The South American Youth Championship kicks off in Peru on Sunday, and will pack 35 games into its four week duration. The tournament, known in Brazil simply as the Sub-20, has long been viewed as the continent's premier showcase for young footballing talents, and has introduced stars such as Lionel Messi, Carlos Tévez, and Adriano to the world in recent years. As such, the championship constitutes a month-long wet dream for scouts the globe over.
The competition, though, has another function; it serves as the qualifying round for both the FIFA U-20 World Cup (which will take place in Colombia later this year) and the London 2012 Olympic football tournement. Whilst there are four places available for the former, the latter is rather more exclusive; only the top two in Peru will be making their way to the UK. The potential Olympic payoff will of course provide added motivation for all of the competing countries, but few would doubt that it tickles the fancy of Brazil in particular.
The seleção, despite a World Cup record that has occasionally threatened to border on the hegemonic, have never managed to earn an Olympic title, despite appearing in no fewer than eleven such tournaments. Admittedly, the competition has rarely been a priority for Brazil, but there is still a feeling that a haul of two silver and two bronze medals constitutes significant underachievement by the nation's own standards. Such a sentiment was echoed in Dunga's seleção for the 2008 Beijing games, a list that contained established names such as Ronaldinho and Diego alongside the usual array of emerging talents. Despite watching his charges sail through the group stages, Dunga was left bitterly disappointed by his side's semi-final capitulation at the hands of Argentina. Qualification for the London tournament, then, is viewed as paramount for the U-20 side.
Guiding Brazil in Peru is Ney Franco, a talented coach with vast experience of player development. Franco spent a total of 14 years as youth coach in Belo Horizonte; initially for Atlético Mineiro and then for their local rivals Cruzeiro. Since his first step into management with Ipatinga, Franco has enjoyed successful (if relatively brief) spells at some of Brazil's most traditional sides, including Flamengo, Botafogo, and Atlético Paranaense. After guiding Coritiba to the 2010 Série B title, the 44 year-old was appointed to his current position. One of Franco's first tasks as U-20 boss was to select the squad for the upcoming tournament. The full seleção is as follows;
Rafael Galhardo (Flamengo)
Alex Sandro (Santos)
Gabriel Silva (Palmeiras)
Bruno Uvini (São Paulo)
Alan Patrick (Santos)
Casemiro (São Paulo)
Lucas (São Paulo)
Zé Éduardo (Parma)
Diego Maurício (Flamengo)
Willian José (Grêmio Prudente)
The squad includes four Santos players who have all impressed in the past year. Neymar, of whom I'm sure the reader must now be aware, is joined by exciting left-back Alex Sandro, the versatile Danilo, and Alan Patrick, a wiry attacking midfielder. A muscle injury to Internazionale starlet Philippe Coutinho means that the creative duties are likely to fall on the shoulders of Lucas (formerly known as Marcelinho, keep up at the back), who was a revelation for São Paulo last term. It is striking, indeed, just how many of these youngsters have accrued substantial first team experience; as well as those already mentioned, Diego Maurício, Willian José, Casemiro, and Gabriel Silva have all made an impact in the Brasileirão in recent months.
The squad - who share group B with Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Paraguay - will be accompanied on their trip by Mano Menezes, the coach of the senior Brazil side. Menezes has often spoken about the need for greater continuity between the country's youth set-up and the full seleção, in order to ensure that youngsters with potential are properly groomed for an international career. In this context, his decision to travel with the group is surely an excellent one; he will be able to start building relationships with players who will form the spine of his future side. The youngsters, meanwhile, will be motivated by his presence; if the U-20 side is a stepping stone to the senior squad, strong performances could see them work their way into Menezes' plans.
The decision is yet another instance of the common sense thinking which has endeared Menezes to the footballing public. Given the kind of stubborness that defined Dunga's stint in charge of the seleção, such transparency at the heart of the Brazilian game has been greeted as a breath of fresh air. The world may be watching Franco's players, then, but the man they will really want to impress will probably be sharing their team coach.