In 2003, Javier Mascherano made his full debut for Argentina before he had even played a senior game for River Plate. Argentina knew they had a special player on their hands. At the start of the year, Mascherano had given an extended display of his potential in the South American Under-20 Championship -- a tournament that probably does not receive the attention that it deserves.
Normally held every two years, the competition kicks off on Thursday and runs through until Feb. 12. after being cancelled in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last version was in 2019 and graduates from that tournament were present in all of the South American squads at the 2022 World Cup. Argentina's newly crowned world champion Julian Alvarez, for example, was on show four years ago, as were Darwin Nunez of Uruguay and Rodrygo of Brazil -- plus five of Ecuador's squad.
Ecuador were shock winners of the tournament four years ago and went on to finish third in the U-20 World Cup later that year. Their recent rise has a great deal to do with excellent youth development work. Meanwhile, Uruguay's re-emergence over the last 15 years has also been based on a succession of graduates from the U-20 ranks -- from Edinson Cavani in 2007, all the way through to Nunez in 2019 -- the youth team is an essential stepping stone and a conveyor belt leading to the senior squad.
Those who do well at U-20 level can expect a rapid promotion. And now, exactly 20 years after Mascherano made his name with Argentina's U-20s, he is now coaching the side in the 2023 version of the tournament. Only two of his squad had been born when he was in action back in 2003. Central midfielder Maximo Perrone was just a few days old back then and is now on the verge of trading Velez Sarsfield for Manchester City -- or at least one of the teams in the City Group, who already have signed Brazil striker Savio, currently on loan at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and Peru right back Kluiverth Aguilar, on loan at Lommel in Belgium.
The contingent of players at the South American Under-20 Championship who have already moved to European sides is growing. Brazil central midfielder Andrey Santos has just joined Chelsea, while Aston Villa have just signed Colombia striker Jhon Duran from Major League Soccer side Chicago Fire.
Assuming he is not pulled from the tournament at the last minute, this competition will be a big test of Duran's temperament. Colombia are hosts and face the burden of expectation as the home team. With some senior international appearances already to his name, Duran will be expected to tip the balance.
There are fond memories in Colombia of when they hosted this competition in 2005. With Hugo Rodallega scoring in every game, Colombia were crowned continental champions. For everyone else, though, something more significant happened at that tournament. It was a first glimpse of a diminutive and unassuming 17-year-old called Lionel Messi, who arrived as an unknown -- he had played one friendly for Barcelona -- and left as a star. A few months later he helped Argentina win the world title at U-20 level, and his incredible story was underway.
For both club and country, Mascherano spent plenty of time playing alongside Messi. He is perfectly placed, then, to judge the potential of one of the strikers in his squad -- 18-year-old Facundo Buonanotte, who has just been acquired by Brighton from Rosario Central. Last year Buonanotte was coached by Carlos Tevez, who went as far as to compare him to Messi. That, surely, is raising the bar too high, but it will be intriguing to see if Buonanotte can make a similar impression in Colombia as Messi managed all those years ago.
Another European-based player capable of attracting attention is Ecuador midfielder Patrickson Delgado, who nearly made it into the World Cup squad. The Ajax Amsterdam player was developed by the remarkable Independiente del Valle club, whose youth work has been so impressive over the last few years. Independiente produced the bulk of Ecuador's 2019 U-20 side, subsequently produced Moises Caicedo (also now at Brighton) and eight of the current squad. How many of them will make a name for themselves in Colombia?
Interestingly enough, the country with the most disappointing recent record in the competition is Brazil. Four slots are available in the World U-20 Cup (which this year will be held in Indonesia). Brazil failed even to qualify for the last two tournaments and missed out on three of the last four. They have made a concerted effort to do better -- but they have run into a problem. The domestic season is up and running, and some of those selected are important players from their clubs. Eight members of the squad, including Palmeiras sensation Endrick (who has already agreed a €72m deal to sign for Real Madrid in 2024) have not been released, and coach Ramon Meneses has been forced into last-minute changes. A blow? Yes, but also an opportunity for those who have received a late call up.
The history of football is full of stories of players taking advantage of an unexpected chance and, until the final on Feb. 12, the South American Under-20 Championship will be offering a springboard to many a young career.