All eyes on Peru
© AFP

Just as it does every two years, South America is preparing for the emergence of a fresh crop of young stars, with Peru set to host the continent’s 2011 Youth Championship. As well as local pride, there are also four qualification slots for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 at stake, along with two for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

The tournament, which was first staged in 1954 and brings together the cream of the continent’s youth players, starts this Sunday and runs until 12 February. It is also the third time in the last few years that Peru has hosted a major football competition, the country having also staged the 2004 Copa America and the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2005.

The ten competing nations have been drawn into two groups of five, with the top three sides in each section advancing to a final six-team round-robin pool, where the battle for places at Colombia 2011 and London 2012 will be decided.

“Though there’s not much between the sides in either group, our objective is to reach the world finals,” said Peru’s Uruguayan coach Gustavo Ferrin, who knows his team will have to see off some stiff competition to achieve their target.

Plenty of incentive for Argentina
Although they have only four continental titles to their name at this level, Argentina have won the FIFA U-20 World Cup on six occasions. La Albiceleste failed to qualify for Egypt 2009, however, which means they will not be lacking in motivation in Peru. Walter Perazzo’s side will be heartened by the fact that the last time places at the Olympics and the FIFA U-20 World Cup were at stake, the Argentinians went on to complete a golden double, prevailing at both Canada 2007 and Beijing 2008.

Even though the Argentina squad is packed with players who are already enjoying regular first-team football with some of the country’s biggest clubs, they face a stern test in the first phase of the competition. Waiting for them in Group A are seven-time continental champions Uruguay as well as Peru, Chile and Venezuela, who ended their hopes of qualifying for Egypt 2009 at the last South American Youth Championship.

“It will be anything but an easy tournament. All the sides are evenly matched and to win games you have to do more than just pull on the shirt,” said the Argentina coach, who has very specific objectives in mind for his squad. “We want to qualify for both competitions, but we also need to help the players develop and produce at least four guys who will be ready to step up to the full national team in time for the 2014 World Cup.”     

Brazil banking on Neymar   
Runners-up at the last FIFA U-20 World Cup and ten times the top dogs in South America, Brazil are the other side strongly fancied to excel in Peru. As if that record were not imposing enough, coach Ney Franco can also call on the services of Santos forward Neymar, who has already been capped at senior level and scored 17 goals in the Brazilian championship last season.

Though he will surely miss his strike partner Coutinho, currently out with injury at Inter Milan, Neymar has the ability to lead the Seleção attack with distinction when they take on Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay in Group B.

Neymar is a quality player but we can’t expect him to go out and win every game for us,” said Franco in reference to his prize asset. “It goes without saying that the fans and the media will have big expectations of him, but as the coach my concern is with how the team works as a unit. I hope to get the set-up right so that he can fit in without any problems.”

South American Youth Championship Peru 2011
Group A (Arequipa)
Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela

Group B (Tacna)
*Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay

*Colombia have already qualified for this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup as the hosts. Should they finish among the top four in Peru, the fifth-placed team will go forward to Colombia 2011.