Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Football - No. 20 : Latin Wonderkids

South America has long exported its football talent to Europe.
In recent years, however, the talent drain has been beginning earlier as young players flee Economic and social uncertainty at home in Brazil or Argentina in order to live more comfortably, funded by their new European owners. Lionel Messi and his entire family left Rosario in Argentina because his boyhood club, Newells Old Boys, could not afford to pay for the hormonal treatments needed to stimulate his growth if "the flea" was ever to develop enough to give him a shot at a career as a professional. Barcelona could afford it, and afford to employ his father and put up the family in town. The Da Silva twins left Brazil before ever featuring for the first team at Fluminense. Manchester United had spotted them at an International Youth Tournament and moved quickly to sign them up.

This is increasingly common. And South America continues to produce great players, with new wonderkids appearing on the conveyer belt every season. They shuffle off to a mid-ranked European club, struggle with just about everything, go on loan, and finally return home, older and wiser, career more or less wasted. The odd exceptional talent - a Messi or a Kaka - thrives on or ahead of schedule. Many others take a few years to adapt to the weather, the rigours of the training ground, the physicality of the European game and the expectations upon their shoulders. Life must feel different once you're worth millions of dollars. Still, European Club football is full of South Americans. The latter stages of the Champions League positively teem with Brazilians and Argentines, alongside the occasional Uruguayan. And they keep coming. There will be more this summer, and in the January transfer window, and after the 2010 World Cup, when a few new talents have been unearthed.

I watch a lot of Argentinian football, and as much of the Copa Libertadores as I can. So I know a little about Uruguayan and Brazilian and Chilean football too. Enough to have spotted a few up and coming stars. It helps, too, that the media in those countries carefully monitors young talent in order to predict the next big thing as early as possible - many of these kids (none older than 22) have been persistently linked with the usual suspects (Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barca, Milan, Inter etc) for years, and its as if the local media wants them to leave and further weaken domestic leagues. Go figure. Anyway, a short primer of some names to watch out for over the next few years:

Nicolas Lodeiro of Nacional (Uruguay)

Lodeiro, 20, is always being compared with Lionel Messi, which suggests how highly he is rated in South America. There are similarities - he is short (5ft7in) and plays on the wing yet with a licence to drift inside and link up attacks. But his game is very different to Messi's. He is more old-fashioned in that his playmaking comes more through passing than through the penetrative dribbles which Messi favours. He reads the game well and has an eye for a killer ball, which he appears to have an eerie knack of seeing before it actually materialises. He scores fewer goals than Messi, altough this part of his game looks to be improving. He is also a hard worker, tracking back and ferreting for the ball and displaying some trademark Uruguayan grit when contesting possession. He really emerged at the South American U21 Championship in January, where he scored three goals in six games and ran the show for Uruguay, who qualified for the U21 World Cup as a result. Since then he has played a key role in Nacional's successful run to the semi-finals of the Libertadores for the first time in over a decade. Uruguayan football never holds onto its brightest stars for very long, and the odds are that he will be in Europe soon, and the loudest talk has been of a move to either Barcelona or Liverpool...

Javier Pastore of Huracan (Argentina)

The Argentine League has been quite topsy turvy of late. The traditional "Big Five" (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing Club and San Lorenzo) have suffered through sales of young stars to Europe and financial crises brought on by mismanagement and concerted attempts at Libertadores success. River won the Clausura last year, then came bottom in the Apertura, and Boca are not too far off repeating that feat in this Season. Which means that the dominant sides at the moment are a lowlier trio of Buenos Aires clubs - Lanus, Velez Sarsfeld and Huracan. Huracan have a historical reputation for attractive, attacking football (which in a country as devoted to attacking football as Argentina is no small claim) and under current coach Angel Cappa, they more than live up to that reputation. they also feature a duo of young stars who are stealing headlines in Argentina and attracting attention in Europe. Matias De Federico is another half-pint dribbler, blessed with explosive acceleration and feet seemingly magnetic to the ball. Inevitably, he is continually compared with Messi. Javier Pastore, on the other hand, is a playmaker for whom the term "elegant" might have been coined. Graceful of movement and with a fine range of creative passing, Pastore is also a deceptively strong runner, covering lots of ground with his rangy 6ft1in frame. This allows him to arrive late in the box on a regular basis and has meant he has scored 8 goals this Season for Huracan, including two in a 4-0 hammering of River Plate (he provided an assist for another). He seems always calm and composed, and his use of the ball, given any space at all, is often sublime. His agent reported that Man Utd bid £8 Million for him a month or so ago, but at 19, he may need another Season or two in Argentina before a move really appeals. He also needs to impress his National Team Coach, who snubbed him when picking an entire squad of domestically based players for a recent friendly against Panama. De Federico was selected (and scored) and the suspicion stands that Pastore was excluded because Huracan would not release him for the U21 Championship. In the past, Maradona has similarly punished Gonzalo Higuain, so at least Pastore is in good company...

Juan Forlin of Boca Juniors (Argentina)

The Argentine National team, struggling somewhat under the guidance of Diego Maradona, have a few problem positions if they do reach the World Cup in South Africa. Chief amongst them is Centre Back. Since the retirement of Roberto Ayala and the long term injury to Gabriel Milito, nobody has satisfactorily made either of the central defensive positions definitively his own. Maradona has experimented with various different players and combinations there, with mixed results. Which explains why Juan Forlin was fast-tracked into the squad during his first full Season as a first team player at Boca. If he continues at his current rate of development, then he could well be first choice for his country by the time the World Cup rolls around. He is certainly good enough. At 5ft11in, he is short for a centre half, but he makes up for it with incredible anticipation, smooth, apparently effortless pace and clean, precise tackling. He makes many sliding challenges, yet rarely concedes a free kick, instead often emerging with the ball at his feet, his opponent baffled by this lightning ghost. His spring is good in partial compensation for his stature. And, in the Boca tradition, he is adept at passing the ball out from the heart of defence. Barecelona have been sniffing around...

Sebastian Blanco of Lanus (Argentina)

Over the last two or three years, Lanus have easily and consistently played the best football in Argentina. They won their first ever League title two years ago (Apertura 2007), a triumph for their inimitably Argentinean short passing style. They possess a surfeit of creative, positive midfielders. Diego Valeri, the most classical, old-fashioned playmaker to emerge from Argentina since Juan Roman Riquelme (but with pace and a better work ethic, even if he does lack Riquelme's genius), was their lynchpin when they won that League title. Since then both Eduardo Salvio and Sebastian Blanco have become fixtures in the team. Blanco has often been preferred to the out-of-form Valeri this season. A truly two-footed attacker, he can play either wing, as a support striker, or in the Playmaker role at the tip of midfield, which is where he seems best used. Beautifully balanced and with a quick turn, it is that ability to use either foot to deliver his passes which marks him out, and the way he has started to shape Lanus' attacks with changes of play and sudden slide rule balls which suggest he could have a very bright future indeed. Lanus have done a good job holding onto all of their their young talent so far, Blanco included, for fear of selling off all of their success, but sooner or later the money on offer will prove too good to resist...

Maxi Moralez of Velez Sarsfield (Argentina)

Maxi Moralez stands out on this list for having done it all already. Aged 22, he has already moved to Europe for a lot of money, already failed and returned with his tail between his legs. And somehow it seems to have improved him as a player. He built a great reputation for himself at Racing Club in his teens, his technique, link up play, quick passing and incisive runs all impressing observers. At the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, he was the outstanding performer in the victorious Argentina side which also included Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Franco Di Santo. Moralez, clearly at home in the traditional Number 10 position in the hole behind Di Santo and Aguero, made his strikers look good with his clever prompting and numerous fine assists. FC Moscow promptly bought him for $5 Million. He didn't adapt well to Moscow, barely played, and was loaned back to Racing after 6 months, out of shape and in poor form. It took him around another 6 months to recover form, fitness and confidence, and by then it was unclear whether Racing actually wanted to keep him. So Moralez joined Velez Sarsfield instead, was given the Number 10 shirt and the responsibility to make things happen, and has driven the club to within one game of title success. He is the definition of a livewire - quick on his feet and with them, always looking for options, always a threat. at some point a return to Europe seems inevitable, perhaps in a more hospitable league than Russia's.

Douglas Costa of Gremio (Brazil)

A left-winger with a penchant for lots of step-overs and stunning swerves above the ball, Costa has already been compared to Ronaldinho, Robinho, and Cristiano Ronaldo in his native Brazil. One thing he definitely has in common with these players is an uncommon cockiness - he swaggers with belief in his own ability. Which does seem partly warranted by his undoubted potential. He has vision, astonishing pace and is a magnificent dribbler. His dead-ball ability also belies his youth (he is 19). But he is far from the finished article and above Brazilian ball wizards of his ilk always must loom the shadow of Denilson, who never came close to living up to the huge transfer fee which took him to Europe (he went to Real Betis for £21.5 Million in 1998). Douglas could do with at least one more Season in Brazil before his inevitable move materialises. He has been, unsurprisingly, most prominently linked with Man Utd as a Ronaldo replacement...

Gary Medel of Universidad Catolica (Chile)

His nickname: "El Pitbull" probably tells you all you need to know. A defensive midfielder in the Gattuso/Mascherano mould, Medel is a gritty competitor with fine footballing ability and a fantastic engine. Universidad Catolica are one of Chile's "Big Three", and for them he patrols the midfield, but Chilean National Coach Marcelo Bielsa usually uses him on the right side of a three-man defence, while encouraging him to forage forward, employing that amazing energy to burn his way through a match. In the recent 2-0 victory over Argentina in Santiago, Medel was probably Man of the Match, his drive and hunger for the ball and awesome sight. He will undoubtedly impress many at next year's World Cup, where Chile, who play a lovely high tempo passing game which is the most exciting, attractive sight in current South American football, could well be a surprise package. Independiente of Argentina seemed to have a move for him tied up a few months back, but that appears to have dissolved at the contractual stage. He will undoubtedly be anchoring the midfield of a major European club very soon, however...



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