As well as yielding plenty of debate, the recently concluded South American U-20 Championship in Uruguay also produced four qualifiers for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2015, with Argentina and Brazil both returning to the big stage, albeit by different routes, and Colombia and Uruguay building on their recent successes.
Argentina ran out deserved champions, winning the continental title for the first time in 12 years and atoning for their disappointing showing in hosting the 2013 Sudamericano, when they failed to make the U-20 world finals that year.
Showing plenty of character and no little skill, Humberto Grondona’s side dispelled the doubts hanging over them at the start of the competition, thanks in no small part to the contributions of a core of hugely promising players.
Four stood out in particular, among them River Plate goalkeeper Augusto Batalla, whose progress is being closely monitored by Real Madrid, and fellow River product Emanuel Mamanna, a skilful, adventurous centre-half who was a commanding presence in a defence that conceded just seven goals in nine games.
Excelling up front, meanwhile, was another *millonario *in Giovanni Simeone, the son of Atletico Madrid coach Diego and the top scorer in the competition with nine goals, and the team’s star man and captain Angel Correa, who pocketed the Player of the Tournament award.
A special feeling
Correa’s success was made all the sweeter by the fact his career was recently in jeopardy. One of the most talented performers in a San Lorenzo side that went on to win the 2014 Copa Libertadores, he was snapped up by Atletico Madrid and had every reason to be delighted with his progress.
Then, in a routine medical check-up, he was found to have a blocked ventricle in his heart. Following an operation in New York, he was given the all-clear seven months ago and made his return to the game just in time for the South American U-20 Championship.
“It’s great to be back playing again and to be feeling good too,” he told Argentinian newspaper La Nación after winning his award. “I felt better and better with every passing game, though I need a few more matches yet before I get back to being the player I was at San Lorenzo.”
Making no less a favourable impression was Uruguay’s 17-year-old midfielder Rodrigo Amaral, who picked up an award as the breakthrough player of the tournament. One of the most prolific youth goalscorers his club Nacional have ever seen, the left-footed Amaral was an inspirational presence in a Celeste side that had all the makings of being champions but ultimately had to settle for third place.
Well drilled at the back and explosive up front, the Uruguayans lost momentum in the final stretch, drawing with Colombia and losing 2-1 to Argentina to fall just short of a place at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. They can nevertheless take immense satisfaction from the fact that they will be making their fifth straight U-20 World Cup appearance in New Zealand, a record no other finalist can match aside from Nigeria.
Assessing his side’s performance, Uruguay coach Fabian Coito said: “The team reached peak condition during the tournament, which is very important for footballers. With so many games, though, and so much fatigue, we struggled to maintain it.”
Meanwhile, Colombia will be heading to their third U-20 world finals in a row as continental runners-up, a feat they achieved with their usual, patient possession game. Showing the same solidity at the back as their senior compatriots at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the young Cafeteros gave little away in the final six-team phase and can now look forward to a play-off for a place at Rio 2016.
“The national team was very compact,” said defensive linchpin Davinson Sanchez. “We’ve been working hard and that showed, and we were a more balanced team by the time the final phase came around.”
The last of the continent’s four qualifiers for New Zealand 2015 are Brazil, who return to the global stage after failing to make the final six of the 2013 Sudamericano, an unexpected setback that cost them a place at Turkey 2013. Even so, the manner in which the Brazilians progressed gave them little cause for celebration.
En route to finishing fourth, the boys in green in yellow suffered three defeats, more than any of their fellow qualifiers, and also had the most porous defence of the four, shipping nine goals in their nine games, of which they won five.
“The team is a reflection of the crisis in our passing game,” commented Tostao, one of the greatest players Brazil has ever produced. “That’s the way we’ve been playing of late, with too many long balls and players trying to do things all on their own, without any support.”
On the bright side for the Brazilians, they can expect much from talented Fluminense forward Kenedy in New Zealand. The young front man scored one of the goals of the tournament against Venezuela – a sumptuous left-footed strike from 20 metres out.
Qualified to New Zealand 2015: Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil.
Qualified for Rio de Janeiro 2016: Argentina, Colombia (play-off)
Qualified for the Pan American Games Toronto 2015: Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru
Best player: Angel Correa (ARG)
Best goalkeeper: Gaston Guruceaga (URU)
Top scorer: Giovanni Simeone (ARG), 9 goals
Revelation Award: Rodrigo Amaral (URU)
Fair Play: Uruguay and Paraguay