As the final phase of the South American Youth Championship gets underway in Colombia, the race for the Netherlands 2005 looks set to go down to the wire. Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru all fell by the wayside in the first round, while Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela now go head-to head for the continent's four qualifying berths.
After 20 games under Colombia's sweltering sun, it is clear that the parity evident among South America's senior sides does not extend to youth football. In the first round the gulf in class was obvious with no fewer than seven embarrassingly easy wins for the top sides. However things should be decidedly tighter in the hexagonal final stage.
Argentina and Colombia lead the way
Group A panned out pretty much as expected with pre-tournament favourites Argentina and Colombia showing again just how far ahead they are of their continental rivals. The two heavyweights, who also met at the semi-final stage of the FIFA World Youth Championship in the UAE in 2003, slugged it out for top spot in the group with the Albicelestes just shading it on goal difference.
Hugo Tocalli's Argentina side amassed 10 points after seeing off Venezuela (3-0), Bolivia (4-0) and Peru (6-0) and drawing with the hosts (1-1). "The team is starting to hit its stride and produce some great football. Having said that, we're hoping that we've saved the best until last," the coach said after making the final phase.
The Cafeteros, for their part, also managed wins over Bolivia (5-0), Peru (1-0) and Venezuela (2-0) to finish a comfortable second. Mirroring the improvement of the country's senior team, Venezuela advanced as the third-placed side after a hard-fought draw with Bolivia (3-3) and an emphatic win over Peru (3-0).
Brazil through as Paraguay crash out
In Group B, the reigning world champions Brazil looked well short of their best despite finishing in top spot. René Weber's young charges will be well aware that they must raise their game substantially to have a chance in the latter stages. The Auriverde impressed with high-scoring wins over Ecuador (5-0) and Chile (4-2), but then faltered and had to settle for a share of the spoils against Paraguay (1-1) and Uruguay (0-0).
A combination of dogged defending and fierce determination helped Uruguay to third spot after adding three goalless draws (against Paraguay, Chile and Brazil) to their comprehensive drubbing of Ecuador (6-0).
The surprise team of the group were Chile, who squeezed out the hotly-tipped Paraguayans by finishing in second place. La Roja, who failed to qualify for the UAE two years ago, finished one ahead of the Celeste on seven points and will now be going all out to secure their place among the cream of world football once more. "We're looking solid again, and that's what got us through the group of death. Now, though, comes the hardest and most important part," said an ecstatic Chilean coach José Sulantay.
The final phase of the tournament takes place between 24 January and 6 February with the six qualifying sides facing off in a mini-league. The top four finishers can then start planning for an action-packed summer in Europe.
The stars of tomorrow
In earlier editions of the tournament it was Diego Maradona, Enzo Francescoli and Ronaldinho Gaúcho who announced their arrival on the international scene. This year's talented crop of youngsters will, no doubt, be hoping for a similar trajectory. One such player is Lionel Messí, the youngest member of the Argentine side, who arrived at the Championship with the added pressure of being known as a "jewel in the making" at FC Barcelona. Despite this huge expectancy and having to stay on the bench for the first two games, Messí forced his way into the side after scoring four goals, the same number as Chile's Nicolás Canales.
The other name on everyone's lips is Colombia's Hugo Rodallega. The striker, who sports Jay Jay Okocha-style dreads, also started as a squad player before seizing his opportunity with alacrity. In a blistering 45-minute spell on his debut against Bolivia, the youngster found the net four times. He struck twice more in later games, one of which was an outrageous bicycle kick, to co-lead the scoring charts on six. There he is joined by Venezuela's Raúl Ramírez, another sharpshooter who will be hoping to add to his tally in the final phase.
What with so many on-form sides in the mix, and Brazil yet to hit top gear, the 23rd South American Youth Championship looks set for a pulsating finale with the best still to come.