The Midas touch they have shown over recent years means that South American teams start as favourites at next year's FIFA tournaments. The continent takes its first step towards further glory with the start of the inaugural South American U-16 Championship this weekend. The 12-team tournament, which will take place between 11 and 26 September, will determine the teams to enter the qualifiers for the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005.

With the continent providing three of the four semi-finalists at FIFA's U-17 and World Youth Championships last year, as well as both finalists at last month's Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Athens, there can be few questions about the region's pre-eminence in youth football. However, the past is the past, and former glories will be forgotten when the long road to Peru 2005 begins this week in Paraguay, where, as the official tournament slogan says, they will be "making the stars of the future".

The tournament, which is set to generate significant interest throughout the continent, is something of an experiment as it was originally meant to be the bi-annual U-15 Championship. However, the imminence of next year's FIFA U-17 World Championship in Peru, convinced the President of CONMEBOL Nicolás Leoz to raise the age limit on this occasion.

The President of the Paraguayan Football Association (APF) Oscar Harrison told FIFA.com, "South American youth football has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and has even outpaced other continents. Here, football is our passion, and we make it our business to pass that on to our children from an early age. Organizing this tournament was exactly what was called for."

 

The President of the SouthAmerican Soccer Federation, Nicolas Leoz reads the anual report of Conmebol, 10 December 2002 in Asuncion, Paraguay.
(AFP)
Norberto Duarte
 In total, 12 teams will be taking part: The usual ten teams from South America as well as guests from Mexico and the USA.

Bringing football to the people
Just as happened at previous competitions in South America, the Paraguayan organizers have decided to share the job of hosting the games with cities in the country's hinterland. With only the grand final being played in Asuncion's Defensores del Chaco Stadium, the cities of Ciudad del Este, Encarnación, Pedro Juan Caballero, Itauguá and Luque will be swaying to the rhythm of teenage football in the coming weeks.

"A footballing feast like this is appreciated far more in the regions than in the capital. We want the people to show a level of enthusiasm and passion that is fitting for a South American tournament of this stature," Harrison added.

As is normally the case at tournaments of this type, the coverage will bring with it the usual consequences. "The Paraguayan media will be covering the entire tournament, and in addition to them there will be various accredited journalists present, especially from Brazil," said José María Troche, the press director. Troche also went on to say, "you can expect numerous scouts, footballer's agents and advertising people, who will all be trying to discover the next Ronaldo, Zidane, Gamarra or Batistuta.

The first match, scheduled for 11 September, sees Chile and Bolivia go head to head in Ciudad del Este. The final, fifteen days later, will be held in Asuncion's famous stadium where the national squad have been successfully playing their FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

The Groups:

Group A
Paraguay
Bolivia
Chile
Peru
Group B
Argentina
Ecuador
USA
Uruguay

Group C
Brazil
Colombia
Mexico
Venezuela