South American youngsters set to shine
The season kicks off on my side of the Atlantic this weekend with one of the great hidden gems of the footballing calendar - the South American under-20 Championship.
Back in 1954, when it was first held, this was an out-and-out youth competition. It is stretching the point to say the same thing today. In contemporary South American football there are teenagers taking on senior roles with their club sides. This year's main attraction is Neymar, who, like Adriano in the 2001 tournament, is going to the under-20 Championship having already represented Brazil at senior level. Carlos Tevez was already a Boca Juniors idol when he played for Argentina in the 2003 tournament.
But there are also plenty of undiscovered jewels on show. A team-mate of Tevez back in 2003 was Javier Mascherano. At the time he had not played a senior game for River Plate. But he was so impressive in the under-20s that he was fast-tracked. A few months later he played for the full Argentina side - still without having made his River Plate debut.
Another Argentine midfielder, Ever Banega, used the 2007 tournament to give his career an astonishing kick-start. Barely known even to Boca Juniors fans at the start of the competition, by the end he had forced his club coach to find a place for him in the starting line-up, and was just a few months away from winning the Copa Libertadores, being capped at senior level and a big money transfer to Spain.
But, as I have mentioned on other occasions, the most sensational emergence I have seen in the South American under-20s was that of Lionel Messi in 2005. He was only 17 at the time, and even Argentina did not know much about him.
There was a feeling that he had been selected to ensure that, if there was something special there, Argentina rather than Spain would be the long-term beneficiaries. Messi was not even given the number 10 shirt. Within a few minutes, though, it was apparent that we were dealing with something very special, and the rest is history.
Lionel Messi (white T-shirt) and his Argentina team-mates celebrate winning the 2005 South American under-20 Championships. Pic: Getty Images.
Being there in Colombia six years ago at the start of the story is the highlight of my career.
If most of the names mentioned so far have been from Argentina, that is no coincidence.
The last tournament in 2009 went very badly for them. That aside, over recent years they have been the kings of under-20 football. Between 1995 and 2007 they won five out of seven World Cups at the level. But winning titles is never the most important aspect of youth football. Far more important, they have groomed and prepared a conveyor belt of players for the senior national side.
Behind this success was a simple but brilliant observation from Jose Pekerman, who took charge of Argentina's youth sides in the mid-90s. The global market in footballers was gathering pace. Pekerman reasoned that Argentine players would be sold abroad at an ever younger age.
The youth sides, then, were where these players could be secured for the long-term benefit of Argentine football. The youngsters would be given a crash course in their country's footballing identity. The success of the project was apparent in the 2006 World Cup, by which time Pekerman was coaching the senior side. The team was full of graduates from the youth sides. By 2006 almost all of them played in Europe.
But you could watch their elaborate passing game, based around the midfield artistry of Juan Roman Riquelme, and know instantly that you were watching Argentina.
The Pekerman model is now being followed by Uruguay - whose 2010 World Cup squad had a number of players recently promoted from the Under-20 team, with more poised to break through.
Part of Chile's success in playing such pleasing football in South Africa comes from the fact that coach Marcelo Bielsa took over at an opportune moment, just after the under-20's had come third in the 2007 World Youth Cup. Bielsa's dynamic attacking gameplan needs fit young players - and he was quick to promote the wonderful right winger Alexis Sanchez, along with Mauricio Isla, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Carmona and Gary Medel.
Colombia had a fine under-20 side in 2005, with Hugo Rodallega, Radamel Falcao Garcia, Dayro Moremo, Abel Aguilar, Cristian Zapata and Camilo Zuniga. Their hopes of making it to the next World Cup are in part based on an expectation that this generation has now reached maturity.
And what of Brazil? They have frequently been South American champions. They won the World Youth Cup in 2003, and were runners-up in the last final in 2009. But there is a feeling that they have been performing below potential at the level. Certainly, new senior coach Mano Menezes thinks so. It was one of the first things he talked about when he was appointed at the end of July. Something was wrong, he said. Not enough players were progressing from the under-20s to the senior side.
Perhaps the problem lay in the fact that Brazil's under-20 coaches were often inexperienced. Maybe, in an effort to make a name for themselves, they were taking the most dangerous short cut in youth football - bulking up, and giving priority to size rather than skill.
There has been a change of philosophy, with the under-20s brought closer to the senior side and expected to play in the same style. They are coached by Ney Franco, well-respected and with a sound record in youth development. And Franco is under pressure as soon as the action starts in Peru this Sunday.
The South American under-20 Championship qualifies four teams for this year's World Youth Cup in Colombia - which should be easy enough for Brazil, especially as the hosts qualify automatically. But the tournament also serves as the qualifiers for the London Olympics - and here South America has only two places.
Making sure of an Olympic spot is more important for Brazil than for anyone else. As the next World Cup hosts, they have no qualifying games to whip a side into shape. The Olympic tournament, then, is seen as an essential half way house on the road to 2014. Missing out on a place would be a huge blow.
Normally, the success or failure of youth work can only properly be judged years afterwards. But that is not quite true in Ney Franco's debut under-20 campaign. His Brazil side have to finish in the top two.
Comments on the piece in the space below. 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;
Q) What is your opinion of Mauro Boselli? As a Wigan Athletic season ticket holder for the last 16 years I am extremely worried. He came with a huge reputation and a huge price tag (for Wigan Athletic), of around £6m, and rumours are that he is due to be sold/loaned out in this transfer window. He has scored just once in the cup for us and is struggling to either adapt or maybe he just isn't good enough at this level. What you think the problem is.
A) I was frankly amazed that Wigan bought him. He's a goal poacher, a penalty area finisher who doesn't offer anything else. So if he's not scoring? Back with Estudiantes he was playing in front of the best midfield in South America, having lots of chances and as he put them away his confidence soared. I thought it was very predictable that he would find things harder at Wigan - not so many chances, bigger, better defenders, and if he doesn't score then he's not making a contribution, so confidence plummets. He may yet have his moments, but for my mind he was a big gamble, and I'm not sure that a club like Wigan can take such a chance with a record signing.
Q) I have seen reports that Sunderland have been linked to Victor Caceres of Libertad. I have gathered that he is a combative midfield player but am hoping you can shed more light on him and whether he would be suited to the Premier League given that some of the South American players Sunderland have signed seemed to have struggled getting used to the English game.
A) Ah, Sunderland! I always saw Paulo Da Silva as a squad defender, and was concerned that Marcos Angeleri had not fully recovered from his injury, but I had huge hopes of an old team-mate of Caceres, Cristian Riveros. I thought he would be well suited, but he seems to be really struggling to get into the games - a surprise to me and a reminder of the difficulty of the Premier League.
You might have seen Caceres in the World Cup. He's a defensive midfielder, tall, good in the air, tough in the tackle, not the quickest but with sound, if unspectacular, passing ability - a player to sit in front of the centre-backs, though possibly liable to give away some dangerous free-kicks.
After Riveros, it's hard to be confident about him. But things might be easier in this case -Caceres is not a player who needs time on the ball.