A year and a half after staging the last World Cup in this category, Chile is preparing to resume hosting duties in the form of the South American U-17 Championship, where the continent’s four representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 will be decided.
Rancagua and Talca will be the host cities for the regional showpiece, which runs from 23 February until 19 March. The ten participating countries have been split into two groups of five for the first phase, with the top three in each section progressing to a hexagonal final round with a round-robin format. The top four sides will then represent South America at India 2017.
Joining Chile in Group A will be Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia, with the hosts determined to qualify (on the field of play) for the first time since 1997. "We know it’s been 20 years since we last qualified and that we’re responsible for changing that. We’re going to be one of the contending sides right from the off," insisted Roja coach Hernan Caputo, who will be without his talented attacking midfielder Giovanni de la Vega after Dutch giants Ajax declined to release him.
Strongly tipped to challenge the hosts in this section are Uruguay. Absent from the last World Cup, the side captained by left-sided midfielder Juan Manuel Sarabia arrive in Chile with renewed belief after seeing the country’s youth football programme bear fruit with victory at the South American U-20 Championship earlier this month. "While the goal is to reach the World Cup, we’d like to do so as champions,” said Celeste coach Alejandro Garay. “That said, we mustn’t forget that this is a qualifying tournament, and missing out on a World Cup really hurts,” he warned.
Colombia, for their part, know all about that, having sat out the last three World Cups in this category. However, it is a sequence that they are keen to end and so have put their faith in Orlando Restrepo, the coach who took up the reins following a spell in charge of the U-17s at defending Copa Libertadores champions Atletico Nacional.
For all that, no team has been absent from the tournament longer than Bolivia, who last graced it in 1987. Aiming to put that right is coach Ricardo Gutierrez, who firmly believes in the potential of his two central midfielders: Jaume Cuellar Mendoza of Spanish giants Barcelona, and Paolo Alcocer of Orlando City.
Ecuador, who qualified for the 2015 edition in Chile, have a striker of pedigree in Gerly Delgado, a nephew of the legendary Tricolor marksman Agustin Delgado. Coach Gustavo Alcocer has included in his squad five players from Independiente del Valle, the club that sensationally reached the final of the 2016 Copa Libertadores.
The standout contenders in Group B are three-time U-17 world champions Brazil, and Argentina, who between them have carved up the last 11 regional titles (with nine and two wins respectively). Completing the section are Venezuela, Paraguay and Peru.
O Canarinho arrive with the nucleus of the side that won the South American U-15 Championship two years ago. There will also be continuity on the bench with the coach of that side, Guilherme Dalla Dea, assisting Carlos Amadeu in Chile. Two to watch out for up front will be Vinicius of Flamengo and Vitinho of Corinthians, who top-scored en route to the U-15 title with eight and seven goals respectively.
Argentina, meanwhile, have called up seven Boca Juniors players, some even with first division experience at the Bombonera. However, all eyes will be on Manchester City’s attacking midfielder Benjamin Garre, whose grandfather Oscar Garre was a member of the Albiceletes’ World Cup winning squad at Mexico 1986.
“He’s different, and not just with the ball at his feet. He is highly regarded among the squad. He’s a left-footer with explosive pace. I’m always telling him to slow down to 150 (km/hour) on the bends as he’s always operating at 180. He’s a ball of nervous energy.”
Elsewhere in the group, Venezuela have their sights set on a return to the world stage after debuting in 2013. Coach Jose Hernandez will be heartened by the form of talented midfielder Jesus Sahagun of Malaga as well as rude health of underage football in the country. “Venezuela’s qualification for the U-20 World Cup in Korea this year will inspire and motivate us. That said, we need to focus on ourselves and not get distracted if we are to achieve our goal.”
In their quest to return to the U-17 World Cup after a ten-year absence, Peru have turned to Juan Jose Ore, who lead the team through qualifying and into the quarter-finals of the 2007 edition in Korea Republic.
Last but not least, Paraguay will be banking on their Argentinian coach Gustavo Morinigo, who is quietly determined to put the Albirrojas in the mix for what would be a fourth World Cup appearance in this category. “I think all the teams here are good and that we can put ourselves in contention for a ticket. We have to continue battling for this as that’s what we’ve been working for,” he said.