South American U20 Championships: Five stars to watch

Hundreds of scouts and football agents from all over the world are currently descended on the little-known Chilean city of Rancagua, around an hour’s drive south of the capital Santiago.

The reason? The South American U20 Championships is in full swing and everyone has come in search of the continent’s next superstar.

This championship has previously served as a career springboard for the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez, and it is therefore a must-watch for the biggest European clubs as they sweep the planet in search of the next big thing.

Now entering its final stage, with the top six teams from the first phase facing each other in round-robin format, the tournament will decide which four sides book a spot at the 2019 U20 World Cup, to be played in Poland in May and June.

While high temperatures and poor playing surfaces have diminished the overall quality of the competition this year – and regional giants Brazil and Argentina have put in a series of lacklustre performances – it has given players from the less traditional footballing powers a chance to stand out.

Here are five of the players who have caught the eye so far:

Jose Cifuentes (Ecuador)

Ecuador have been the real surprise package in this edition of the U20 championship, winning three of their four group games and coming from behind to beat Argentina on Tuesday night in the first match of the decisive phase. And that most recent victory was thanks in no small part to midfielder and captain Jose Cifuentes.

The 18-year-old may not be the biggest, but he is a dominant presence in the Ecuadorian midfield, assured on the ball, tough in the tackle, with good anticipation and passing ability on either foot. He also has a wicked long-range shot and scored the winner in the game against Argentina with a curling free-kick that nestled into the bottom corner of the net.

He is currently under contract with Ecuadorian top-flight club Universidad Catolica, but if he keeps performing like this, they will struggle to hold onto him for much longer.

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Christian Makoun (Venezuela)

Whilst Ecuador topped Group B in the first phase, it was another underdog in the form of Venezuela that emerged with the best record from Group A. They were not prolific in front of goal, managing just five in four games, but a tight, miserly defence marshalled by Christian Makoun was enough to see them bag nine points.

Makoun – born in Venezuela to a Cameroonian-Belgian professional football father and a Venezuelan mother – came through at local club Zamora before being loaned out to Juventus in the summer of 2018. In Italy, he has featured for Juve’s U19s as well as the club’s B team, which plays in Serie C.

The 18-year-old, who can also play in midfield, is a positive, committed and skilful defender, who can carry the ball confidently out from the back and is also a threat from set pieces – on Tuesday, he scored an early goal as La Vinotinto drew with Uruguay.

Rodrygo (Brazil)

Brazil have struggled in this tournament so far, only getting through their group thanks to a last-day, 1-0 victory over Bolivia. There is one player, though, who is clearly head and shoulders above the rest. Rodrygo, already signed by Real Madrid for around €45 million, put in a brilliant performance against Venezuela, scoring two terrific goals.

The first came as the result of a well-timed run and emphatic finish from a tight angle, but it was the second that really wowed the fans. After controlling a difficult pass inside the box, he took one perfect touch to beat his marker and whipped his shot into the bottom corner of the net – a perfect example of why Los Blancos were prepared to shell out so much money to secure his services.

The 18-year-old will continue at Santos, now under the management of Jorge Sampaoli, until July, before making the move to the Spanish capital.

Carlos Cuesta (Colombia)

Even more so than Venezuela, Colombia have relied on a strong defence to get them into the latter stages of this competition. Los Cafeteros have managed just two goals in five outings so far, but thanks to their defence only conceding one, that has brought them a total of eight points. The main man behind that solidity is Atlético Nacional’s Carlos Cuesta.

At just 5’10”, he is not your usual big, bruising centre-half, instead using his intelligent positioning to make sure he wins the ball before the attacker can get there. He is quick across the ground, strong in the tackle, elegant, confident in tight spaces and distributes the ball beautifully. He’s also not too bad in the air, being able to outjump pretty much anyone. In short, Cuesta has it all.

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He has been around the first-team squad of 2016 Copa Libertadores champions Atletico Nacional since he was just 17 and already has over 50 top-level appearances to his name. If your club decides they want to sign Cuesta, they will have to join a pretty substantial queue.

Jordan Rezabala (Ecuador)

As Ecuador have already managed five more goals than the next best team at the South American U20 Championship, it would be negligent to leave out their most creative attacker. Jordan Rezabala is a smart, tricky little left-footed number 10 in the truest South American style.

He is constantly on the move, looking for one-touch passing combinations and killer through-balls for the team’s two flying wingers and centre-forward Leonardo Campana. His shooting is precise and he has already hit the net three times in the tournament, including a beautifully struck free-kick against Paraguay.

Rezabala plays for Independiente Del Valle, an Ecuadorian minnow that made a surprise run to the Libertadores final in 2016 and has made a fine habit of producing top-quality footballers over the last few years.

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