After a successful tenure with River Plate, which included Copa Libertadores and Copa Argentina titles, 21-year-old Argentine playmaker Exequiel Palacios transferred to Bayer Leverkusen. It was just the latest example of how European clubs are continuing to focus on young South Americans with growing reputations.
For Leverkusen, identifying global talent and maximizing potential is nothing new, and Palacios was not exactly a secret find, as he had already accumulated 77 competitive matches for River Plate and was catching the eye from the likes of Real Madrid before eventually joining the German outfit. Real Madrid evidently has its eye on another South American prospect, with multiple reports suggesting it's close to a deal for Flamengo's Reinier, a 17-year-old who could join Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo as Brazilian teens to flock to the Bernabeu.
Palacios and Reinier represent a new crop of young South American players who are attracting the attention of European powerhouses, and with World Cup qualifiers starting in March and another Copa America and Olympics taking place this summer, the stage is set for even more South Americans to make the leap to Europe this year.
Here’s a look at five other young stars from South America who could make a bigger statement–and perhaps a move to (or back to) Europe this year.
Gabriel Barbosa (Flamengo)
The player who goes by "Gabigol" has already had his chance in Europe, and he is still on Inter Milan's books while he thrives on loan in his native country. He failed to meet expectations upon his glorified move to Inter in 2016, and he equally struggled on loan at Benfica. It can also be argued that the Brazilian star was a victim of timing. Quite simply, Barbosa–who was 20 when he signed with Inter from Santos–left for Europe too early, and the combination of immaturity and poor management meant it has taken the striker a little time to adjust. Turns out, all he needed was returning home. After succeeding on loan back at Santos in 2018, 2019 was an even more fantastic year for the 23-year-old at Flamengo.
He was the top scorer in the Copa Libertadores, which included a double in the final minutes of the final against River Plate, and he led the Brazilian championship with 25 goals. It all ended with Barbosa being crowned as South American Player of the Year (as voted by Uruguay’s El País).
So now comes a quandary for Gabigol, who may look at his future and aim to prove he can indeed succeed in Europe. What’s more, Inter Milan may want to take advantage of his current popularity and sell him to the highest bidder.
Reports have West Ham and Chelsea interested, but there’s little doubt that more clubs will enter the bidding war.
Leonardo Campana (Barcelona SC)
The 19-year-old striker who plays for Barcelona SC in Ecuador may not be a household name just yet, but his potential is massive. Last year, Campana won the South American U-20 Championship with Ecuador and was the top scorer and top player of the tournament. One particular highlight included a jaw-dropping finish against Venezuela, which demonstrated that he’s more than just a classically instinctive No. 9.
After earning his first senior call-ups in March, he took part at the U-20 World Cup, where he was relatively quiet in front of goal, but he did help the rising youth national team earn third place.
According to Sky Sports, Wolves have started a conversation with Barcelona SC for his services, and given that he holds a Spanish passport, a work permit would not be a hurdle for him. It’s no surprise that a team like Wolves would show interest in Campana. For one, he could be the perfect understudy to Raul Jimenez, as the Ecuadorian shares similar traits to the Mexican center forward. Campana loves to hunt inside the box, but like Jimenez, he enjoys bringing other teammates in by creating from all over the pitch.
He obviously has much to do in order to achieve half of what Jimenez has already done, but the promise of a prodigious striker is there. All he needs is a club that can nurture him and help him develop.
Everton Soares (Gremio)
The Gremio attacker was one of the biggest stars from last summer’s Copa America. The Brazilian helped his team win the tournament thanks to some mesmerizing performances and was tied for the most goals with three–including one in the final. For his club, Everton is a veteran, earning four trophies–including 2017’s Copa Libertadores–and playing more than 120 matches. That's an amazing number considering he’s only 23.
Everton is no stranger to transfer rumors, and shortly after Copa America, he was linked with numerous clubs including Barcelona, Arsenal and AC Milan. The hesitation to pull the trigger has always been two-fold: inconsistent performances and age. Add the fact that his reported transfer fee would cost anywhere between $35-45 million, and the gamble to purchase the winger might be too much for some.
But as Brazil enters a crucial year, the pacy winger will have multiple chances to show his qualities on the global stage and prove to potential suitors that he truly belongs.
Thiago Almada (Velez Sarsfield)
The 18-year-old Argentina playmaker was scouted by Man City last year, but it hesitated to act due to the ongoing investigation regarding the club's finances and transfer offenses.
Now, reports have Atletico Madrid showing major interest in the versatile midfielder, who can play across the middle but is probably better used as creative No. 10.
Given the fact he is small in size but is extremely quick with an eye for a goal, the Argentina U-20 star has unsurprisingly received “the next Messi” label. But Almada's likeness is perhaps a bit more Carlos Tevez–a player he idolizes due to the fact he was born in the same Buenos Aires neighborhood (El Fuerte) as the Boca Juniors star.
Just like his hero, Almada is fearless, conniving and plays with zero regard for his physical well-being, always willing to take anyone on, no matter the size. That is music to Diego Simeone’s ears.
No matter where he ends up (his contract runs out in June and Velez might be powerless, seeing as he reportedly has an $18 million release clause), 2020 could be the year where we all hear more from this rising talent.
Nicolas De La Cruz (River Plate)
There’s no doubt that Uruguay is blessed with rising talent, and this 22-year-old star is another example. Having gone through the ranks of Uruguay’s youth setup, the midfielder still waits for a senior call-up, and it would be fair to say that his time could come this year, given the busy international schedule in South America.
De La Cruz is considered one of the most expensive players in Argentine football and has attracted the attention of clubs in Europe, including Man City.
What’s key for Nico is the ability to keep producing for Marcelo Gallardo on a consistent basis and show Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez that he can offer something different in the midfield. Given that Uruguay has promising midfielders such as Lucas Torreira and Federico Valverde, the battle for relevancy will be hard. But at only 22, De La Cruz has a trajectory worth monitoring.