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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 09:29 GMT
Young guns take centre stage
By Tim Vickery

From Diego Maradona to Ronaldinho, the South American Under-20 Championships have been a top breeding ground for footballing talent.

Argentina's Lionel Messi
Messi has justified his pre-tourament billing
The current version of the tournament has just got underway in Colombia.

It is being staged in the country's coffee-growing region, and even after just four days of action it is already giving a buzz to spectators, scouts and press.

Argentina's Lionel Messi is living up to all the pre-tournament hype.

Barcelona took him across the Atlantic when he was just 13. Four years later, he has made a handful of first-team appearances with the Catalan giants.

The attacking midfielder is the youngest member of the Argentina squad, and coach Hugo Tocalli has opted to bring him along slowly. Messi started Argentina's opening two games on the bench.

Both times he came on to give cameo displays of his precocious talent. With wonderful balance and a magnificent left foot, he has scored three superbly-taken goals.

He has quickly been given a nickname - the Messiah.

With his Barcelona background, Messi was expected to show something special.

The hosts' new hero, meanwhile, had less far to travel, and went into the competition without carrying the burden of expectation.

Hugo Rodallega plays for Colombian club Deportes Quindio. Their stadium is one of the three grounds being used to stage the tournament.

Colombia's Hugo Rodallega
Rodallega's performance against Bolivia caught the eye
The local connection may well have clinched his place in the proceedings. Rodallega was not named in Colombia's original squad, and only came in after the New Year when other players were forced to pull out.

He began Colombia's debut game against Bolivia on the bench, was brought on at half-time and rifled in four cracking goals before the final whistle.

They flew in off both left and right foot, and in a country where out-and-out goalscorers are few and far between, such emphatic finishing was enough to make him an instant star.

Then, with a quite stunning overhead kick, he scored the only goal of the game against Peru.

How can he possibly top that? Is this the arrival of a world-class marksman, or is it one of those cases of a striker suddenly exploding into form that he may never be able to repeat?

Is Messi the genuine article, or will his brand of elusive magic prove too frail to thrive at the highest level?

The South American Under-20 Championships will probably not supply the answers.

But - as in the case of the boy from across the Atlantic, and lad from down the road - the tournament in Colombia is already providing some excellent questions.





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