The coastal city of Mar del Plata may be Argentina's most popular beach resort, but the ten CONMEBOL sides set to take part in this month's South American Women's Championship are not there for the sun, sand and sea air. At stake are two coveted places at the biggest event in women's football: the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007.
The continental championship is set to take place between 10 and 26 November 2006 and will consist of two phases. In the first stage, the teams will be divided into two groups of five, to be played in a round-robin format, with the top two from each group going into the final round. The four top sides will then all play each other, with the two teams with most points being rewarded with a ticket for China 2007.
Read on as FIFA.com brings you all you need to know about this event, which sees South America's finest women's sides look to topple heavy favourites Brazil, winners of the four previous editions of the tournament.
Group A: Argentina narrowing the gap
For a while now, the feeling in South American women's football has been that Argentina are slowly closing the gap on the hitherto imperious Selecao. Could November's tournament on home soil be the moment of truth for the Albiceleste? "Our first objective is to make sure we qualify for the final round and then we'll focus on guaranteeing a place at the World Cup. Once that's safely in the bag, then we can go for the title," underlined coach Carlos Borrello. "Training is going well and I'm fortunate to be able to count on an ideal blend of experienced veterans and extremely driven youngsters," Borrello revealed in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
At first glance the Argentines' biggest threat in Group A appears to come from a Colombia side currently occupying 38th spot in the FIFA Women's World Ranking, a mere two places behind the host nation and the fourth-highest position of any South American team. John Agudelo's squad is heavy on youth, with a number of players from the U-20 team that took the silver medal in last year's Bolivarian Games. "While we may not have had much time to prepare, I've got every faith in my players' ability," emphasised coach Agudelo.
Chile and Ecuador, meanwhile, head to Mar del Plata with longer-term goals in mind. In fact, both countries put themselves forward as potential hosts for the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2008, an honour which eventually went to New Zealand. Ecuador are perhaps the more battle-hardened of the two nations, with the backbone of the team made up of the likes of Gabriela Cobo, Yolima Paiz, Melba Borja and Mariela Espinoza, all well-established performers on the domestic scene. Coach Gary Estupinan believes his charges have what it takes to spring a surprise: "We're confident of qualifying for the World Cup."
Uruguay, for their part, have also put their faith in youth, with coach Juan Jose Duarte having taken charge of the country's U-20 side in January's South American tournament. Having conspicuously failed to impress on that occasion, Duarte will be hoping his Celeste put on a much improved display this time around.
Group B: Brazil plus one
Make no bones about it, Brazil are everybody's favourites to come away from Mar del Plata with the continental title. Masterminding the Auriverde's campaign will be new coach Jorge Barcelos, who was rewarded for guiding the U-20 team to third place at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006 with promotion to the senior squad. Such are the resources at his disposal that Barcelos believes he can do without stars like Marta and Katia on Argentine soil. "My objective is to win the tournament and guarantee our involvement in China," he declares without hesitation.
In the race to see who will follow Brazil into the next round, Peru appear to be the side to beat. Not only do the Peruvians sit pretty in 32nd spot in the FIFA Women's World Ranking, making them CONMEBOL's second-ranked side after the Verdeamarelas, but they stormed to victory in the 2005 Bolivarian Games without losing a match. "When I close my eyes I can see myself at a World Cup. It was something I always wanted as a player, and I'm sure that one day I'll achieve my goal as a coach," revealed Peruvian strategist Lorena Bossmans.
Group rivals Paraguay meanwhile, have been handicapped by a lack of warm-up matches, but Albirroja coach Agustin Cabrera knows his side's solid backbone of keeper Mirtha Blanco, defender and skipper Noelia Barrios, central midfielder Silvia Getto and the country's all-time top goalscorer Irma Cuevas are more than capable of holding their own at this level.
Are Venezuela and Bolivia good enough to seriously challenge their Group B rivals? The Vinotinto, under the watchful eye of Brazilian-born tactician Ademar Fonseca Junior, recently returned from a tour of Brazil where they enjoyed quite varied results. If they are able to absorb the lessons from that experience, then they could well spring a surprise. Bolivia, with Nelfi Ibanez at the helm, will be hoping to bring about a significant improvement on their performance at the Bolivarian Games, their only win coming against fellow underdogs Venezuela.