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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 08:34 GMT
Tim Vickery column
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates during the 2005 South American Under-20 Championship
Lionel Messi was the star of the 2005 Under-20 Championship

Two years ago Lionel Messi used the South American Under-20 Championship as his springboard to glory.

The same tournament also threw up the Chilean sensation Matias Fernandez, who has just made his debut for Villareal, and Wigan's Luis Antonio Valencia.

The 2003 version revealed Liverpool's Mark Gonzalez, Messrs Tevez and Mascherano, Daniel Alves, Daniel Carvalho and Dudo Cearense of Brazil, PSV's Peruvian striker Jefferson Farfan and many more.

Held every two years, the South American Under-20 Championship is the mother lode - the greatest collection of young footballing talent on the planet.

The current version has just kicked off in Paraguay - and it looks like being the most challenging ever.

For a start there's the venue. January is high summer in Paraguay - it is hot enough to build up a sweat sitting in the shade sipping a fruit juice.

Then there is the workload. If they make it into the second round, the teams that started on Sunday face nine games in 22 days. Colombia, who kick off on Wednesday, have the punishing prospect of nine games in 19 days.

Then there is the prize. At stake, as ever, are four places in the World Youth Cup, which will be staged in Canada this July. This time, though, there is an added attraction - or burden.

The Olympic gold medal is the only title Brazil have never won and they are desperate to win it

Last month it was announced that this tournament will also serve as the qualifiers for the 2008 Olympics. This was a bolt from the blue.

Normally South America stages an under-23 tournament to decide its Olympic teams and one had been planned for Ecuador next year.

But, for reasons that have not been made clear, this was hurriedly scrapped. Instead, events in Paraguay this month will determine which two teams will represent the continent in Beijing next year.

This was a late imposition which has piled extra pressure on the youngsters currently in action in Paraguay. It means there will be no respite and there is plenty to play for until the final ball is kicked on 28 January.

This is especially true for Brazil, where the Olympic gold medal is an obsession. It is the only title Brazil have never won and they are desperate to add it to their collection.

In their coverage of the current tournament, the focus of the Brazilian media is overwhelmingly on the place at stake in the Olympics and not the World Youth Cup.

In football terms, the latter is a far more credible tournament, but Brazil have already won it four times.

The Brazilian youngsters certainly felt the pressure in their first game against Chile on Sunday as they went a goal down at the end of a truly horrific first half.

Some moments of individual brilliance - two wonderful goals from Leandro Lima and a pair of chillingly efficient finishes from Alexandre Pato - gave them a 4-2 win.

But with Argentina, Colombia and hosts Paraguay sure to be strong, the Olympic place cannot be taken for granted.

Older Paraguayans have a saying: In summer, if you see something moving after lunch then it's either a dog or a Brazilian.

The joke comes from the fact that Brazil, with its Portuguese heritage, does not share in the more Hispanic habit of the siesta.

This year those dogs might have more company. There will be no time for afternoon naps for South American players dreaming of glory, or European scouts filling their notebooks.

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12 Jul 05 |  World Football


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