The fifth South American U-20 Women’s Championship begins in the Brazilian city of Curitiba today, with the host nation widely tipped to win the title and claim one of the two qualification slots for the next FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, the venue and date of which will be announced in the second half of this year.

Brazil, three-time continental champions in the discipline, have been drawn in Group A alongside Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Bolivia, while Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Chile are the five teams making up Group B. The top two sides in each section will advance to the final round-robin phase, with the champions and runners-up progressing to the world finals. These were due to be held in Uzbekistan but will now be staged elsewhere, possibly in Japan.

Group A: Brazil loom large
As the only South American nation to have appeared in all five FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup competitions to date, Brazil are unsurprisingly red-hot favourites to rule the continental roost again. Coach Caio Couto has built his squad around the players who represented the country at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2010, among them playmaker Beatriz and forward Thais Guedes, both members of the squad that reached the last 16 of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™.

For their part, Paraguay are expected to figure in the qualification picture, having come close on previous occasions. Second in 2004, when only one side qualified for the world finals, they finished third in 2006, 2008 and 2010, when two berths were available. The Paraguayans’ consistency is such that they have collected more points in the continental finals than any other team, bar the still-unbeaten Brazilians.

Of the remaining sides in the group, Bolivia have the best record and will be travelling to Curitiba with eight U-17 players. “We’ll be up against teams that are physically stronger than us, but we’re confident that the tactical work we’ve put in will give us a competitive edge and help us have a good tournament,” said their coach Napoleon Cardozo.

Both Uruguay and Peru will need to up their game to be in contention. The Uruguayans have never finished above seventh, while the Peruvians’ best showing to date came in 2004, when they took fourth place.

Group B: All eyes on Colombia
If recent results are anything to go by, Colombia are the team to beat in the other pool. Featuring in the Cafetera squad are four members of the side that achieved a best-ever fourth place at Germany 2010, namely goalkeeper Catalina Perez, defender Yulieth Dominguez, midfielder Lady Andrade and striker Yoreli Rincon, who habitually takes up a withdrawn position and also appeared at Germany 2011, as did Dominguez.

“The expectation in the squad is that we’ll qualify for the World Cup and win the championship,” said forward Marcela Cosme, who missed Germany 2010 through injury. “On a personal level, I’d like to end the tournament as top scorer.”

The Colombians can expect stiff opposition from Venezuela, the surprise package of the three South American outfits who appeared at Trinidad and Tobago 2010. Some three-quarters of that side have now graduated to the U-20 team, and Ysaura Viso, the scorer of their two goals in the Caribbean, is confident about their chances: “We’ve got a good squad. A lot of us were at that U-17 competition and we know how to work together. A lot’s said about us because we’re one of the few teams that runs for the whole 90 minutes, but we’re keeping our feet on the ground and we have the same respect for everyone.”

No less dangerous are Argentina, who will be anxious to atone for their group-phase exit two years ago, which was came as a major surprise following their performances in 2006 and 2008, when they finished runners-up on both occasions. The Argentinians figured strongly in both their FIFA World Cup appearances to date, however, and have a formidable strike trio in the shape of Mariana Larroquette, Betina Soriano and Yael Oviedo, who scored 24 goals between them in the national league last season.

Completing the pool are Chile, whose only world finals appearance came as the host nation four years and who are fielding seven veterans from Trinidad and Tobago 2010, and Ecuador, whose previous best performance in the continental championships was third place in 2004.