Kicking off in Ecuador this Wednesday and running until 11 February, the U-20 South American Championship will decide which four teams will represent the continent at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.
The nine teams heading to Ecuador will have the challenge of adapting to the altitude of the four tournament venues, which are located in three cities tucked high up in the Andes, between 2,500 and 2,750 metres above sea level.
Heading the bill are reigning continental champions Argentina, who came out on top in Uruguay two years ago, and Brazil, who finished runners-up at the last U-20 world finals, held in New Zealand in 2015. The ten teams have been drawn into two groups of five, with the top three from each section advancing to a final six-team round-robin phase that will decide which four sides advance to the world finals.
Ecuador head up Group A, which also features Colombia – who took second place at the last continental championships – Brazil, Paraguay and Chile, while Group B comprises Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Coached by Javier Rodriguez, the hosts have every chance of reaching the world finals for the first time since 2011 and only the third time in their history. Rodriguez, who took the country’s U-17s to Chile 2015, and his coaching staff possess extensive experience at youth level, while his squad features a number of players who already have made their top-flight debuts. The best-known of them is Bryan Cabezas, a runner-up in the 2016 Copa Libertadores with Independiente del Valle and now with Serie A side Atalanta.
Rogerio Micale has put together a strong squad in a bid to revive Brazil’s fortunes in the competition, following their failure to qualify for the U-20 World Cup in 2013 and their fourth place at the continental finals two years ago. “We want to win the title and we want to qualify for the World Cup, because that’s the first step. There’s a series of key factors involved: educate, qualify and win,” said Micale, who has four European-based players at his disposal, not to mention centre-half Lyanco Vojnovic, who has finally chosen to represent his parents’ country of birth, having previously made four appearances at U-19 level for Serbia.
Carlos Piscis Restrepo will once again be in charge of Colombia, who are looking to check into the world finals for the fourth time in a row. Their two players to watch are gifted goalscoring midfielder Juan Hernandez and striker Damir Ceter.
Spearheading Chile’s challenge, meanwhile, is front man Jeisson Vargas, who plays his club football for Estudiantes in Argentina and has already received a full international call-up. La Rojita missed out on a place at New Zealand 2015, as did Paraguay, who will be hampered by the absence of Real Madrid Castilla striker Sergio Diaz but can at least count on the services of an overseas-based duo in defender Blas Riveros and midfielder Cristhian Paredes.
Over in Group B, Argentina’s defence of their continental crown will be led by their captain and rising star Santiago Ascacibar, who formed part of the Albiceleste squad at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, and the hugely promising Ezequiel Barco, who at the age of 17 has already made his first-team club debut with Independiente de Avellaneda. “With their history, Argentina simply have to be playing a leading role, and these boys are hungry to achieve big things,” said Claudio Ubeda, the coach of a side that has won six world titles in the age group, more than any other country.
As for Uruguay, their main assets are the silky skills of midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, now a regular in the Boca Juniors starting line-up, and the goalscoring prowess of Nicolas Schiappacase and Rodrigo Amaral, who was named the breakthrough player at the last U-20 South American Championship. Coach Fabian Coito took the U-17s to second place at the world finals in 2011 and steered La Celeste to the Round of 16 at New Zealand 2015.
Peru and Bolivia both have the objective of qualifying for their first FIFA U-20 World Cup, while Venezuela have high hopes of their most prized possession, midfielder Yeferson Soteldo, who already has senior Vinotinto caps to his name. “We think we’ve got more than a 50-50 chance of qualifying because of all the work we’ve been doing, the attitude that we’ve got and the spirit of the entire squad. It could give us the perfect platform for making the world finals,” said goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez, who has also received a call-up from the senior national team but has yet to debut with them.