UAE slots at stake in Argentina
© EFE

There are four places at the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013 up for grabs when the ten CONMEBOL nations go head to head at the 15th South American U-17 Championship, which kicks off on Tuesday. Hosted for the second time in Argentina, the tournament runs until Sunday 28 April, with matches being staged in the cities of San Luis and Mendoza.

In the opening phase hosts Argentina will face ColombiaParaguay, Ecuador and Venezuela in Group A, while Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Peru will contest Group B. The top three in each section will go forward to the final six-team round-robin group, from which the leading four sides will qualify for the finals in the UAE.

FIFA.com sets the scene as South America’s latest crop of talented teenagers prepare to do battle.

Opportunity knocks
Argentina have the weight of expectation on their shoulders. As well as being the hosts, they last won the continental title ten years ago and have yet to lift the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the only international men's trophy missing from their cabinet.

Investing his hopes in the players that came third at the South American U-15 Championship in Uruguay in 2011, among them Sergio Aguero’s brother Mauricio del Castillo, coach Humberto Grondona is looking forward to the challenge: “We are very excited. I can see it in the boys’ faces and that excitement is spreading. We’ve got a team that’s good enough to qualify and give a good account of themselves.”

One of the sides blocking their path is Colombia, who finished second in Uruguay two years ago and are looking to reach the world finals for the sixth time, having taken fourth place at Nigeria 2009. Coached by Harold Rivera, they boast the promising Atletico Madrid striker Kevin Steven Caicedo in their ranks.

As Rivera explained, Los Cafeteros have set their sights high: “These boys have got big dreams and they want to win the lot. They’re aiming to reach the world finals and make it to Europe too.”

Though Paraguay have not been seen at the world finals since Trinidad and Tobago 2001, they do have reasons to be optimistic. Chief among them is front man Antonio Tonny Sanabria, one of the most prized assets at Barcelona’s fabled youth academy, and a key contributor to their junior league title triumph. 

“We’re full of hope and, if we can match and then improve on what the U-20 lads did (when finishing second in this year's South American U-20 Championship), we’ll be champions,” said Paraguay’s upbeat coach Hugo Caballero.

For their part Venezuela have an excellent opportunity to book a first world finals place at this age group, as their coach, former goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel, pointed out: “Our players have fantastic fitness levels and we’re working every day to make our World Cup dreams come true.”

Present and correct at Mexico 2011, Ecuador are looking for an immediate return to the big stage, though coach Javier Rodriguez acknowledged it will not be easy: “It’s going to be a tough, competitive group, as it always is at South American tournaments, where you have so many different styles of play.”

Favourites and contenders
Brazil 
have won ten of the 14 continental championships contested at this age level, the last four of them consecutively. Three-times the world U-17 champions, the Brazilians have just one qualification failure to their name, when they missed out on a place at Japan 1993.

Intent on retaining the title, Alexandre Gallo’s squad features many of the players who triumphed at the last South American U-15 championship in Uruguay, including that competition’s leading scorer Thiago Mosquito Rodrigues and the likes of Lincoln, Indio and goalkeeper Marcos. Though Gallo has only been in the post since the start of the year, the boys in yellow and green once again look the team to beat.

Fabian Coito, the man who steered Uruguay to their ground-breaking world final at Mexico 2011, is back for more and aiming to improve on the second place La Celeste won at the last continental U-17 championship in Ecuador in 2011. The Uruguayans also finished runners-up in 1991 and 2005 but have never won the tournament, a record they will be hoping to set straight with the aid of no fewer than six players from Penarol’s youth ranks.

Chile’s last appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup came at Egypt 1997, and coach Mariano Puyol is hopeful his charges can end the country’s spell in the wilderness and play some stylish football too: “The main objective is to get through to the finals, but we want the fans to enjoy watching this team. We’ve played Peru and Uruguay before and there’s not much between us. We’ll be in there fighting.”

Peru are intent on making the world finals for a third time, with coach Edgar Teixeira sounding a cautious but defiant note before hostilities commence: “It’s not going to be easy but the boys are ready to battle for qualification. We’re not going to get carried away about trying to win the competition or even the group. My players are genuine Peru fans and they know their time has come.”  

Last but not least, Bolivia do not have much world finals experience to call on, having only reached the inaugural FIFA U-16 World Cup, in China in 1985. Their man at the helm is Freddy Bolivar, who is well aware of the scale of the task facing them and will aim to steer La Verde to the final phase, a stage they last reached at Chile 2009.