to their aspirations. "This has been a major disappointment for everyone, though I don't think we played badly," lamented their coach, Cesar Vaccia. "Our finishing was not good enough; that was the key."

Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela were also packing their bags after the first phase, the latter particularly frustrated after failing to emulate the heroics of their U-20 counterparts, who recently qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009. Ecuador and Bolivia, for their part, did make the quadrangular final phase and were still in with a chance of qualification until the final day.

Oscar Villegas's Bolivia side were the revelations of the tournament, coming very close to achieving what would have been only the country's second qualification for this event after China 1985. However, their inability to keep the lead in their final game against Colombia (2-1) would cost them dearly. "We deserved to reach the World Cup because we kept going in search of goal and never sat back. Nevertheless, I'm very proud of these lads," said the coach.

Players to watch
Just as in previous editions, the Sudamericano again provided a shop window for some of South America's future stars. Fans of Brazil were hugely impressed with Coutinho (Vasco da Gama), a talented young playmaker who netted three times at the event. Wellington (Fluminense) was another Canarinho star who contributed hugely to his country's triumph and will surely generate headlines in Nigeria. Argentina, meanwhile, are expecting great things from Daniel Villalva (River Plate), a pacy and direct striker who has already tasted top-flight football in his homeland and finished as the Albiceleste's top scorer in Chile with three goals.

For Uruguay, the key man was four-goal hero Gonzalo Barreto (Danubio), though even he had to take a back seat to Colombia's Edwin Cardona. The Atletico Nacional midfielder was unquestionably the star of the championship, covering every blade of grass and notching up no fewer than seven goals en route to qualifying. A name you can expect to hear a great deal more about at Nigeria 2009.

Final standings
Brazil (champions) *
Argentina *
Uruguay *

* Qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009.