Last month, during a press conference announcing Peru’s preliminary roster for Copa America, head coach Ricardo Gareca shared his thoughts on the current state of South American players with an anecdote.
“I was playing soccer with my grandson and I realized every time he scored a goal or attempted a skill he pretended to be a European player,” the 61-year-old Gareca said. “So I asked myself, ‘What’s wrong with our own?’
“We have the ultimate historical reputation in the men’s game. Right here in South America. [Diego] Maradona, Pele, [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Lionel] Messi, Ronaldinho, [Teofilo] Cubillas. We can’t let go of our rich history at the cost of always focusing on Europe.”
Copa America is the perfect tournament to answer Gareca’s plea, as big clubs–and fans young and old–can fully place their focus on the competition and the talent it contains.
Aside from household-name stars such as Messi or his Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez, the large South American pool–even without the injured Neymar–is filled with world-class talent. There are the big names from tournaments past, like James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal and more. There are rising stars such as Brazil’s Richarlison or Argentina’s Lautaro Martinez. Then there are the diamons in the rough and the true breakout stars–and this summer's competition is full of them.
Here are five lesser-known players the clubs and fans around the globe should keep their eyes on over the next few weeks in Brazil.
Wuilker Fariñez, Venezuela
Fariñez has represented Venezuela at all youth levels, including taking part in its runner-up finish at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and the gifted goalkeeper earned his first cap in 2016 at just 18. A year later, he became the youngest ever keeper to play for La Vinotinto in a World Cup qualifier as he faced Peru, Venezuela’s first opponent at this summer’s Copa America.
Fariñez, who recently posted a clean sheet against the USA, possesses astonishing reflexes and a disciplined presence during dead-ball situations. Now 21, his potential seems limitless. Just look at this ridiculous sequence:
Reports suggest Barcelona is keen to bring him as a replacement for Jasper Cillessen as Marc-Andre ter Stegen's backup, but there’s little doubt that more clubs will come knocking–and his quality is that of a starter.
Luis Diaz, Colombia
A gifted, left-footed winger, Diaz arrives at Copa America as a useful weapon for Carlos Queiroz’s side, providing productivity and dynamic plays from wide areas.
The 22-year-old is a key member for Atlético Junior and was a major reason why the team won Liga Águila’s Finalización title and ended as runner-up (on penalties) in last year’s Copa Sudamericana.
Earlier this year, in an interview with Caracol radio, the player said he had a pre-agreement with Cardiff City, but that move may not unfold after the Welsh club was relegated to the Championship. The ambitious Diaz, looking to make an impact this summer, has bigger ambitions than England’s second tier.
Everton Soares, Brazil
Just like Barcelona’s Arthur Melo, Everton is another product from Grêmio’s impressive scouting and developing system, and as he looks to make the most of this tournament in his nation, the 23-year-old winger is undoubtedly ready to join a European giant this summer. The only question at this point is which one.
Reports circulate interest from Man City and Man United as well as Serie A clubs, but the group of suitors could grow, especially with a strong showing this summer.
Given his reliance on his right foot, the 23-year-old attacker prefers to cut inside and create havoc in the box, and thanks to his Neymar-esque ball control and ability to dribble past players as if they weren’t there, Everton will serve as dangerous substitute and a constant headache for opponents at Copa America.
Christofer Gonzales, Peru
At 26, “Canchita” Gonzales is no spring chicken, but due to his work ethic, tireless engine and an instinctive ability to break play, he definitely plays like one. That’s why Gareca is an admirer of the Sporting Cristal midfielder and decided to bring him back to the national team.
Peru’s midfield is deep, so the question is whether Gonzales can compete for a starting role. If the friendlies against Costa Rica and Colombia are any indication, it certainly seems so as Gonzales is Yoshimar Yotun’s biggest competition to play alongside Renato Tapia.
Santiago Arzamendia, Paraguay
Arzamendia, 21, was born in Argentina but has Paraguayan eligibility. Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni actually scouted him and hoped the young left back would choose his birth nation, but Arzamendia opted for Paraguay as he thought he’d have a stronger, longer impact.
A key member of Paraguayan side Cerro Porteño, the only club he has ever known, Arzamendia is a major contender for the starting fullback role opposite the older Ivan Torres. What gives him an edge is his tremendous ability to go forward and provide crosses from practically anywhere in an opponent’s half.
His accuracy is very impressive at such a young age, and if head coach Eduardo Berizzo gives him an opportunity to be adventurous, Arzamendia could be one of the most dangerous fullbacks in the tournament.