Colombia's rising stars and lost potential
Like watching a sneak preview of future blockbuster films, the best thing about South American football is the chance to catch remarkable talent on the way up.
Barcelona's Argentine Lionel Messi tops the list but I have lost count of the extraordinary players whose early professional steps I have been lucky enough to witness.
Inevitably, plenty fall short of fulfilling their potential.
At the 2003 South American Under-20 Championships, I picked out a list of the most interesting players on show for World Soccer magazine. Carlos Tevez would have been on it - but I had already written about him months earlier. His team-mate Javier Mascherano was on my list, along with Brazil's attacking right-back Daniel Alves. And there was a Colombian I was excited about called Avimiled Rivas.
I wrote: "[He is] A midfielder who can be highly strung but looks a genuine thoroughbred. Tall, quick, strong and dynamic, he plays on the left but likes to cut inside to use his thumping right foot to switch play or shoot."
He is still doing it but not at the level that once seemed likely. Rivas was promoted to Colombia's senior squad and made a couple of appearances as a substitute. But a move to Real Sociedad in Spain did not work out. He was loaned out to lower-division clubs in Spain before returning home and bouncing around from club to club in Colombia.
Avimiled Rivas, who appeared for Colombia in 2003, possesses masses of unrealised talent. Photo: Getty
This year he has been more settled, establishing himself as an important player with Colombian club Boyaca Chico in Tunja. It is a small well-run club founded in 2002 - but they are punching above their weight in sixth place, just two points off the top of Colombia's Primera A.
Last week I saw Rivas play in the second leg of the Colombian cup final. Chico had lost 1-0 at home to Millonarios and needed something special in the return match in Bogota.
It was tight and Rivas played his part as his side threatened to open the scoring. But, inside the last 20 minutes, he got himself sent off. The second yellow was harsh, more of a tangle than a foul, although Rivas did not touch the ball. This made his protest somewhat hollow when he picked up the ball and showed it to the referee - then downright outrageous when he thrust it into the ref's face before running off the field.
At 27, Avimiled Rivas is still highly strung.
The playmaker on the opposing side was Mayer Candelo. With a sweet left foot and a capacity to generate ideas, Candelo was a great hope when he emerged towards the end of the 1990s.
Some saw him as the successor to the fuzzy-haired Colombian Carlos Valderrama - the midfielder, now 50, who played 111 times for his country between 1985 and 1998.
It never happened for Candelo. At the top level he was found wanting. Now 34, Candelo has had an interesting career all over South America - most notably in Peru - but he proved unable to fulfil those early hopes.
A few minutes after Rivas saw red, Candelo had the chance to clinch the cup when he stepped up to take a penalty. Teenage goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla, a Colombia Under-20 international, dived right to make the save.
I sat thinking this was almost a metaphor for the moment of Colombian football - Candelo, the eternal nearly man, blowing it again, while Bonilla showed that the future lies with a new generation.
...And then the keeper made complete hash of a clearance, kicking straight to Candelo, who glided past the last defender and flicked his shot into the corner to confirm Millonarios as champions.
This, I suppose, is a better symbol of Colombia and its football - beguiling, frustrating, surprising.
After Brazil's near-200m population, Colombia's 50m is the largest in South America. It has a variety of urban centres and a football-crazy public. And yet they have failed to reach the last three World Cups.
In part this can be explained by the trauma of the 1994 World Cup, when their very good team collapsed under intense pressure as ambassadors for a country that was falling apart. The murder of centre-back Andres Escobar after that exit made the issues evident to all. The short passing style of the 1994 team seemed discredited by association and no big collective idea came along to replace it.
But it also seems clear there have been individual problems. A significant amount of South American talent that falls by the wayside seems to be Colombian.
Local journalists tell me many careers go astray from the moment when the youngster signs his first big contract. Lacking the maturity to cope with sudden wealth and fame, the journey from zero to hero is too quick for the player to assimilate the changes. Then there is the threat of a premature move to Europe where the youngster fails to get a regular game.
How many stars of the future won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for Brazil in August? Photo: AFP
Staying or going, both routes have their problems.
The record shows the best move would seem to be southwards. Argentine football functions as a finishing school for some of the best Colombians, toughening them up for the challenges ahead.
Defenders Mario Yepes (now at AC Milan), Luis Amaranto Perea (Atletico Madrid) and Ivan Cordoba (Inter Milan) plus strikers Juan Pablo Angel (ex-Aston Villa) and Radamel Falcao Garcia (Atletico Madrid) are recent examples of players who went to Argentina before moving to Europe.
As Colombia strive to improve on their Copa America displays, where they were solid but lacking spark, they are counting on two Argentine-trained talents.
Involvement in the World Youth Cup kept Porto's James Rodriguez, 20, out of the Copa. The left-footed midfielder, who made his name in Argentina with Banfield, was outstanding three weeks ago as Colombia began their World Cup qualification campaign with a 2-1 away win over Bolivia.
In the coming rounds he should be joined in the team by Giovanny Moreno, 25, a languid, silkily talented playmaker/support striker with a wonderful left foot who plays in Argentina with Racing.
After recovering from a serious knee injury, Moreno hopes to be more than a younger version of Meyer Candelo - the really man rather than the nearly man. He should be able to make his case at home to Argentina on 15 November.
Comment on the piece in the space provided. Email questions on South American football to email@example.com and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) After reading on the BBC website about the Premier League ban on third-party ownership of players to "protect the integrity of competition", I'd like to know your opinion of third-party ownership and what harm it might do to clubs?
There are two complaints. One you mentioned - the possibility of outside forces having an effect on sporting outcomes, even without necessarily meaning to.
My main concern is that I see it as a form of asset-stripping. Advocates talk of it allowing clubs to have players they might not otherwise be able to afford - but this is only because some other club (probably South American) has lost the player and received considerably less than his full worth.
The central contradiction is that much of South American football runs at a loss but produces some of the most-promising players. Investors take advantage of the weak financial position of the clubs to acquire a stake in the best players. The clubs often need cash urgently to meet their wage bill, so the investor can buy a share in the prospect for a good price. It turns the player into a commodity - something to be sold, not necessarily at the right time or to the right club. It means that, when he is sold, some of that transfer fee is lost to football.
Q) I have been following the Brazilian Championship this year and been really shocked by the dreadful performances of Cruzeiro. They sit just above the relegation zone and are in serious danger of going down. I know they have had managerial changes and injuries to key players such as Leo and Wallyson - but do their problems run deeper than that?
In the first few months of the year they looked like the best team in the continent! After one bad night and elimination from the Libertadores, the house of cards came crashing down.
Possible reasons are the bizarre coaching changes, while the injury to Wallyson and the sale of Thiago Ribeiro to Cagliari in Italy have left them without goal power.
But there is another factor. The big stadium they use, the Mineirao, is closed for World Cup works and the city's other stadium (where England lost to the USA in 1950) is also closed. So they have to travel out of Belo Horizonte for all their home games. This is clearly not ideal. Just 37 goals in 32 games means they will probably have to sweat until the final round to see if they stay up.