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SPORTS | 20-01-2023 12:45

Argentina’s youngsters look to shine in South American Championship

On Saturday the Argentine Under-20 team takes the field against Paraguay in their first match of the traditional South American Championship, played for the first time in four years after the 2021 edition fell victim to Covid.

Just over a month has passed since Argentina's dream of seeing Lionel Messi get his hands on the World Cup trophy finally came true and, judging by the spontaneous renditions of Muchaaaachoooos that continue to ring in the air at asados and parties across the country, it will not be forgotten any time soon. But the world of football stops for no man, or indeed nation, and some of the more anxious and among us are already starting to cast an eye towards the next edition, so far and yet so nearby in 2026.

France's failure to topple La Scaloneta back in December left in place one of the game's most ominous records. Not since the great Brazil side of 1958 and 1962, with Pelé, Garrincha and the rest, has anyone successfully retained the World Cup title. Maintaining a winning team across two cycles, while adding the necessary fresh talent to replace ageing or otherwise unavailable players, has proved a near-impossible task in the modern game, despite several countries coming close – the aforementioned 2022 runners-up for one, and the Argentina and Brazil sides inspired by Diego Maradona and Ronaldo respectively in 1990 and 1998. With or without Messi, La Albiceleste will face a monumental challenge.

Some of the first hints as to their hopes of glory will be on display this month in Colombia. On Saturday the Argentine Under-20 team takes the field against Paraguay in their first match of the traditional South American Championship, played for the first time in four years after the 2021 edition fell victim to Covid.

Youth football is a notoriously erratic predictor of future success. Plenty of apparent wonderkids who have taken the Championship or Under-20 World Cup by storm have gone on to mediocre senior careers, while others manage to skip the youth levels altogether on their way to stardom. But in a well-managed system the opportunity is there to create a progression up the ranks, as Argentina famously showed back in the 2000s when, thanks to the tireless work of former coach José Pekerman, the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María all took junior honours and went on to do great things for the national side.

Even in more recent years and lacking that coherence and stability, Argentina have managed to send players through. World Cup winners Julián Álvarez and Thiago Almada were both present in the 2019 South American Championship team that took second place behind Ecuador, while another five champions – including Belgrano promise Cristian Romero, Boca's 18-year-old full-back Nahuel Molina and Lautaro Martínez, already banging in goals with Racing – took fourth place in 2017. Reason enough to play close attention to the current edition, where the Albiceleste will be participating under the watchful eye of ex-Barcelona and Liverpool ace Javier Mascherano.

The midfield in particular stands out as an area of some promise for Mascherano's young charges. Gino Infantino and Facundo Buonanotte stood out as two potential aces in an otherwise underwhelming Rosario Central team last season and will relish the chance to re-ignite their partnership following the latter's move to Brighton. They are joined by another Premier League recruit, Manchester City's ex-Vélez youngster Maxi Perrone, while Spanish-born Nico Paz, the son of former Newell's and Argentina defender Pablo, has earned rave reviews in Real Madrid's second-string Castilla team. Further up, another Central lad, Alejo Véliz, became an overnight sensation in Rosario with his derby winner against Newell's, though his burly, physical profile is often – but of course, not always – the sign of a player who will prove more effective in the youth game than as a senior.

If you wish to see perhaps Argentina's biggest hope of the future, meanwhile, keep an eye on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Alejandro Garnacho will not be taking part in the Championship but the 18-year-old phenomenon continues to impress for Manchester United, filling with aplomb the Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole left in the Reds' squad after the World Cup with a string of excellent performances. Garnacho still needs to play four official matches for Argentina to ensure his future lies with the country of his mother's birth and not his native Spain, but all indications suggest the winger is raring to jump on the Scaloneta as soon as possible. There is plenty to be excited about, then, looking forward, even as the celebrations continue over Messi and the Albiceleste's historic triumph to deliver that much-coveted third star a month ago.

 

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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