South America's future Ronaldinhos take to stage

England's World Cup quarter-final defeat was prepared four years ago on the playing fields of Argentina. It was there, in the 1999 South American Under-20 Championships, that Ronaldinho honed the mazy dribbles and devilish free-kicks that were to prove the undoing of Sven Goran Eriksson's men in the Far East last summer.

Those trying to tread the same path as Ronaldinho have been in action here in Uruguay in this year's version of the Under-20 Championship, which came to a close yesterday. No continent can match South America's production line of talented players. The Under-20 tournament is a fascinating preview of the continent's footballing future. Any player capable of standing out in such company has a fair chance of an excellent career.

Held every two years, the competition tests players for stamina and skill. The teams come on to the field behind a banner which reads: "Give the red card to child labour." And then the continent's youngsters are forced through a punishing schedule of nine games in three and a half weeks.

The intense action can be judged from two perspectives. First, it is a chance to assess teams. The top four sides qualify for the World Youth Cup – which this year includes both England and the Republic of Ireland. South America has established a virtual monopoly on the title: Brazil won in 1993, Argentina in '95, '97 and 2001. Uruguay reached the 1997 final and the semi-finals in '99, as did Paraguay two years ago. So the teams who qualify from the current tournament have an exceptional tradition to uphold.

More important in the long term, the South American Under-20 Championship is a chance to pick out individuals. A flock of agents are in Uruguay not only to soak up the sun in the resort of Punta del Este; there are bargains to be found.

"Our concentration was far better before we got to Uruguay," the Peruvian full-back Paolo Da La Haza said last week. "Once we arrived everyone started talking about the agents." Peru were dumped out of the tournament after losing all four of their first-round matches.

However, the activity of agents would seem to be less frenetic than in recent years. With the present crisis in, or restructuring of, European football, the days may be gone when every above average South American player could count on a move across the Atlantic. The scarcity of deals is perhaps also explained by the general consensus that the current tournament's standard has been lower than usual. Argentina are an example. Much was expected, but they have been a shadow of the exhilarating side which won the last World Youth Cup.

They do, however, have two exceptional players. The striker Fernando Cavenaghi is a fine finisher off either foot and the playmaker Carlos Tevez is a stocky figure who can spin away from his marker with ease. But nothing new has been revealed about them. Both are already well-established with Argentina's biggest clubs, River Plate and Boca Juniors, respectively. The disappointment is that their supporting cast in Uruguay has looked laboured and ordinary. After Saturday's draw with Paraguay their coach Hugo Tocalli said his side "didn't string two passes together". Even so, Argentina were the only team to book their World Youth Cup place with a game to spare.

Colombia and Paraguay were also close to qualification as the tournament entered its closing stages. The Paraguayans, typically, are resilient rather than inspired, while the Colombians are more disciplined than usual, defending deep and basing their game around the counter-attack.

As for Brazil, there was widespread disappointment when Santos chose not to release the two teenage sensations who took them to their first national title. The Santos coach Emerson Leão was Brazil's goalkeeper in the 1970s, which adds credibility to his claim that the striker Robinho "dribbles better than Pele" and the midfielder Diego "organises the play better than Zico". There will now be a fuss over whether the pair should be available for the World Youth Cup – providing Brazil have qualified.

A two-goal defeat by Uruguay here last night would probably have been enough to eliminate Brazil. It was unlikely. Uruguay have been very poor, although with home advantage the Sky Blues can never be discounted. All the same, even without Diego and Robinho, few could have predicted that Brazil would still be scrambling for points.

They rampaged through the first round, scoring 15 goals without conceding. They looked like a typical modern Brazilian side – tall and strong, in excellent physical condition, with a pair of flying full-backs. But it has been a different story in the second round. The full-backs Daniel and Jean have been closely marked, and Brazil have been stifled in midfield.

Their other problem has been a lack of emotional control when the games have become tight. They finished the matches against Paraguay and Argentina with nine men as a result of petulance. Suspensions meant that their two best players were missing against Colombia and Argentina. Brazil are not the same without the central midfielder Dudu, a towering presence who might be less athletic than Gilberto Silva, but who strokes the ball around the field with more finesse. Perhaps even more important is the left-footed striker Daniel Carvalho. With the pace and strength to chase the long diagonal ball, and the skill and intelligence to drop deep and thread passes into the box, he ensures a link between midfield and attack – and also finishes with power and precision.

Brazil were finally at full strength for last night's Uruguay match but, in a hostile stadium, the game promised to be a test of their emotional maturity, and a rousing finale to this year's competition.

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