The 2009 Sudamericano Sub 17 takes place in the sleepy seaside town of Iquique in northern Chile over the coming weeks.
The fishing port enjoys a burgeoning reputation among surfers from around the world but just now the Armani suits of football agents are outnumbering Bermuda shorts three to one down on the boardwalk.
The Latin American footballing superstars of tomorrow are preparing to do battle for their domestic crown and gain qualification for the u-17 World Cup in Nigeria later this year.
The tournament starts with two groups of five Data Hk teams, each side playing each other once. The group winners will book their ticket to Nigeria there and then and the top three from each group will progress to a second round robin of six teams.
Two more World Cup berths will be dished out to the best performing teams in the second group stage and the team topping this round will take the title.
Bolivia – Group A
Bolivia will be on show on the opening day of the tournament when they make their bow against Colombia.
Coach Oscar Villegas has been given the resources to play nine friendly internationals in the lead up to the Sudamericano but even so he believes his squad are still short of preparation compared to their rivals.
“The experience which has been achieved with the international encounters is valuable,” Villegas said. “But it is still insufficient when compare to what other teams have done.”
Bolivia started their run of nine matches with impressive wins over Chile, Peru and Guatemala but have since failed to record a win in games against Colombia, U.S.A., Uruguay, Costa Rica twice and a rematch with Peru.
Further problems for Bolivia involve Jorge Pontons being held back by AC Milan who has represented the u-20 team but is still eligible to play.
Also Jorge Toco a promising defender who has excelled at youth level is ruled out of the tournament.
But its not all doom and gloom for the Bolivians as there is a fair splattering of talent in the squad and they possess players who can mix it at this level.
Villegas is thankful for extra time he has been with the squad and hopes to spring a few surprises in Chile.
“Compare to other years our group has had more time together,” Villegas said. “Hopefully this will make the difference.”
One to watch: Juan Peña (Vaca Díez)
Brazil – Group A
The current holders of the Sudamericano Sub 17 kick off this year’s tournament against Paraguay, the competition’s dark horse.
If Brazil can come through this first test unscathed then they should be on course for another victory in the tournament they have already won 8 times out of twelve.
So impressive is Brazil’s record in this competition that they have only finished outside the top two on one occasion.
They also share the record for the most FIFA u-17 World Cup final wins, like Nigeria they have won it three times.
A 22 strong squad crammed with talent, some already signed up to top European teams, will look to emulate seleção stars such as Ronaldinho who have gained success at this level before them.
Of the most exciting talents in their team this year is Neymar of Santos and Philippe Coutinho of Inter Milan.
Neymar looks like a carbon copy of Robinho and quickly won over Santos fans who were raised on Pele with some stellar performances.
Neymar’s displays have even led the three time World Cup winner to praise his youthful talent.
“He’s a great player and could become a great footballer,” The Brazilian legend said. “He must work hard in training at Santos, but he has some good qualities.”
On the other hand Philippe Coutinho has been dubbed ‘the new Pato’ and Inter Milan saw fit to shell out €4 million on the precocious talent.
One to watch: Neymar (Santos)
Colombia – Group A
The Coffee Growers turn up at this year’s Sudamericano with a proud recent tradition to maintain.
In the last three South American u-17 championships Colombia have finished third, fourth and more recently second in 2007.
Coming into this year’s tournament Colombia have endured a mixed bag of results in their friendlies.
A 2-1 defeat to Bolivia was put to bed when Colombia played Peru two days later. Even though Peru managed to take the lead Colombia fought back in fine fashion running out 5-1 winners.
During this quadrangular tournament Colombia also beat Costa Rica 1-0
Colombia now meet Bolivia and Peru in Group A along with Brazil and Paraguay and will hope their experience will count against the opposition.
With Colombia’s physical approach, especially against more skillful opposition, chances on goal may be few and far between. Fortunately for them they have Edwin Cardona upfront, a striker who can create his own opposition and convert them.
In recent friendlies Cardona found the net three times in two days as he terrorized the backlines of Peru and Bolivia.
His presence on the teamsheet maybe enough to tip the physiological advantage towards Colombia before a ball is kicked when the teams meet again in Chile.
Confidence of continuing their tradition for upsetting the natural order of things in Latin America is sprouting at just the right time for Colombia.
“We have done important work with the boys so far,” Assistant coach Harold Rivera said. “We’re training hard to achieve qualification to the World Cup in Nigeria.”
One to watch: Edwin Cardona (Club Atlético Nacional)
Paraguay have come to the fore as many people’s outside bet to spring a few surprises in Iquique at this year’s Sudamericano.
An early test will come when they meet Brazil but even defeat in that game will not signal the end of the road for Paraguay.
However, if they could spring a surprise against the Brazilians they could then focus on winning the group and therefore booking their ticket to the World Cup finals in Nigeria early.
Part of the Paraguay squad’s preparation for the tournament has featured intensive training at the Paraguayan Football Association´s Centre for High Performance in Ypané.
It was in Ypané that head coach Jorge Luis Campos ran the rule over his team and trimmed the squad down from 23 to the final 20 who will travel to Chile.
Campos himself knows what it takes to reach the highest level having represented Paraguay in two World Cups. The forward played his part in 1998 and 2002 as La Albirroja reached the knockout stages on both occasions.
In total Campos picked up 46 senior caps for Paraguay and bagged six goals along the way.
Campos will hope his attacking midfielder Jorge Salinas can bring his fine recent form to the tournament.
Salinas has a tendency to pepper the opposition goal with rasping volleys and strikes from long range as well as giving good supply to the forward line.
His exploits at youth level have been watched by senior coach Gerardo Mastino and it is hoped he will transfer his skills to the top level one day.
One to watch: Jorge Salinas (Club Libertad)
Despite the current malaise in Peruvian football the u-17 squad arrive in Chile full of expectation.
Team captain Renato Zapata believes there is enough talent in the squad to push for a World Cup finals berth.
“We are calm and we are confident,” The Universitario youngster said. “We had the chance to play all these teams a year ago in u-15 championships and we know what to expect.”
Zapata´s partner in defense Pedro Diez Canseco was even bullish enough to suggest the Incas could go all the way and snatch the title in Iquique.
“We are going to Chile to qualify for the World Cup,” The defender said. “And to win the South American championship. Why not?”
The confidence in the camp perhaps comes from Peru’s last outing in these championships.
The Incas provided a strong showing at the South American under-17 championships in Ecuador two years ago. Player of the tournament Reimond Manco’s talismanic performances led Peru to fourth place and an appearance at the World Cup quarter-finals.
Of the current crop the player who is most likely replicate Manco’s impact on the Sudamericano is Joazhiño Arroe
Arroe has already secured a move to Europe with Italy’s Siena and has laid out his aims for the tournament in Chile
“We want to match what the coach did with the previous u-17 team and get beyond the group stage,” Arroe said. “It will be difficult, but we want to do things right, we are calm and not tense.”
One to watch: Joazhiño Arroe – Siena
Argentina – Group B
The mood in the Argentine camp is high coming into this year’s tournament in Iquique, Chile.
In their final preparation game Jose Luis Brown’s side swotted opposition from Guatemala 8-0 in Buenos Aires.
On that occasion Eduardo Rotondi bagged a brace while Gonzalo Olid Apaza, Esteban Orfano, Daniel Villalva, Matías Sosa, Sebastián González and Sergio Araujo all got a goal apiece.
Such a result has served to swell the confidence in the camp which was already overflowing after Argentina beat the U.S.A 5-1 a week before.
Again Villalva, Sosa and Rotondi got on the scoresheet along with Jorge Balbuena plus an own goal by US captain Perry Kitchen.
These teenagers have an inbuilt appreciation of the game and their movement is frightening, also in Jose Luis Brown they have a coach who is already a living legend in his homeland.
Brown starred in Argentina’s 3-2 win over West Germany in the final of Mexico 1986. The defender rose highest at the far post to head home the opening goal of the contest and when he injured his arm later in the game he played through the pain barrier to secure victory for his nation.
“We are a very confident team and we are a country which is very passionate about football,” The coach who worked with Argentina’s 2008 Olympic gold medal team said.
“When we play we respect every team because we know everyone wants to beat Argentina.”
The Argentines may well be due to come up against far tougher opposition than Guatemala or the U.S.A. when they arrive in Chile but still nothing less than qualification for the World Cup in Nigeria will do
One to watch: Daniel Villalva (River Plate)
Chile – Group B
Chile enjoy home advantage at this year’s South American u-17 championships in Iquique.
A host nation can normally expect a good run at a championship and Chile will be hoping that this year is no exception.
However, when Chile put on a friendly tournament two months ago as part of their preparations of Iquique they found home advantage did not count for much.
Peru, Ecuador and the U.S.A. were invited to Chile in February to participate in La Serena Cup. Chile suffered a 2-0 defeat in their first game against the States and finished the tournament in last place after falling 3-1 to Peru.
Another hiccup in Chile’s preparations is the absence of the ultra skillful Nelson Bustamante.
Bustamante has not been released by Italian club Brescia to take part in the tournament. He is believed to be in the middle of a hormone therapy treatment similar to the procedure undergone by Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
Bustamante´s treatment is rumoured to have cost Brescia $300,000 and they are not willing to jeopardize their investment by allowing the player to return home.
Even with these hurdles coach César Vaccia insists his side will settle for nothing less than World Cup qualification.
“We want to go for top spot in the group and ensure direct passage to Nigeria,” Vaccia said. “If not, then we will go into the second group and qualify from there.”
One to watch: Camilo Peña (Universidad Católica)
Ecuador – Group B
Ecuador will have the chance to see all their opponents in action before they kick-off their campaign against Venezuela.
The squad will hope that the knowledge they can glean from watching these games plus the relatively easy game they have been handed as their first fixture will stand them in good stead for the tournament.
Coach Javier Rodríguez has used his time with the squad to forge a work ethic in the players so when they time comes they will stand together.
“Having good players does not count for anything if they cannot fit in with the tactics of the team,” The coach said. “This is a team that will fight for a ticket to the World Cup.”
Ecuador have identified the weaknesses and the strengths within their camp and Rodríguez believes he has come up with the best plan for success.
“Our players can take on our instructions without any difficulty,” Rodríguez claims. “Tactically they continue to improve both individually and collectively.”
That’s not to say that there haven’t been a few bumps in the road for Ecuador in preparation for Chile.
Leading marksman Luis Celi picked up a knock last month and was doubtful to travel to Iquique but has eventually managed to make the 20 player squad.
Another player who was not so lucky was first choice goalkeeper Diego Posligua of El Nacional. The glovesman fractured his right hand in a training match and sits out the tournament.