As a beaming Lionel Messi wheeled away from an ugly goalmouth scramble after putting Barcelona’s victory over Atletico Madrid beyond doubt, he was set upon by the evening’s two other scorers.
Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi made their way back to the back to their positions arm-in-arm having together lifted a slightly deflated mood around the club beset by managerial pressure and rumours of their favourite son’s discontent.
The victory left Barca just a point behind Real Madrid in the Liga BBVA and three ahead of Atletico and it was these three South American stars, each arriving at the club via hugely different paths, that were its architects.
There’s nothing quite as marketable as a South American football star. By now the image has become something of a cliché: the young pibe winding through cobbled, uneven streets from dawn to dusk, with nothing but a rudimentary ball and a dream; carrying that childlike exuberance into the professional game and becoming a star.
The advent of the internet has dulled many of football’s most romantic aspects, but an awed reverence for South American football – that inexhaustible font of talent – remains.
This mystique coupled with the startling regularity of transcendent prodigies has led to an arms race amongst European clubs, desperate to snatch up the next global poster boy before their rivals.
And it’s not just championships and shirt sales at stake. Udinese have developed a sustainable model for their club based primarily on sourcing cheap, young talent from footballing outposts and selling them on for huge profit.
Though their scouting network extends throughout the world, South America has provided them with their biggest windfalls: Alexis Sanchez was 17 when the Zebrette plucked him from Chilean side Cobreloa for €3 million. Five years after trading the Atacama for the Dolomites, Sanchez was fetching over €25 million from Barcelona.
Mauricio Isla and Juan Cuadrado are among other big names to have stopped over in Udine on their way to European giants. Indeed, such is the Italian club’s vigour in the South American transfer market that two players at this year’s tournament are already on the club’s books, with two more at sister club Granada.
The South American talent pool thus provides something of a level playing field – if a talent is spotted early enough, even a middling-sized club could be able to get their hands on him.
The Campeonato Sudamericano Sub-20 – the South American Youth Championship – is a chance, for fans and clubs alike, to glimpse the future. In a world obsessed with comparison, it is an opportunity to hang your hat on the new Maradona, Pele or Messi.
This year’s edition, hosted by Uruguay, started on the 14th January and runs to the 7th February. Three and a half weeks to glimpse the future.
The competition is comprised of two round robin group stages, with the entire field of ten nations split into two groups for the first round and six teams progressing to the final round. This gives most of the teams nine games to play, and to impress any watching suitors.
Spread across only three venues, teams can be sure that scouts are unlikely to miss much of the action.
Unsurprisingly, it has been dominated by Brazil (11 titles from 26 biennial tournaments) and, historically, Uruguay (7, with the last coming in 1981 to end a run of four successive victories). Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia – the reigning holders – are the only other nations to have won.
That Colombian side that clinched the title in January 2013 featured Juan Quintero in a starring role. The young number ten was owned at the time by Atlético National from Medellín, but a series of stirring displays throughout the tournament, similar in dominance to those by his countryman James Rodriguez at the World Cup, convinced Porto to sign him up and just a year and a half later he was included in the Colombian squad that won so many admirers in Brazil.
Back in the times before everyone knew everything about world football, before a keen spectator could spend all 24 hours of a day watching live football – a Vietnamese cup game in the morning, some Jordanian action to take you up to lunch, some third division Czech fayre in the afternoon and evening then Peruvian Primera to take you back through to the early hours of the morning – it was tournaments like these that launched hitherto unknowns into greatness.
In 1979, Argentina compiled a squad of exemplary strength. Together they finished second in the South American tournament to staunch hosts Uruguay and went on to win the World Youth Championships at a canter, breezing past their continental conquerors in the semi-finals and defeating the might of the Soviet Union in the final in Tokyo.
Ramón Díaz, the current Paraguayan national coach, caught the eye for his goalscoring prowess, but it was a young stout Diego Maradona that really stood out for his all-round virtuosity.
After their maiden World Cup victory the previous year, the Argentinian public regarded all levels of the national side with renewed interest. This left-footed wizard beguiled those who had crossed the Rio de la Plata into Uruguay and in Japan announced his talent to the world.
Times have of course changed, and much of the mystery of South American football has been lifted. Quite a few of the players in Uruguay have already signed with clubs in Europe, and others will no doubt be on the watch-list of many scouts.
But perhaps one of the things that makes the Sud-Am Sub-20 prominent amongst international youth tournaments worldwide today is the sheer number of highly-touted youngsters growing up in the region.
Such is the thirst for players to get a seat on the European gravy train, and more importantly for their agents and families to secure a plus one, that hyperbole and exaggeration is almost taken as standard.
This coming together of the most promising players from across the continent allows names to be put to faces and wheat to be separated from the chaff.
Little was really known in Argentina about Messi when the 2005 tournament rolled around. Barcelona had virtually plucked him from the crib to move to their academy, and aside from a handful of games for the club’s B team and a few minute-long cameos as a substitute for the senior side, there wasn’t much to go on.
There was a buzz around the diminutive 17-year-old though, and the rejected offer to represent Spain’s youth side hanging in the Catalan air.
The Argentine Football Association drafted him into the twenty-man squad – the side’s youngest player by almost a year – and the rest is history.
Messi’s five goals allowed the Albiceleste to finish third and qualify for that year’s World Youth Championships, which they subsequently won with the burgeoning Messi claiming both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards. Out of a year mirroring that of the great Maradona, a legend was born.
The tournament is thus not just a chance for desperate players to thrust themselves into the spotlight, it’s also a chance to cement reputations.
This year, many eyes will be on the Brazilian Gabriel. Watching the mostly grainy footage available online, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the videos of a figure in all-white plucking the ball out of the air and winding his way between defenders with intricate but purposeful flicks were of Neymar in his Santos days.
That this 18-year-old born on the outskirts of Sao Paolo has been touted as the Brazilian talisman’s natural successor is little wonder. He even has a haircut and a permanent yet photogenic snarl to rival his forbear.
With two years of regular football for Santos already under his belt, the fluid attacker already has a contracted release clause of €50 million and a nickname tying him to one of the greatest South American goalscorers of recent generations – ‘Gabigol’.
European marketing teams will be salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on Gabriel’s image rights, but first he must go some way to proving that he can live up to the hype.
For the anecdotal histories of football are littered with players destined for great things but never really were. Brazil and Argentina in particular provide a great number of examples of players who never lived up to their billing: Andres D’Alessandro spent most of his career bouncing around middling European clubs trying to convince people that he really was ‘the next Maradona’ (mark XII); Kerlon – he of the head-scratching ‘seal dribble’ – was the court jester that could produce goals and assists almost as spectacular as his showboating, now plying his trade in the Japanese third division.
A good performance in the Sub-20 is by no means certification of potential made good, but it provides a platform for players to perform outside of the closed-door of hype and away from the spurious arena of the domestic leagues.
Alongside Gabriel, those hoping to build on their reputations this year include Uruguayan Gastón Pereiro – a languid midfielder who will have the hopes of the home crowd pinned on him after a good year for league leaders Nacional; Sebastián Vegas – a cultured central defender from Audax Italiano in Chile; and the second youngest player at the tournament, the 16-year-old Paraguayan striker Sergio Diaz (who has already notched his first goal in Paraguay’s opening 4-2 win over Bolivia).
While other continental tournaments like this are a chance for youngsters to feel the pride of pulling on their nation’s shirt, this South American version is much more pointed.
It is speed-dating in the sporting world, like the NFL Combine: it is a showcase for your talents and a chance to realise your dreams. And it’s so much more interesting because of it.