Competition's most successful team
30 January ~ The Under-20 World Cup gets underway in Turkey on June 21 and when it does there will be two big names missing from the lineup. The most successful nations in the competition's history, Argentina (with six wins) and Brazil (with five), have won almost two-thirds of the 18 editions of the tournament. Reputation has counted for nothing in the Under-20 South American Championship, though, and both sides were eliminated in the first round at the end of last week, meaning they've failed to qualify for the World Cup.
For hosts Argentina, it's been a particularly bitter blow. Although Brazil won the last Under-20 World Cup, Argentina were the dominant side in the early years of the 21st century, winning three of the four competitions played between 2001 and 2007. They gave vital big-stage experience to players who would go on to play for the full national side – Javier Saviola in 2001, Lionel Messi in 2005 and Sergio Agüero in 2007 all won the award for the competition's best player and were top-scorers in the same years.
The youth system put in place by José Pekerman, who was in charge for the 2001 victory before taking over the full national team, was continued by Hugo Tocalli (manager for the fourth place finish in 2003 and the 2007 triumph) and Francisco Ferraro (2005) but stewardship of the youth side has fallen off a cliff since. This month marks the second straight youth event Argentina have failed to qualify for – if you wondered why they weren't in the Olympic football tournament at London 2012, there's your answer: they didn't qualify. It's also the second Under-20 World Cup they haven't reached in their last three attempts.
The decision to appoint Diego Maradona as manager of the full national team in 2008 was the most visible, but not the only, managerial mistake the Argentinian FA (AFA) made. At the same time various friends of Maradona (for the most part team-mates from the 1986 World Cup) were given coaching positions, including Sergio Batista being put in charge of the Under-20s. They promptly failed to qualify for Egypt 2009, having won the previous two championships. Then, though they reached Colombia 2011 with manager Walter Perazzo enjoying a trip back to the country of his birth, they didn't impress much before going out to Portugal in the quarter-finals.
Ferraro, the manager when a Messi-inspired side won in the Netherlands in 2005, blames the hype around the new generation of players. "We're going backwards," he says, "and other sides have overtaken us. When I hear on TV that a player is a crack [great talent], I turn the volume down. I hate it when players go to Europe and six months later are back in Argentina. That's why I congratulate Crespo, [Walter] Samuel, Zanetti and Batistuta." Media hype can play as much of a part here as anywhere, clearly.
Ferraro's most telling comment is also the one that seems to have been least picked up on: "We have to work out a project," he concludes, referring to a direction and style of play the team can focus on. Quality of players is an issue, with only a handful of really good youngsters already in or around their clubs' first-team squads. But that's not always the fault of the youth system; Mauro Icardi, who has dual Argentinian-Italian citizenship, wasn't released by Sampdoria for the competition. He scored four goals in his side's 6-0 win over Pescara last weekend, the day after Cesare Prandelli announced he'd try to talk Icardi into playing for Italy instead of Argentina.
Of more importance is the identity of those in charge of the players' development. Marcelo Trobbiani was another poor appointment by the AFA. Argentina fans, for the sake of the future of their senior and junior national sides, will be hoping his replacement, if one comes, is a wiser choice. Sam Kelly, Hasta El Gol Siempre