On Wednesday Argentina’s under-20s will begin their South American Championship campaign against Ecuador in the hope that this new batch of youngsters can restore some pride after recent failures. As ever La Albiceleste will be in Uruguay as one of the pre-tournament favourites, blessed with some extremely talented individuals but after the acrimonious first round exit on home soil two years ago and without a South American trophy since 2003 pessimism is rife.
The doom-mongers have already been saying that Messi and co’s failure to capture the World Cup in Brazil could have been Argentina’s last chance for sometime at international glory. The era of Argentina dominating youth football during the late 90s and early 00s, initially, under the stewardship of José Pekerman yielded multiple under-20 World Cups and three South American championships. More importantly it served as a formative education for the future stars of the national side – Juan Pablo Sorín, Juan Román Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso, Pablo Aimar, Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María, to name just a handful of those that won under-20 honours before graduating to the national side.
However, the South American Championship triumph in 2003, also held in Uruguay, was inexusably the last time Argentina won the competition. Two under-20 World Cup followed shortly after this but no major trophy has been lifted since 2007 and this is a statistic that is not permissible for a nation of Argentina’s stature.
Is the flow of talent that was once so abundant drying up? Are the naysayers correct to surmise that the national sides chances are dwindling as a result?
There is no denying that the players referred to earlier, and many who went unmentioned, lit up the under-20 squads of years before but Argentina is still producing young players of colossal potential which is why the nations domestic leagues are the largest exporters of footballers around the world.
Here in lies one of the issues as teenagers are plucked from their youth sides at younger and younger ages to join up with European academies and reserves and often see their progress stunted by a lack of competitive football. However, although this might have increased over time, it was certainly evident in the successful sides between 1995 and 2007. The economy and the lure of European football make this migration unavoidable and is certainly a contributing factor when debating the causes of Argentina’s slump at youth level.
The much larger problem lies, as so many in Argentine football do, at the doors of the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA). Appointing José Péckerman as under-20 coach in 1994 and investing in this level of football brought immediate results with Argentina winning the under-20 World Cup in Qatar a year later. What followed over the next 12 years was an unparalleled level of success as group after group of supremely gifted players, coached effectively by Péckerman and then his assistant, Hugo Tocalli won virtually everything going.
However, whether it was complacency or simply cronyism on behalf of AFA president, Julio Grondona the youth divisions of Argentine football suffered. A series of ill-conceived appointments, culminating in Grondona’s son, Humbertito taking over have resulted in tournament failures and a dearth of graduates from the under-20s to the national side.
At the World Cup in Brazil, Argentina took the oldest average squad in the tournament with only Swansea centre back, Federico Fernández coming through from the under-20s in the last six years. That in itself reflects very badly on the sides of the past few years but looking back at those squads there are still some excellent footballers who will still harbour ambitions to play for the national side.
Two years ago, the South American Championship was held in Argentina, and once more the hosts were tipped as one of the tournament favourites. A sole victory in the final group game against Colombia however, meant Argentina crashed out in the first round to the embarrassment of the nation. This was an unmitigated disaster but looking back on the squad that Marcelo Trobbiani had available shows a group of players that current national side manager, Gerardo Martino may well call upon in the coming year or so.
Luciano Vietto had seen his progress begin to stall at Racing Club but since his move to Villarreal the 21-year-0ld has flourished and is once more starting to show the sort of promise that those who watched him as a 17-year-old debutant believed he had. Vietto was joined by Juan Manuel Iturbe, himself the subject of a monster summer transfer and now a starting figure in Roma’s Serie A title challenge, as well as Manuel Lanzini, Ricardo Centurión and the now highly sought after Matías Kranevitter.
All still under 22 years of age, these players are far from written off for the national side and so the promise of the those graduating through is still a very real possibility. What 2013 does serve as though is a stark warning to Grondona and the current squad that in spite of their talents, complacency and poor preparation could see them punished in Uruguay.
So, who from the squad of 2015 will all eyes be on when Argentina kick off against Ecuador in Colonia on Wednesday night?
The tournament marks a welcome return to football for 19-year-old Ángel Correa after his career was threatened just as it was beginning. As an integral part of San Lorenzo’s championship winning side and Copa Libertadores triumph, the pacy attacker was signed by Atlético Madrid. His medical discovered a problem with his heart and so following surgery in New York, Correa has spent the last few months recovering and regaining match fitness. Grondona has handed him the captain’s armband for the tournament and his role in the attack, just behind the main strikers will be crucial to Argentina’s success.
Correa is one who has already made the jump to Europe but he is not alone. Rosario born, Maxi Rolón was signed by Barcelona at a young age (sounds familiar) and is now a part of the Barca B side alongside the other Masía graduates. Direct, pacy and skillful Rolón has plenty of competition up front but he could be the player to fire Argentina to glory.
If not, the family Rolón have another opportunity to shine, as twin brother Leonardo will likely line up in the midfield. The 19-year-old already has a number of first team appearances for Vélez under his belt and good performances in Uruguay could see him follow his brother to Europe.
Leonardo Suaréz, another of the attacking options available to Grondona, made the leap just a matter of weeks ago after Villarreal signed the 18-year-old from Boca Juniors. The skillful number 10 has already shone for the under-17s and is now hoping to make the natural step up to under-20 level as his career progresses.
One player who promises great things is River Plate younster, Emanuel Mammana. The classy central defender became only the second Argentina player to receive his first full international cap before featuring for his club side at senior level, following in the footsteps of Javier Masherano. This brings a degree of pressure but River and Argentina will be hoping that his development continues along the lines of El Jefecito and if that is the case Mammana could be the future of the Albiceleste defence for many years.
Mammana could be partnered in defence by recent Fulham signing, Tiago Casasola. The former Boca central defender signed a three-year deal with the Championship side but faces competition with Grondona perhaps favouring Facundo Monteseirín and Facundo Cardozo in back three.
Behind this defence will be River Plate’s Agusto Batalla. The young goalkeeper is already attracting the interest of Real Madrid before the tournament begins and if reports are to be believed Los Merengues are preparing a €10 million offer for the 18-year-old. Still yet to make his first team bow in the Monumental it would be an offer to good to turn down.
Batalla has found his path to first team football for River blocked but under Marcelo Gallardo plenty other youngsters have gained invaluable experience that could benefit the under-20s. Midfield schemer, Tomás Martínez and strikers, Sebastián Druissi and Giovani Simeone have racked up plenty of minutes in the past six months and all three are likely to play important roles in Uruguay.
Grondona finds himself under even more pressure than his players as Argentina can not have another disaster like 2013. Recently appointed national team manager, Gerardo Martino has already made clear that he wants a more active role in the youth set up and he will be watching the development of this squad.
Argentina play Ecuador tonight at 7pm local time before facing Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia in Group A.