As the South American Under-20 Championships moves into its final week in Colombia, it seems clear that the competition has suffered a change since the last version. The 2021 tournament was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and while Ecuador were continental champions in 2019, that’s unlikely to happen again this time. It’s not necessarily due to Ecuador going backwards, but because they have become a victim of their own success.
As a consequence of their 2019 achievements — they finished third in that year’s Under-20 World Cup — their talents, in particular those produced by the remarkable club, Independiente del Valle, are now on the radar of European clubs. More have therefore moved abroad. European clubs are now looking to acquire young South Americans as early as possible and as the Under-20 Championships do not fall on an official FIFA date in the calendar, clubs are under no obligation to release.
This year’s Ecuador squad have suffered from this talent shift; so too have Brazil and Argentina. Host nation Colombia lost star striker Jhon Duran on the eve of the competition when he moved from the Chicago Fire (Major League Soccer) to Aston Villa. He remains on the squad list, and there is hope that he might return for the last few games, but there’s been no sign of him so far. (Also, an eight-minute cameo in Villa’s 4-2 defeat to Leicester on Saturday might be a sign of him remaining with his new club.)
This means, then, that the squads of the four qualifiers for this year’s Under-20 World Cup might well be very different from those now on display. However, it also means that new faces have had a chance to shine at this competition instead. The biggest revelation of the tournament, for example, spent last season in the Uruguayan second division.
Luciano Rodriguez was with tiny Progresso in 2021-22 and has since moved on to Uruguay‘s Liverpool, a first-division team, but not much bigger. Yet he won’t be there for long. A striker who can play through the middle or on either flank — he’s been at his best on the right in this competition — Rodriguez is a strong, has two good feet and boasts the capacity to analyse the situation quickly and choose an option. He looks like a huge find.
His new clubmate is also his international captain — central midfielder Fabricio Diaz, who has been a feature in the Liverpool first team for a while. His maturity shows, too: Diaz seems to have accurate feet when distributing the ball, and he runs the engine room with real aplomb. Among an impressive group of players, classy centre-back Sebastian Boselli has also caught the eye.
Uruguay and Brazil have been the stand-out sides so far, by some distance. Brazil centre-forward Vitor Roque may well be the best player on show, though after playing for Athletico Paranaense in last year’s Copa Libertadores final, he can hardly be classed as an unknown.
What makes him especially interesting in his position. In recent times, Brazil have produced reams of wide forwards, but few who operate through the centre. The appearance, then, of a central striker who is robust, mobile and with a rich technical repertoire is good news indeed.
Recent Chelsea signing Andre Santos has done exceptionally well as a midfield powerhouse who can play out from the back, compete in the middle and break forward to score goals. His former Vasco da Gama teammate Marlon Gomes is a midfielder with a fine eye for a pass; to make a Chelsea comparison, there’s something of Mason Mount about him.
Another central midfielder who has caught the eye is Colombia captain Gustavo Puerta, who can prompt his team with dynamism from deep and possesses a wicked shot that has brought him two wonderful goals. Right winger Oscar Cortes has also done well: his running with the ball has been both powerful and elusive, and his splendid goal against Paraguay on Friday was perhaps the most important Colombia have scored in the tournament so far.
Speaking of Paraguay, they appear to have unearthed another rugged, combative centre-back in Gilberto Flores, who also offers a threat from set pieces in the opposing penalty area. Ecuador have an interesting target man centre forward in Justin Cuero, and a collection of tricky wingers in Yaimor Medina, Alan Minda and Jose Klinger. The latter is only 17, along with centre-back Davis Bautista, and is a left footer who looks like an interesting prospect.
Venezuela have been something of a disappointment so far, failing to score from open play in six straight games, but there is some talent on show. In a tournament full of promising goalkeepers, Frankarlos Benitez can more than hold his own, while Rafael Uzcategui is a calm central defender with an exciting future.
Already, Brazil and Uruguay have all but booked their places in the Under-20 World Cup in Indonesia in May of this year. Colombia also look a good bet, leaving Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela to battle for the remaining slot.
Four sides have already been eliminated so far and the big surprise was Argentina, bundled out after losing three of their four group games. In a very disappointing group, central midfielder Gino Infantino, left-footed and versatile, was their best prospect.
Chile were also dismayed by the performances of what they still hope might be their best generation in well over a decade, but attacking midfielder Lucas Assadi, skilful with a low centre of gravity, is one to watch. Peru lost all of their matches despite alway being competitive, and attacking midfielder Kevin Cabrera added to the reputation he constructed with Melgar in last year’s Copa Sudamericana. Though their tournament is over, Bolivia have grounds for hope in feisty attacking right-back Yomer Rocha and Fernando Nava, a strapping left winger, based in Brazil with Athletico Paranaense, who carries a threat cutting inside onto his right foot.