No respite in South America

Though the New Year is barely a week old, there are many teams right across the globe already limbering up for action in 2009. Among their number are a host of domestic and national sides in South America, where not even the soaring temperatures have dampened expectations ahead of this month's opening exchanges in the 2009 Copa Libertadores de America and the South American U-20 Championship Venezuela 2009.

As ever, there will be a lot more than pride at stake, with the respective events serving as qualifying tournaments for the FIFA Club World Cup 2009 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009. To whet your appetite for the imminent action, is on hand to preview two of the continent's most exciting competitions.

Home of champions
With seven of the last eight winners of the FIFA U-20 World Cup having been CONMEBOL sides, it is no wonder the rest of the globe takes note every time the region hosts its qualifying tournament. This latest edition, to be staged in Venezuela, host nation of the 2007 Copa America, will be no different, with all and sundry hoping to see the emergence of future stars of world football.

The Sudamericano, which runs from 19 January to 8 February, will be divided into two parts: the first phase sees the teams split into two groups of five, from which the top three in each will proceed to a hexagonal final qualifying group. The top four from this second phase will then be guaranteed berths at Egypt 2009. In total the qualifying tournament will feature 35 games, enough to satisfy even the most fanatical of supporters across the continent.

Argentina, the reigning world champions and leading side in the category, will be coached by Sergio Batista, who guided the country's U-23s to gold at last year's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing. Brazil and Colombia will also be contenders, and nor should Uruguay and Ecuador be underestimated either. The former have a history of bring very competitive teams to the event, while the latter will be under the aegis of senior team coach, Sixto Vizuete.

As for players to watch in Venezuela, Peru have high hopes for Carlos Zambrano, currently impressing at the back with Schalke in Germany, while Argentina will be looking to Lanus' talented front-man Eduardo Salvio. For their part, Brazil boast Douglas Costa, a potentially match-winning midfielder on the books of Gremio, while Uruguay have Benfica winger Jonathan Urretavizcaya to call on. With these and many more keen to showcase their talents in Venezuela, it should be a thrilling few weeks.

Libertadores aspirations
Few tournaments anywhere can compete with the Copa Libertadores de America for sheer history and passion, and the competition's 50th edition in 2009 should be no exception. The road to continental glory begins on 27 January, when the first round gets underway. Twelve of the 38 qualifiers will be involved at this stage in two-legged knockout ties, with the six winners securing a berth in the second-round group stage and the chance to wrest the crown off Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito.

Fans of South American football will not want to miss these do-or-die first round clashes, with big-name sides like Penarol, Estudiantes de La Plata, Palmeiras, Sporting Cristal, Universidad de Chile and Independiente Medellin in the mix, among others.

Asked about his side's chances in the forthcoming edition, Estudiantes' Juan Sebastian Veron, voted South America's Footballer of the Year for 2008, summed up the prestige of the Libertadores, saying: "We have close ties to this competition and hope to get past the opening round and fight for the title. It will be far from easy but we need to give everything in our bid to win it, as we don't know when we'll be here again. We need to play as if it were our very last chance."

With that kind of commitment, it is not hard to see why South America continues to provide some of the very best entertainment on planet football.