With two spots at the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 up for grabs in addition to the continent's four berths at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 , this month's South American U-20 Championship takes on even greater importance.
Given the high stakes, fans in Paraguay's four host cities look set to witness a thrilling competition between 7 and 28 January. Group A, made up of Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and the host nation, will take place in Pedro Juan Caballero, while Ciudad del Este will host Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela as they battle for supremacy in Group B.
The group stages will see each team play each other in a round-robin format, with the top three sides from each group going into the decisive six-team final round, to be played in Asuncion and Luque. The reward for the winners and runners-up is a place at both Canada 2007 and Beijing 2008, while those teams coming in third and fourth will also join the top two at this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Read on as FIFA.com takes a closer look at a tournament that, despite the absence of several high-profile figures, promises to be fiercely competitive from start to finish.
Group A: All eyes on Brazil
As befits a country with their reputation and international pedigree, Brazil are always the team to beat. That said, the four-time U-20 world champions go into this January's event with rather a lot to prove . For a nation accustomed to footballing excellence, second-place finishes at the last two South American U-20 Championships have severely wounded Canarinha pride. In addition, their failure to qualify for the Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004 means the pressure is on the Auriverde youngsters to set the record straight.
Leading the Seleção charge is experienced youth coach Nelson Rodrigues, who has a richly talented squad at his disposal. The man of the moment may well be Internacional de Porto Alegre attacking sensation Alexandre Pato , but wing-back Carlinhos (Santos) and adaptable midfielder Lucas (Gremio) have both already debuted for the senior side. Nor should goalscoring be a problem for the mighty Verdeamarelos with forwards of the calibre of Fabiano Oliveira (Flamengo) and Leandro Lima (Sao Caetano). One man who will not be there, however, is full-back Marcelo, recently signed by Spanish giants Real Madrid.
Hoping to push Brazil all the way will be Paraguay, the team that sprung a surprise by eliminating the Canarinha at the last Olympic qualifying tournament. "Our main objective is to win the title," was the confident claim of midfielder Jose Montiel, currently of Serie A outfit Udinese. The Guaranies, coached by Argentine Ernesto Mastrangelo, include two players who travelled to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ with the seniors, the aforementioned Montiel and Libertad's Cristian Bogado. Other Albirroja stars to watch out for are forwards Carlos Acuna (Cadiz, Spain) and Edgar Benitez (Libertad), as well as keeper Roberto Gatito Fernandez (Cerro Porteno), son of legendary former national team shot-stopper Roberto Gato Fernandez.
Continuing the trend of Argentine coaches are Peru, who have worked hard to keep expectations at a realistic level ahead of their trip to Paraguay. In the words of Jose Luis Pavoni, the man charged with guiding the team through: "Qualifying for the World Cup is very difficult but not impossible." The Peruvian cause has been dealt a blow with the absence of injured goalscorer Daniel Chavez (Club Bruges, Belgium), leaving defender Carlos Zambrano (Schalke 04, Germany) as the only squad member playing his football abroad.
Bolivia, meanwhile, are aiming to make it past the opening round of a South American U-20 Championship for the first time in 24 years. Coach Oscar Villegas refuses to be downbeat about his side's chances: "It's a tough group but we won't give up without a fight. We'll only see just how good we are once the competition has got underway." Key figures include defender and captain Carlos Tordoya (Arsenal, Argentina), midfielder Jhasmany Campos (Oriente Petrolero) and forward Gustavo Pinedo (Cadiz, Spain). Villegas' charges will surely be motivated still further by the presence in Paraguay of legendary former international Edwin Sanchez, now coach of Bolivia's senior side.
Last but not least come Chile, who face the unenviable task of kicking off their campaign against Brazil. Not that coach Jose Sulantay is unduly perturbed: "I think it's better to start off against the big sides, because a good result would do wonders for our morale and confidence." As they bid to qualify for their fourth FIFA U-20 World Cup, the Roja Chica can call upon a number of players already well-established in the Chilean top flight, with Alexis Sanchez (Colo Colo) the pick of a talented bunch.
Group B: Absentees weigh heavily on Argentina
Despite being unable to count on the likes of foreign-based stars Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid) and Federico Higuain (Real Madrid), or even domestic scoring sensation Mauro Zarate (Velez Sarsfield), Argentina remain strong contenders for the continental crown.
"I would have liked to be able to call them up but there's nothing we can do. Even without them, we've managed to build a solid team," revealed Albiceleste coach Hugo Tocalli. "What's our goal (for the tournament)? Firstly, to get through the opening round, then make sure we're in the top four of the six-team final round to guarantee a World Cup place. Then we'll be gunning for a place at the Olympic Games and, once we achieved all that, we'll try and win the title," said Tocalli. With Argentina the reigning Olympic and U-20 world champions, opponents would do well not to underestimate the Albiceleste's ambition.
Recent performances single out deep-lying playmaker Maximiliano Moralez (Racing Club), midfielder Lautaro Acosta (Lanus) and forward Ismael Sosa (Independiente) for special attention, while Chilean-based front-man Franco Di Santo's (Audax Italiano) is a curious case, the towering forward having yet to play professionally in his homeland.
Reigning champions Colombia, for their part, will be under severe pressure to hold on to the title won back in 2005. "I've already explained to my players that they have a duty to go all out and defend the crown that their predecessors won," underlined coach Eduardo Lara, the man behind the 2005 success. Fans should watch out for striker Carlos Darwin Quintero (Deportes Tolima), on red-hot form in the Colombian league, and keeper Libis Arenas (Envigado FC), bidding for a world youth tournament hat-trick. The gifted shot-stopper also travelled to the FIFA U-17 World Youth Championship Finland 2003 and the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005.
Winners of the gold medal at the Olympic Football Tournaments in Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928, once-mighty Uruguay have since spent nearly 80 years away from the Olympic stage. Charged with putting an end to this unwanted statistic is coach Gustavo Ferrin. "This squad is capable of achieving great things. The World Cup and Olympic Games must not become pipe dreams; instead we need to start making them happen, one step at a time," Ferrin explained. Key men in the Celeste bid are defender Martin Caceres, forward Elias Ricardo Figueroa, and fellow front-runner Juan Surraco (Udinese, Italy) - the team's only foreign-based star.
Fellow aspirants Ecuador are also aiming high. "We've come here dreaming of going to the very top, and being crowned champions. Nevertheless, it's a very tough group; we'll need to take things one step at a time," assured coach Ivan Romero, who will be looking for plenty of goals from the Tricolor dangerman, Felipe Caicedo (Basel, Switzerland).
Finally we come to Venezuela, whose coach Nelson Carrero is steering well clear of any rash predictions. "I'm not going to promise that we're going to qualify, but what I will say is that we're going to make life very difficult for every team we face," he declared with conviction. According to young midfielder Tomas Rincon, the Vinotinto's opening game against Uruguay could prove decisive: "We couldn't be better prepared. Lets hope that, with God's help, we can come away from the first game with a good result, as that's the most important one for us."
For all the latest results and statistics from this exciting competition, check out the official CONMEBOL site .