England could learn lessons from Colombia's Cup
The memories came flooding back last week when the draw was held for the Under-20 World Cup, which kicks off in Colombia at the end of July.
Ten years ago I travelled up there for the Copa America. It was the first time that Colombia had staged a major tournament, and some doubted that they could do it.
The political moment in the country was tense, with guerrilla forces offering a threat. In the build-up to the tournament there were car-bomb attacks in some of the major cities, and then the vice-president of the Colombian FA was kidnapped.
The Copa America was postponed for a few days. Then it was back on again - but without Argentina, who decided a couple of days before the kick-off that they would not be going.
Brazil's midfielder Mauro Silva got closer. He arrived at the airport, checked in his luggage - and then decided he was too scared to go. It was with some trepidation that I flew up from Rio.
I need not have worried. The tournament went off smoothly, and the Colombians proved to be wonderfully warm hosts. They turned out in numbers for all the games, genuinely appreciative that all these teams had decided to visit their country.
One of my strongest memories comes from before the opening games in Barranquilla. Reaching the media entrance entailed walking down a long, open corridor, wired off from the public, who were already gathering outside the stadium.
As I made my way the crowd looked me up and down. Maybe I was from Argentina. I heard the whispers and felt a boo coming. So I turned round, announced my nationality and got a big cheer - not for being English, but for being from anywhere else and giving Colombia a vote of confidence with my presence. It was the beginning of a very happy month.
Those who attend the World Youth Cup this July and August will doubtless carry away plenty of memories of their own from a country that is comprised of so many different and fascinating regions - and in the case of the players, they will also take with them some invaluable experience.
The England youngsters, for example, will be based in the impressive, bustling Medellin, and will also take in a game in the fair city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. And they will also have the chance of taking on Argentina, world champions at this level in 1995, '97, 2001, '05 and '07.
With that series of wins, Argentina wrote the manual on how to get full value from investing in players at Under-20 level. Resigned to the fact that their best players will be sold abroad, Argentina have used their youth structure to groom their youngsters, give them a crash course in their country's footballing identity and secure them for the long-term future of the senior side.
More important than all the titles won with the Under-20s is the production line of talent, feeding through to the full Argentina team.
Argentina are expected to have stylish midfielder Lamela back for the Under-20 World Cup - Photo: Getty
It is true that the quality of Argentina's youngsters seems to have fallen off of late - senior coach Sergio Batista complains that the clubs are grooming runners and battlers rather than artists. Argentina failed to make it to the 2009 World Youth Cup, and they looked very laboured in the qualifying tournament earlier this year.
Come July, though, it is a fair bet that they will be much stronger. Some fine players were not released for the qualifiers, notably River Plate's superbly elegant left-footed midfielder Erik Lamela.
And 17-year-old sensation Juan Manuel Iturbe - known as "the Paraguayan Messi" because he grew up there - is picking up senior experience with Cerro Porteno and coming on fast. Facing this calibre of opponent should be a fantastic learning opportunity for the England Under-20 team.
To my mind, it is regrettable that English football does not attach more importance to this event.
Granted, it is entirely understandable that the national Under-20 team takes on special importance in South America and Africa - continents which are exporters of talent. As we have seen with Argentina (whose model has been copied by Uruguay, and now Brazil) the Under-20 team is the fast track to the senior side.
English football will inevitably look to the ultra-competitive atmosphere of the Premier League to sift out the youngsters who are good enough to represent their country.
Even so, there are two very good reasons for England to send a full strength squad to Colombia.
The first is that, for all its plus points, the Premier League does not teach the specific discipline of tournament football. As well as having its own rhythm and dynamic, tournament competition has another key characteristic - it entails being away from home for a prolonged period of time.
In his book, My England Years, Bobby Charlton argues that the bid to win the 1962 World Cup in Chile was undermined by bouts of homesickness from fringe players. Almost five decades later, there were reports of boredom coming out of the England camp in South Africa.
Spending their entire career in domestic football makes leaves England players running the risk of being unprepared for the challenges of a tournament. Participating in the World Youth Cup can help plug this gap.
And there is also the point that taking these competitions seriously will surely earn England some brownie points within Fifa - and after the 2018 World Cup debacle, that would be no bad thing.
Please leave comments on the piece in the space provided. Send 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) I'd like to know what you think of the potential of Porto's Radamel Falcao Garcia, after his four-goal destruction of Villareal in the Europa League. He's already 25, so in theory coming into his peak.
I saw him play for River against Boca in the Apertura 2008, and he was unremarkable, but River were in disarray at that time and Diego Simeone not far from being sacked. Is Falcao good enough to make it if he was summoned to La Liga, Serie A or the Premiership?
A) I think we'll find out before long, because I imagine Porto will want to cash in on him at some point. I've followed him since he played for the Colombian Under-20s (with Hugo Rodallega) in 2005. At River Plate he was undermined by a series of injuries, but even then he looked impressive and aggressive cutting in on the diagonal. Porto seem to have got the best out of him because they've kept him fit, and they play a game where they get the ball forward quickly and give him opportunities to attack it facing the goal.
I'm still not convinced that he can be anything like as effective if asked to play with his back to goal. This has been a problem with Colombia, whose build-up is slower than Porto's - so much will depend, I feel, on how he's handled.
Q) Can you shed any light on the current standings with regard to relegation in Argentina? I think that clubs there collect points from three seasons and the two (three?) clubs with the least accumulated points get relegated after each season. Is there any possibility that one of the big clubs (River Plate, Boca) could get relegated this year?
A) Argentina stages two separate championships per year. Relegation is calculated on an average of points accumulated over six championships, or three years. At the conclusion of the season (in seven games' time) the two bottom teams go down, while the next two go into play-offs against the sides who finished third and fourth in the second division.
River Plate have been going through anxious times. They are puling away now (having moved up to eighth-from-bottom in the relegation stakes). Meanwhile they are lying second in the current championship, so they are simultaneously fighting relegation and striving to be champions. Boca are safe at the moment, but another bad year could put them in trouble in 12 months' time.