Lit up by dramatic late goals and burgeoning talents, the South American U-20 Championship lived up to all expectations. Held in Ecuador, the tournament produced an engrossing battle for the four places up for grabs at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, with Uruguay emerging as very worthy champions and a couple of big names falling well short of their objectives.
Among the other sides joining the Uruguayans in Korea Republic are Argentina, who endured a nail-biting campaign and conjured up not one but two vital injury-time goals in securing their place. Meanwhile, Ecuador made the most of home advantage and a talented squad to book a rare world-finals slot, with unfancied Venezuela enjoying a superb tournament to nail down the other berth.
Two sides to disappoint were Chile and Paraguay, who both surprisingly failed to reach the final six-team round, while Colombia fared little better, collecting a mere two points in the last phase. The biggest shock of all, however, was Brazil’s failure to book a ticket for the Far East. FIFA U-20 World Cup runners-up at New Zealand 2015, the mighty Brazilians have now failed to qualify for two of the last three world finals in the age group.
Uruguay end their long wait
La Celeste’s triumph was their first in the competition since the likes of Enzo Francescoli and Jorge Da Silva inspired them to victory in 1981. Coach Fabian Coito put together a solid and typically Uruguayan unit. Strong at the back and lethal up front, Los Charrúas conceded just eight goals in nine games – fewer than any other side in the last six – and outscored everyone by netting 18 times.
“It’s really nice because we had a meeting with El Maestro Tabarez [Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay’s senior national team coach] before we left and we told them [the players] that they’d already made a little piece of history by appearing in a South American competition,” Coito told Uruguayan broadcasters VTV. “History would judge us on what we achieved here, though, and it just so happens that the history books will say they’re South American champions for the first time in 36 years.”
Playing especially influential roles in Uruguay’s run to the continental title were midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur and left winger Facundo Waller, while being led by captain and front man Rodrigo Amaral, one of the leading scorers in the competition with five goals.
Ecuadorian flair, Venezuelan preparation
Finishing second and third behind Uruguay were the hosts and Venezuela respectively, with both sides deserving of their places alongside the world’s best. The Ecuadorians went into the tournament with a strong squad featuring a number of players with top-flight experience already under their belts, among them Bryan Cabezas, a 2016 Copa Libertadores runner-up and now with Atalanta in Italy’s Serie A.
Cabezas led the way with five goals, though he was not the only one to shine in a resolutely attack-minded side, with Pervis Estupinan and Jordy Caicedo also excelling as La MiniTri reached the U-20 world finals for only the third time, their previous appearances coming at Argentina 2001 and Colombia 2011.
Rafael Dudamel’s Venezuela side did their homework prior to arriving in Ecuador, playing no fewer than 30 friendlies in a 17-month build-up to the tournament. That hard work paid off for a very solid Vinotinto unit lead by the likes of goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez and the outstanding midfielder Yeferson Soteldo.
“We made a lot of sacrifices and I’m very proud of what we did,” said Dudamel, who also took the country’s U-17s to a world-finals competition in 2013. “We deserve this, and we showed that if we stick together we can achieve things.”
Argentina’s faith sees them through
Argentina’s preparations were far less smooth, with Claudio Ubeda and his coaching staff only taking up their positions three months before the competition. The misfiring Albiceleste were indebted to fine individual showings from the likes of front two Lautaro Martinez and Marcelo Torres, who scored five goals apiece, and the elusive Tomas Conechny.
What ultimately saw them over the line, however, was their unshakeable faith, which brought them valuable stoppage-time equalisers in the 3-3 draw with Uruguay in the first round and the ultimately crucial 2-2 draw with Brazil in the final phase. That second result would prove the difference between the two South Americans giants, with Argentina finishing one point ahead of their old rivals to clinch the fourth and final place in Korea Republic.
Ubeda’s charges signed off with a 2-0 defeat of Venezuela on the final day, which, coupled with Brazil’s subsequent goalless draw with Colombia, sealed their top-four finish. “We’ll work hard to make sure we do a lot better at the World Cup in Korea,” said the coach afterwards, acknowledging that his team were well short of their best.
“We’re in mourning, and I have to take full responsibility,” lamented Brazil boss Rogerio Micale. “I was happy with this group of players, but unfortunately we’re out.”