Adolescents they may still be, but there is nothing fledgling about the hopes and dreams of South American's emerging women footballers. Next Saturday at the Estadio Roberto Bravo Santibanez in the city of Melipilla, hosts Chile take on Ecuador in the opening game of the inaugural South American U-17 Women's Championship. And the prize at stake for the top three sides? No less than qualification for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup New Zealand 2008.
For the Chilean FA the tournament will also be an important test of readiness for an even-bigger challenge in October and November: the hosting of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup 2008. "This U-17 Championship marks the start of a very intense year, one that we've dubbed the 'year of women's football'," said Eduardo Rojas, executive director of the Organising Committee.
As well as the hosts and Ecuador, Group A, which will be held in Melipilla, will also feature Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia. Group B, meanwhile, will be played at the Complejo Deportivo in Penalolen, Santiago, and will see Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela go head to head. The winners and runners-up from each section will go through to the final phase, to be played in its entirety at the Estadio Municipal in Villarrica, where the top three sides will take the continent's berths at New Zealand 2008.
Albicelestes start as favourites
Adrian Stumbo's Argentina look like the team to beat after a solid build-up to the championship. Particularly impressive for the Albicelestes in recent friendlies have been goalkeeper Brenda Reyes, defender and captain Andrea Lopez and strikers Noelia Gonzalez and Mariana Larroquette. "Our goal is to be good enough for the World Cup, but we have to take it one game at a time," said a cautious Stumbo.
Of course, the hosts have qualification ambitions of their own, the success of which could well depend on the effectiveness of striking duo Maria Jose Valle and Sofia Macchiavello. "First of all, we'd like to see the girls make progress and show they can play nice, balanced football. As for results, we hope not only to get past the first round, but also to qualify for the World Cup," said Rojita coach Ronnie Radonich.
Ecuador, the hosts' first opponents, were sounding cautiously optimistic in the build-up. "We have a good squad of players who, while lacking experience, are sufficiently gifted technically to excel at a sport that continues to provide limited opportunities for women in Ecuador," opined team coach Cesar Zambrano.
The remaining two Group A sides, Colombia and Bolivia, insist they are not there to make up the numbers. Bolivia coach Hernan Melgar, in particular, feels his charges have a point to prove in Chile: "Every day I impress on them that they have to improve the image of Bolivian women's football and show we have a lot of talent.
Group B: All eyes on Brazil
Brazil start every competition among the favourites and this South American Championship will be no exception, in spite of their being drawn in supposedly the more difficult group.
Team boss Marcos Gaspar left no stone unturned in a bid to assemble the strongest possible squad, travelling extensively to watch prospective players, organising get-togethers for squad hopefuls and seeking the help of scouts. "The individuals we'll be bringing to Chile are all of a similar standard, though I could single out midfielder Beatriz, left-back Rafaelle and strikers Francieli and Raquel," said the coach.
For their part, Venezuela could cause a surprise or two, especially if their preparation is anything to go by. Not only did they have an extensive recent tour of Argentina, but they have also been settled in their Chilean base for several days now. Encouragingly, two games against local sides yielded a win (2-0) and a draw (2-2), during which Solmaira Carmona furthered her reputation with three of her side's four goals.
Peru, traditionally a force in women's football in the region, are another side to come into the tournament on form. Under the name Somos Peru (We are Peru), the U-17 side took first prize at the inaugural Campeonato Metropolitano de Futbol Femenino Sub-20, organised recently by the Peruvian FA. Unbeaten in eight games at the competition, the U-17s also boasted its top scorer in Maribel Ugarte.
Paraguay, for their part, head to Chile with a squad bursting with experience, with no fewer than 17 of the 20 players selected having already made their debuts in their domestic top flight. Among the standout names are midfielders Mara Talavera and Jacqueline Gonzalez, and striker Rebeca Fernandez. "We've been working towards this since August and are pleased with the standard we've reached. Now it's time to get out there and play," said coach Carlos Baez.
Last but not least are Uruguay, who will hoping to take another step on the road to developing women's football in their country. The core of the squad is made up of individuals from the reigning first division champions and runners-up, River Plate and Rampla Juniors, with the pair providing seven and five players respectively. For Fabiana Manzolillo's charges, reaching the final round in Chile would be a considerable achievement, with anything else after that a genuine bonus.