After the end-of-year recess, international football returns with a vengeance this Thursday when the continent's finest young talents battle it out for the 23rd South American Youth Championship in Colombia.
As well as regional bragging rights, the tournament will also decide the continent's representatives at this year's eagerly awaited FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands. The Championship, which runs until February 6, will be of special interest to youth sides the world over, given the continent's dominance of football at this level in recent years. The last time teams from around the globe went head to head, in 2003, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia reached the semi-finals of both the FIFA U-17 World Championship and the FIFA World Youth Championship .
After hosting the competition successfully on three previous occasions, it goes without saying that the Colombian organization will be second to none. As for the host cities, the action will be divided among a trio of charming towns at the heart of the country's coffee growing region: Armenia, Manizales and Pereira.
"The stadiums, hotels and training facilities are all ready, as are a host of other smaller things that make up the organization of the tournament. The stage is set for a real festival of football," assures the treasurer of the Colombian Football Federation, Gustavo Moreno Jaramillo.
The last time Colombia organized a continental championship was the 2001 Copa América. On that occasion the country won a famous victory, which could be an added incentive for the young Cafeteros as they go in search of their first youth title since 1987.
Ten teams, one goal
The ten participating sides have been split into two groups of five. The top three teams from each group then proceed to a hexagonal final, with the top four countries qualifying directly for FIFA's showpiece in the Netherlands.
In Group A, Hugo Tocalli's Argentina will be hoping to retain their South American title with a team almost unrecognisable from the one that triumphed in Uruguay in 2003. Players to watch include Lionel Messí, who has already tasted first team football with Spanish giants FC Barcelona. "I want a team of winners, who have that killer instinct. Not making the World Championship would be a calamity, but we must take it one step at a time. First we need to book our place in the final phase. Then we need to secure qualification. Only later can we think about winning the Championship," remarked a confident Tocalli.
But the Albicelestes will not have it all their own way in Group A, where Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia have no intention of just making up the numbers. Eduardo Lara's Colombian side look particularly dangerous with a quartet of players - Abel Aguilar, Fredy Guarín, Harrison Otalvaro and Oscar Briceño - hoping to improve on the third place they enjoyed in the UAE in 2003.
Meanwhile in Group B, things look even tighter. The reigning world champions, Brazil, will have their work cut out to stay ahead of Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay, the latter having caused the Auriverde quite a few problems in recent years at youth level. Coached by Rene Weber, the Brazilian side is made up of an experienced crop of youngsters all playing top-flight football back home. "We played a few friendlies to boost confidence and smooth out a few things. We also have quite a few experienced players, which should make for a very good tournament," the coach said.
In all, there will be 35 games over 25 days, plenty of time for a future Ronaldo, Francescoli or Maradona to announce their arrival on the continental stage. The Netherlands, and an even tougher test, will follow later.