After 25 days of fierce competition on Colombian soil, the sides that will represent South America at this year's FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands have been decided. Proud champions Colombia will be joined by Brazil, Argentina and Chile when the continent seeks to extend its dominance of youth football in Europe this summer.
As expected, the hexagonal final phase turned out to be a lot tighter than the earlier group games, when some embarrassing scores highlighted the huge gap in quality between the continent's sides. Read on as FIFA.com brings you the highs and the lows of the 23rd South American Youth Championship from Colombia.
Colombia, an 18-year wait
Colombia took the laurels in 2005 for only the second time in their history and almost two decades since their last triumph. The lengthy gap made their third title all the sweeter for Eduardo Lara's men, who secured their passage to the Netherlands with games to spare and, to the delight of the rapturous home supporters, with the side unbeaten.
"I have repaid the trust that was placed in me and would like to dedicate this triumph to all the Colombian people and especially Luis Montoya (the former Once Caldas coach, who was critically injured in a shooting before Christmas). This is a victory for the players. Now we have to start planning and working towards the Netherlands 2005, so that the team arrives in the best possible shape," said an emotional Lara as he clutched the cup.
The success of the Cafeteros was down in no small measure to Hugo Rodallega, whose 11 goals made him the highest scorer in the history of the tournament and an instant celebrity in his native country. "I proved that I was the top player in the tournament. Becoming top scorer, qualifying for the Netherlands and then being part of the championship-winning side has all been a dream come true," said the player who amazingly only got his chance in the side when a team-mate was injured.
In the final phase of the competition, Colombia beat Chile (4-3) and Uruguay (3-1) before securing their qualification with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brazil. They then took another step towards the title with a 1-1 draw with Argentina before wrapping things up with a routine 2-0 victory over Venezuela. Now Holland awaits, where they will be hoping to build on their impressive third place finish in the last FIFA World Youth Championship in the UAE in 2003 and their fourth place in the FIFA U-17 World Championship that same year in Finland.
Argentina and Brazil, the best yet to come
Despite securing their berths for the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina left many with the sensation of not having been at their best in Colombia. For the Albicelestes, playing under Hugo Tocalli for the last time, things started promisingly enough with a series of ruthless displays in their early group games.
However, in the hexagonal final phase, despite remaining unbeaten, they looked vastly inferior to the side that won the 2003 Championship in Uruguay. They followed a narrow 1-0 win over Venezuela with a sequence of three draws against Chile (1-1), Uruguay (0-0) and Colombia (1-1). In their final match, with no chance of denying Colombia the title, they beat Brazil (2-1) to at least extract a measure of revenge for their semi-final defeat at the hands of the Auriverde in the UAE two years earlier.
"I wasn't happy about not being in contention for the title in our final game but I was pleased, nonetheless, to step down having safely guided the team to the World Championship. Anything else would have been unforgivable," said a sombre-faced Tocalli, who will now join the coaching staff with the senior side. There was one consolation for the ever-competitive Argentinians however: they picked up the FIFA award for Fair Play.
As for the reigning world champions, the enormous expectations that accompanied René Weber's talented squad seems to have effected their performance. In the first phase, the Seleçao struggled to find their rhythm and had to settle for two wins and two draws. Things appeared to be improving in the six-team final group when they saw off Uruguay (4-2) with only ten men and then edged out Venezuela 1-0. However, they then lost their unbeaten record to a spirited Colombian side (0-1) and had to dig very deep to secure their places in the Netherlands with a dramatic 2-1 win over Chile.
Despite losing their final match to Argentina, Brazil held on to second place by virtue of goal difference. "We didn't win the title but at least we achieved our principal objective of qualifying for the World Championship. We found it very difficult here, but you have to understand that all the other teams played very defensively against us", Weber said in mitigation.
Chile, the surprise package
While Chile arrived at the Championship with their minds set on a top four finish, many felt, wrongly as it turned out, that Paraguay would deny La Roja a berth in the Netherlands. As it turned out, José Sulantay's side finished second in Group B, eliminating the Albirroja en route and then grabbed the last spot for Europe with five points in the hexagonal final. It was nerve wracking all the way for Chile, who needed to beat Uruguay in their final game to join the continent's elite on the world stage. In the end it took two goals and the magical play of Matías Fernández to win it for La Roja.
"I'm thrilled. Chilean football has had very few success stories so we should all be celebrating. This is all down to the players. They have been waiting for this for a long time. Now we need to believe in the future of Chilean football. Ours was the most entertaining team in the Championship," the coach said proudly.
Among the players who lit up the South American Youth Championship, the following are just a few to watch out for in the Netherlands 2005:
Oscar Ustari (ARG)
Lionel Messi (ARG)
Nicolás Canales (CHI)
Matías Fernández (CHI)
Hugo Rodallega (COL)
Wason Rentería (COL)