The perils of the lure of Europe
Held every two years, with the current version under way in Venezuela, the South American under-20 championships are a goldmine of talent.
I consider the highlight of my career catching Lionel Messi on the way up in the 2005 version in Colombia.
But there have been plenty of others - Ronaldinho and Roque Santa Cruz in 1999, Adriano and Maicon in 2001, Mascherano, Tevez and Daniel Alves in 2003, Mati Fernandez, Diego Godin and Hugo Rodallega in 2005, Alexandre Pato, Lucas, Ever Banega, Edison Cavani and Arturo Vidal two years ago - all wonderful players making a name for themselves on their way to Europe.
There are times, however, when Europe can come too soon, as the 2009 tournament has already made clear.
We are now a week into the group phase, which eliminates just four of the 10 nations.
The action begins in earnest on Saturday, when the six remaining countries play off with two objectives in sight - the title, and one of the continent's four places in the World Youth Cup, which this year is scheduled for Egypt in September.
But it is already too late for Peru. They have played their four group games and lost them all, and thus become the first team to be eliminated.
This has come as a blow as these are difficult times for Peruvian football. At senior level they lie bottom of the World Cup qualification table and off the pitch, things are just as bad.
Internal problems saw them threatened with suspension from Fifa and they lose the right to host the current tournament following wrangling between the local FA and the Sports Institute.
The one great hope was this generation of young players, who in 2007 reached the quarter finals of the World under-17 Cup and formed the base of this year's U20 side.
Great things were expected of them, and especially their star striker Reimond Manco.
Manco was brought up in Venezuela, who he represented four years ago in the South American under-15 Championships. Then he moved back to the land of his birth, was outstanding at under-17 level and moved from Alianza Lima to PSV of Holland.
He was following the path of his gifted compatriot Jefferson Farfan, now with Schalke in Germany after a successful spell in Holland. But there is a key difference.
Farfan moved to Europe after two years in the Alianza first team, during which time he established himself as the most devastating striker in Peruvian football. Manco went much earlier.
He had shown flashes of talent at senior level, despite being used as a substitute for Alianza more often than not, but when he left for Holland, it was too early. Just at the stage when he would have been best served by regular first team action, he has found himself on the bench or in the stands.
Back on familiar ground for the South American under-20s, his lack of sharpness was clear. His trickery won a penalty in the opening match against Ecuador, but otherwise he roamed the attacking line in a vain search for inspiration.
In the third game against Argentina he was taken off, and as frustration boiled over he was sent off in the fourth against the hosts. As he trudged off the field in Maturin, he may even have been reflecting that it might have been better to have stayed a while longer in South American club football.
Brazil have learnt this lesson. They took the conscious decision not to bring anyone back from Europe for their squad. Experience has taught them that the performance level of the youngsters is liable to suffer if they are not getting a regular game with their clubs. Even so, Brazil are not immune from the forces that have proved harmful to Manco.
Douglas Costa is a left-footed attacking midfielder of rare talent who made an immediate impression last year when he got into the Gremio first team - but then the global hype machine went into overdrive.
Before he had played three senior games he was already being linked with Manchester United and Real Madrid. From anonymity to "world's most wanted" lists inside a month - it is a huge burden for a teenager to carry.
Douglas Costa has looked like a man over-eager to live up to his billing in both the matches Brazil have played so far. He has been trying to do too much, running down blind alleys and falling over in search of a cheap free-kick.
He was taken off at half time in the last match against Bolivia, and as his replacement Tales scored the winner, Douglas might find it hard to get back in again.
But, unlike Reimond Manco, at least Douglas Costa still has time left to leave a positive impression in the 2009 South American under-20 Championships.
Comments on this piece in the space below. Any other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Why doesn't South America rival Europe in terms of wealth and prestige (football wise)? Look at what it has. The quality of the football, players, the cash going in from transfers, plus the history and heritage of the great clubs (Boca, River, Corinthians et al).
Why aren't the South Americans (particularly Argentina and Brazil) playing their hand more strongly? European football, and the World Cup, wouldn't be the cash cow it now is without the Brazilian/Argentine influence. Those countries should be the China and India of global football. Instead they act like the Bangladesh and Vietnam of the world game.
Producing the players is one thing. Producing the structure to keep them is another.
In terms of international football, the prestige of the South American countries is undiminished. No European nation has ever won the World Cup in another continent, and Brazil and Argentina are the teams to beat.
European club football plays a part in this - although the premature move (as discussed above) is detrimental to many careers, it is also true that South Americans and Africans benefit from playing in the world's top leagues with their worldwide congregation of talent.
In terms of club football, South American is indeed operating below its potential, but it faces one giant problem that is outside its control. Salaries for the mass of the people are absurdly low - this places obvious limitations on ticket prices, sponsorship budgets and therefore on wages for the players - who will inevitably go where they can earn more.
The transfer fees paid to South American clubs are in general much lower than when the move is between two European clubs. Even so, the area of the game that makes money is that of producing players to sell - hence the fact that so many investors and companies are getting involved in it.
And operating as an export industry breeds dangerous vested interests - people with a stake in the failure of the domestic game.
You are not very well respected in South America, are you Mr Vickery? (fact)
- Manchester City are a very big club (fact)
- Manchester City made mugs of Chelsea with Robinho transfer (fact)
- Manchester City are by far the richest club in the world (fact)
- You dislike Manchester City (fact}
What is your evidence for this last so-called fact?
I have indeed reported on Brazilian contempt for City - and there has been plenty of it.
The following are all extracts from last week's Lance!, Brazil's daily sports paper:
- Exchanging Milan for Manchester City is not worth it for all the money in the world. Kaka, this second category Manchester don't deserve your football." (Fernando Santos)
- "Kaka was an example of courage and character [because he didn't exchange a multi-European champion for a City who are hardly able to be a rival to their neighbours United -the Manchester who really matter." (Mauro Beting)
- "Kaka shouldn't exchange Milan for the dwarfish Manchester City - a type of Juventus of Javari Street [Sao Paulo club comparable to Leyton Orient] who now have a lot of money." (Eduardo Tironi).
There are plenty more what that lot came from. The fact that I have reported this doesn't mean that I agree with it - I've tried to stress that this is a misconception based on ignorance, and I've been on Brazilian TV explaining that City are big club with a strong tradition and fan base. If that has fallen on deaf ears, it could well be evidence for the first of your list of facts.