Future stars on display in the South American U-20 Championships
Here's a date for your diary. On Sunday Feb. 6 I can't believe there's anything more fascinating taking place in the world of soccer than the clash between Argentina and Brazil in the South American U-20 Championships. Whatever might be happening in England, Spain or anywhere else, this is the date when the city of Arequipa in the south of Peru can claim to be, for 90 minutes at least, the capital of the global game.
The great rivals have already booked their place in the second, decisive round of the tournament. In their different groups, they had remarkably similar records. Both won 3 games and drew the other. Argentina scored 8 goals and conceded 4. Brazil managed a goal more. And now the serious stuff starts. The six remaining teams (the other four to be decided on Thursday and Friday nights) meet each other, with the group winners, Argentina and Brazil, doing battle on the third of the five match days.
At stake, as always in the South American U-20 Championships, is a place in this year's World Youth Cup. Four teams go through, and Colombia are guaranteed as hosts of the tournament, to be held in August. This year, the U-20s are also dueling for a place in the 2012 Olympics. This is more complicated. South America has only two representatives. The pressure is on Brazil to snap up one of them. As hosts of the next World Cup they will not have to qualify. The absence of competitive games transforms the next Olympic tournament into an invaluable half way house en route to 2014.
This consideration aside, it would be unwise to judge the success of Brazil's campaign, or anyone else's, solely on the basis of the results achieved. Much more than winning titles, youth football is about developing players. It would hardly be worth the trouble of winning the current competition if in five years time none of the players have graduated through to the senior national team.
This is something that Argentina understood from the moment that Jose Pekerman took charge of its youth setup in the mid-90s. The success of his project lies not so much in the number of times Argentina have won the World Youth Cup (for the record, in recent times 1995, 97, 2001, 2005 and 2007), but in the steady stream of players who have come up through the ranks.
Pekerman's work was based on a simple yet brilliant observation. The globalization of soccer meant that Argentina was destined to lose its talented players at an ever younger age. How, then, to secure them for the long term future of the senior team? Answer -- through the youth sides. Pekerman used his structure as a hot house college, identifying promising youngsters and giving them a crash course in the footballing identity of their country.
It is an idea which has been copied -- most notably by Uruguay. But Brazil are also getting in on the act. When new senior coach Mano Menezes was appointed at the end of July, one of the first topics he discussed was his view that Brazil's youth sides had not been functioning to potential. He ensured that an experienced club coach, Ney Franco, took over the U-20 team. And Menezes outlined his view that there should be more contact between the seniors and the U-20s. They should both attempt to use the same tactical system and philosophy of play. More players should be progressing through the ranks. Not enough members of recent U-20 teams had gone on to represent Brazil at senior level.
This is not a problem in the case of the star man in Brazil's current U-20 side - or rather, star adolescent. At 18 (his 19th birthday is on the eve of the meeting with Argentina), Neymar is a year younger than many of the players on show in Peru. But the Santos sensation is already a member of Brazil's senior side -- U.S. fans will recall him scoring on his debut against Bob Bradley's men back in August. Were it not for the importance of qualifying for the Olympics, Neymar would almost certainly not have been selected for this tournament -- with the Copa Libertadores and the Copa America coming up, he has a worrying amount of soccer on his plate over the next few months.
The risk of burn out has been the short-term gain of Peruvian fans, who have been able to watch this extraordinary talent at first hand. In the three games he played in the group phase, Neymar scored five goals, giving an exhibition of his attacking versatility, his capacity to cut in from the left channel, glide past the defender on either side finish with precision and venom off either foot. He is surely set for a glorious future.
But we knew that before the tournament. What of the others? Here the picture is not so clear. Alex Sandro, a left back of enormous promise, in this tournament has yet to hit the heights of which I believe him to be capable. Attacking midfielder Lucas is interesting, but has yet to establish an identity as a player. Is he a wide man, or does he prefer to act through the middle? If it is the latter, he needs to sharpen up his passing. Some others, such as midfielder Oscar and attacker Henrique, have nice touches, but it is certainly too early to see them as world beaters. Juan might develop into a top-class center back with a little more calm.
But it is central midfield that is the most interesting area because this is where Mano Menezes is keen to see changes. In recent times Brazil's players in this zone of the pitch have specialized in marking rather than passing. Consequently, Brazil have become a counterattacking side that struggle to break down defensive rivals. Menezes is aware that this could be a major problem in 2014. Most teams will set out to frustrate Brazil in front of their own supporters. More old style guile and invention will be needed from the central midfielders -- hence the fact that he gives as his references the Brazil teams of 1970 and 82, when such qualities were in abundance..
Menezes needs new men to revive an old philosophy. I'm not sure he has found them in this tournament. Casemiro played a good group phase, and looks to have a bright future. He is a strong, versatile and possesses admirable lung power. But he does not seem to be the greatest passer of the ball, and the same applies to the other central midfielders. There has been little capacity to dictate the rhythm from centerfield, to confuse the opposition by slowing the game down before speeding it up again.
Argentina also have had some collective problems. Some of its victories were scrappy affairs. It may even be the case that its best balanced 90 minutes came in the only match it failed to win, a 1-1 draw with Venezuela. It began the competition with a 4-3-3 system -- firstly without pace down the flanks, and then with speed but with the team so strung out that it was difficult to retain possession. Argentina looked better suited to the 4-4-2 it used in the last two matches.
Even so, there have been some interesting individual performances. Center forward Rogelio Funes Mori has looked dangerous, and when he was rested for the last group game Facundo Ferreyra proved an admirable deputy. Juan Manuel Iturbe, 17, is the "Paraguayan Messi" -- he was born in Argentina to Paraguayan parents, grew up in the land of their birth, played for major local club Cerro Porteno and even represented Paraguay at senior level before Argentina managed to snatch him back. The Messi comparison is unfair, but Iturbe has some spark in his left-footed dribbling.
Then there is the all-American Michael Hoyos, U.S. born and raised. He looks uncannily like an old fashioned, elegant Argentine foot-on-the-ball No. 10. He is a little bit ponderous, but full of talent in the way that he strikes the ball. Behind him Ezequiel Cirigliano has some quality in central midfield.
But in terms of Argentina's future at senior level, two players are especially interesting. For some time now, Argentina have had problems at goalkeeper and full back. Might the solutions be at hand? In the group phase, Esteban Andrada showed admirable cool in goal, and Hugo Nervo looked an accomplished right back. Now in the second phase, the quality cranks up, especially against Brazil, and especially for these two.
Neymar will attack down the flank protected by Nervo, and shoot at the goal defended by Andrada. Inspired by the occasion, looking to celebrate his birthday, Neymar should provide an interesting measuring rod against which the potential of Nervo and Andrada can be gauged. These could be the most fascinating of the many duels taking place all over the pitch when Argentina meet Brazil on Feb. 6.