After its cancellation in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Under-20 South American Championship returns on Thursday with Colombia's Bogotá and Cali serving as host cities. Originated in 1995, this tournament essentially opens the international football calendar and also serves as qualification for this year's U20 men's World Cup, which will be held in May and June in Indonesia. The top three will also take part in this year's Pan-American Games in Santiago, Chile. In addition, because the Summer Olympics allow for only three players to be over the age of 23 in each squad, this tournament acts as a recruitment tool for Paris 2024.
The format is quite unique. There are only two groups of five teams playing in a round-robin format. The top three from each group advance to a final group of six, and in that final phase, they'll play each other once. The winner is determined by most points as there is no knockout format, final or third-place fixture at any stage.
There are plenty of storylines worth your time in this year's competition. Ecuador, the defending champions, hope to repeat once again, but many teams have had time to develop since La Tri won in 2019, which was their first ever title. It could be fair to say that Brazil, for example, are aching for this trophy as it's been 12 years since the most successful nation in this competition (11 titles) were crowned champions.
Then there's the talented Argentina, who will use all the motivation from the senior team's historic win in Qatar to secure victory for the first time since 2015. This Albiceleste squad will be the first to officially wear the shirt with three stars. They may not have coach Lionel Scaloni, but they will be led by a former player who knows exactly how to compete at the highest level: Javier Mascherano. Uruguay are always strong contenders, and with a gutsy team full of talented individuals who play in very big clubs, this could be a good year for them.
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Don't discount hosts Colombia, though: they're going through a mini-revolution within the federation after their senior team failed to qualify for the World Cup. There is a lot of talent here, and they're ready to win on home soil and for the first time in a decade.
This competition also serves as a proverbial goldmine for scouts from all over the globe. It can serve as a life-changing opportunity for players as well as South American clubs that can profit from European interest. There will be plenty of European clubs paying attention to this competition.
There will be no Endrick, however. The Brazilian prodigy -- who will play for Real Madrid next year -- was originally selected when the squad was released, but Palmeiras requested the federation remove him so he could be featured in the Paulista Championship. Manchester United winger Alejandro Garnacho also won't feature for Argentina either, as the Red Devils opted for him to stay with the club.
Then there's 19-year-old Colombian Jhon Durán, who recently made his move to Aston Villa from Chicago Fire FC for $18 million plus incentives. At the time of writing, Durán has left the Colombian setup for Birmingham to finalize his medical, contract and work permit. Colombia are hopeful he will return to the tournament, but that will depend on the Premier League club. His compatriot, Juan David "Juanda" Fuentes -- who plays for Barcelona B -- will surely carry the load upfront until then.
Another star who is also heading to the Premier League, but is playing in the tournament (unlike Durán,) is 18-year-old Brazilian Andrey Santos. Chelsea recently recruited the Vasco da Gama midfielder and will welcome him back after the competition.
As a Peruvian, it's my obligation -- otherwise I will be disowned by my family -- to also note Matías Lazo, a versatile defender from Melgar. He is a strong leader who will be tested immediately as Perú face Brazil in the opener.
Still, aside from these names, there is plenty of largely unrecognized talent in the tournament. Keep an eye on these five players: don't say you weren't warned.
Patrickson Delgado | Ecuador | 19 | Midfielder | Ajax
The only member of the Ecuador squad who plays in Europe, this talented 19-year-old is at Ajax and representing their reserves team on loan, with an option to make the move permanent, from Independiente Del Valle, the Ecuadorian powerhouse that gave us the likes of Moisés Caicedo and Gonzalo Plata. Delgado, nephew of Agustín "Tín" Delgado (former all-time leading scorer for the national team before Enner Valencia took over) is a strong box-to-box midfielder who enjoys the simple art of quick passing, strong tackling and generating goals whenever possible. He is a humble, smart young man who moved to the Netherlands at 18, without knowing a word of Dutch or English, but he has acclimated well in one of the best academies in the world.
"I did everything possible to be here," Delgado said to Diario Expreso. "I wanted to be here and support the team with the short experience I have had abroad."
Don't let his humility fool you. This young man is a potent threat and is ready to help Ecuador defend their title.
Darío Osorio | Chile | 18 | Winger | Universidad de Chile
Universidad de Chile, a giant in Chilean football though one that has been suffering as of late, (due to economic issues, they have flirted with relegation in the past few seasons), has the most players in Patricio Ormazábal's squad, and it's no surprise. The club boasts a number of quality prospects and Osorio, a quick-thinking, inverted right winger, is no exception.
Chile's senior team has been suffering with the cold realization that their golden years of Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Charles Aránguiz are slowly fading away, but there is plenty of young talent ready to graduate. Osorio is one of its brightest -- he's fast, brave and a headache for defenders with his great left foot. There are numerous reports on his next destination, from Serie A to Tottenham Hotspur, and there's no doubt we will see him in Europe sooner rather than later. For now, enjoy his ability in this competition.
Máximo Perrone | Argentina | 20 | Midfielder | Veléz Sarsfield
By the time you finish reading this sentence, Perrone -- a composed, self-assured midfielder for Veléz Sarsfield -- might also be getting ready for Europe. More specifically, Manchester City. Pep Guardiola is so intensely interested in Perrone that he has reportedly contacted the club, Perrone's representatives and the aforementioned Mascherano, who naturally knows the Premier League extremely well. Veléz president Sergio Rapisarda is not happy, however, as he has been disappointed in Guardiola, Man City and even Mascherano, all trying to influence Perrone's decision. It's understood that Perrone's move to City is set and will head to Manchester after the tournament.
Perrone plays well above his age. He's a smart athlete with good timing, composure and an aggressive eye for goal. If Argentina win this tournament, Perrone will be a big reason why.
Vitor Roque | Brazil | 17 | Forward | Athletico Paranaense
To avoid hyperbole, it's important to always remain realistic with expectations, but Roque is the real deal. A 17-year-old striker who plays for Athletico Paranaense and has reportedly been acquiring plenty of admirers, including Chelsea, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. All would have to wait until he turns 18, and Paranaense will demand a hefty price as they see Roque as a fundamental player, not just for the club but also Brazil. He is a classic center-forward who can play anywhere across the front line.
There have been comparisons to Ronaldo Fenómeno, but I refuse to go there as that type of pressure should never be applied to someone so young. Let Roque make his own path, one that looks to be extremely promising.
Álvaro Rodríguez | Uruguay | 18 | Forward | Real Madrid
Born in Spain to Uruguayan parents, Rodríguez is one of two members of Real Madrid Castilla who are taking part in the tournament (the other being Nico Paz), and Uruguay U20 coach Marcelo Broli is ecstatic to have him, as Rodríguez had previously featured for Spain's U18s.
"It's so great to have him here, because we were trying for months to get him to come," Broli said earlier this week. "He's a very humble kid and has adapted to the team very quickly. Our game suits him well because we like to go wide with speed so hopefully we'll get him to the danger areas."
That's exactly what Rodríguez, who made his debut for Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey last week, does. In terms of Uruguay, there was no doubt in his mind he wanted to eventually come and represent the nation.
"It was me who made the decision," he said, and not his father, the former Uruguay international Daniel "Coquito" Rodríguez. "My heart pulls for Uruguay."
It will surely be more than his heart as Uruguayan fans are in for a treat as "Coquito Jr." is ready to make an impact for La Celeste, who will look to make up for the disappointing performances from their senior team at the World Cup.