Having led Paraguay and Colombia to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, Victor Genes and Carlos Restrepo are all looking to take their national teams back to this year’s world finals in the age group, to be held in New Zealand in May and June. And the opportunity to do just that will come in the next few days in the South American U-20 Championships, which begin in Uruguay on Wednesday.
The tournament will decide which four teams will represent the continent against the world’s best. There is also an automatic qualification slot for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 on offer for the best-placed side, with the exclusion of Olympic host nation Brazil, while the next best team will go through to a play-off for the final Games berth against the third-placed side in the CONCACAF Zone.
Of the ten coaches who will step out in Uruguay, Genes and Restrepo are the only survivors from the previous Sudamericano, with even Chile and Uruguay, who qualified two years ago, having made a change in the dugout. The case of Uruguay, though, a bit different, since they replaced Juan Verzeri, who lead them to the final un Turkey, with Fabian Coito, the one who took La Celeste to both FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, where they reached the final, and UAE 2013, where they reached the quarter-finals.
Asked by FIFA.com if he feels under any pressure, Coito replied: “No, not at all. Pressure is all in the mind and I’m not looking at this situation as a problem, anything but. In terms of experience, I think those of us who’ve been working in youth football for a while and playing in these types of tournaments have an advantage.”
The 47-year-old tactician added: “When you’ve got the chance to build on your previous experience it’s a sign that you’re developing as a coach. It’s also a nice responsibility to have. Every tournament is different, though, and you’re working with new players and against a new set of opponents. Past success guarantees you nothing, which is another challenge in itself.”
Sharing a similar view is Paraguay boss Genes. Six years Coito’s senior and currently the senior national team caretaker manager, he had this to say to FIFA.com: “It’s not so much pressure for me as a stimulus. We need to trust in our strong points, in the things that we’ve done well, and try to avoid looking on the success we’ve had in the past as a burden. Playing in such a prestigious competition as this, with two wonderful prizes up for grabs, should be a source of motivation for us, and that’s what we’ve been telling the boys.”
All to play for
Paraguay have been drawn in Group A along with Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, while Uruguay are in Group B with defending champions Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela. The top three sides in each section will advance to the final six-team round robin phase, with the top four qualifying for the world finals.
Despite seeing his Paraguay side progress last time around and then reach the last 16 at Turkey 2013, Genes is anxious to play down any talk of them being favourites to advance again: “That’s just talk. You only have to look at the [senior] World Cup last year. Brazil were among the favourites and look what happened to them. Costa Rica were drawn in the so-called ‘group of death’ and yet it was Italy and England who went out. We have to be mentally strong and not go out there thinking we’re the favourites. We need to play to win, and to do that all that counts is playing better than our opponents.”
Reflecting on his side’s task in Group B, Coito took the positive view: “Being in a group like this means we have to prepare even better. Sometimes we underestimate situations without even realising, but that isn’t the case here and we’ve been more alert than usual in terms of our preparations. This is a tournament with two very distinct phases, and the first will put us to the test right from the start.”
The road to Rio
Asked for his view on how much of an impact the lure of a place at Rio 2016 will have on the competition, Genes replied: “It’s an additional motivation for Paraguay and it should inspire us. The boys know that playing in the Olympics could be the pinnacle of their careers.”
Coito is also pondering the incentive of a trip to Rio in two years’ time: “We haven’t wasted a lot of time thinking about what we might achieve. To us, it’s just another objective on the list. After reaching London 2012, it goes without saying that it would mean a lot for Uruguay to make the Olympics again, especially for a generation that’s done so well lately.”
With so much at stake, it is only to be expected that continental powerhouses Argentina and Brazil, who have won 11 U-20 world titles between them, should be in contention, though both will be mindful of their failure to even make the last six two years ago.
Despite that setback, Coito believes the big two will be in the thick of things in Uruguay: “They’ve always had great players and I don’t think things will be any different here, regardless of what happened last time. I’m sure it won’t affect them. We’ll just have to wait and see how good they are.”