The Folly Of Predicting The Future – Promising Players From The 2007 U20 World Cup

Courtesy of AP

Courtesy of AP

In 2007 I began to take my first tentative steps towards the vocation that I now, somewhat laughably, refer to as my career. I knew that I wanted to write about the sport that I loved and at the time the best approach seemed to be to set up a blog. And so, El Espectacular, a now-abandoned blog on Latin American football, was born.

One of my first posts on El Espectacular saw me pick 10 young Latin American prospects from the then recently concluded 2007 U20 World Cup in Canada. There were two very simple rules: the players had to be from a country in Latin America and could not already be contracted to a European club. The second of those stipulations ruled out Sergio Aguero, who was undoubtedly the star of the tournament-winning Argentina side.

With the 2013 U20 World Cup in Turkey soon due to kick off, I thought it would be interesting to look at the 10 players I picked out back in 2007 and see whether their careers have progressed as I expected them to. The results, it is fair to say, are mixed:

Maxi Moralez (Argentina) – then of Racing Club, Argentina; now of Atalanta, Italy

What I Said Then:

The small attacking midfielder is a total livewire, always making runs and wanting the ball at his feet. His pace, coupled with a surprising strength on the ball, allowed him to run past opposition players with ease and he showed a keen eye for goal too, netting four goals in Argentina’s run to the final.

What I Say Now:

Moralez earned himself a move to FC Moscow on the back of his impressive performances in the U20 World Cup, but failed to settle in Russia and returned to Argentina on loan just a year later having appeared just six times. His returned to his best in a highly successful two-year spell with Velez Sarsfield that yielded two league titles and earned him another opportunity in Europe when Atalanta paid €8 million to secure his signature ahead of the 2011/12 season.

The attributes that first brought Moralez to my attention have been on clear display since his move to Serie A, with six goals and six assists in his debut season marking him out as one of the best newcomers to the league. A slower second season, in which he managed just one goal and two assists, suggests that Atalanta may be his level, but he has certainly proven himself a useful player in one of Europe’s top leagues.

Ever Banega (Argentina) – then of Boca Juniors, Argentina; now of Valencia, Spain

What I Said Then:

Banega provided the beat to the rhythm of the Argentine play throughout the tournament. Sitting at the back of their midfield, he picked the ball up off of the defense and sprayed passes around all over the field to grateful teammates. He showed great skill on the ball in tight situations, constantly turning players and creating that little bit of space to size up defense splitting passes. Despite his build, he also showed himself to be good in the tackle, winning many unlikely challenges with larger players. His only flaw is a tendency to take players on deep inside his own half, potentially giving the ball away in dangerous areas. He is only 18, so he has plenty of time to eliminate that flaw, and if he does, he can be potentially be one of best midfielders in the world.

What I Say Now:

Valencia shelled out €18 million to bring Banega to Europe just six months after his assured performances in Canada and he has, at times, showed himself to be one of the best passing midfielders in world football. Take, for instance, his sublime performance against Barcelona in September 2011. Banega showed superb footwork to extricate himself from Barca’s press and exemplary vision and technique to pick out and deliver passes to teammates.

The problem is that he has struggled to put a consistent run of form together, only once starting more than 22 matches in his five full seasons in Spain. Injury and disciplinary problems have seen him struggle to maintain a regular level and despite the faith that new Valencia coach Miroslav Djukic seems to have in him, it might be best for Banega to seek a fresh start, perhaps in the Premier League (where Southampton have been linked), if he hopes to reach his full potential.

Angel Di Maria (Argentina) – then of Rosario Central, Argentina; now of Real Madrid, Spain

What I Said Then:

Arsenal are thought to be heavily interested in signing Di Maria and its not hard to see why. A tall, skillful, left footed striker, Di Maria is equally adept in the floor as in the air and his presence proved difficult for many teams to deal with during the tournament. He scored three goals before coming off injured in the semi-final, forcing him to miss the final. He was missed by Argentina in the final, and despite a lack of pace, is sure to have a big future in front of him.

What I Say Now:

What was I smoking? Without going back and watching all of Argentina’s matches from the tournament it is difficult to ascertain whether my comment about him lacking pace was poor judgement on my behalf or simply that the constraints of the system masked his true rapidity, but it would be fair to say that speed is now considered Di Maria’s primary attribute.

Despite the link with Arsenal, Di Maria eventually signed for Benfica, where he impressed sufficiently in two seasons to earn a €25 million move to Spanish giants Real Madrid. Despite some injury problems he has established himself as a key player in Madrid, with 18 goals and an incredible 37 assists in his three years at the club. He has improved all aspects of his game and is now an established international – one of the first names on Alejandro Sabella’s team sheet.

Alexandre Pato (Brazil) – then of Internacional, Brazil; now of Corinthians, Brazil

What I Said Then:

All of Europe’s big clubs are already on the trail of Pato, who, like the Brazilian side around him, somewhat flattered to deceive during the tournament. He showed flashes of his talent, two goals against Korea Republic in the group stages showing that his pace and finishing ability are top notch. Unfortunately for him, he tended to drift in and out of games and rarely lived up to the hype that surrounded him going into the tournament. He is still only 17, and clearly has the correct attributes to be a success, but on this showing a move to Europe this year may be too much too soon for the Brazilian. Long term though, he is a still a great prospect.

What I Say Now:

AC Milan were already on the brink of signing Pato prior to the tournament and completed the deal soon afterwards, spending €24 million on a player they, and many others, expected to blossom into one of the best players in the world. Those expectations were certainly not dampened when he scored and performed superbly in tandem with Ronaldo on his debut – a 5-2 victory at home to Napoli.

But Pato’s career thereafter has been a story of constant injury worries and unfulfilled potential. He only once started more than 20 matches in his four full seasons in Italy and although his overall scoring record for Milan was decent – 51 in 117 matches – he had failed to score in more than a year when Corinthians paid €15 million to repatriate him in January 2013. His post-move form has been patchy and he really needs a strong second half to the year to get his career back on track.

Luizão (Brazil) – then of Cruzeiro, Brazil; now of Nacional MG, Brazil

What I Said Then:

Luizão looks set to follow in the footsteps of fellow large athletic defenders such as Alex and Juan. He showed a good reading of the game, which coupled with his impressive build definitely makes him one to watch out for.

What I Say Now:

Of all the players I chose as potential stars of the future, none have fallen as far as Luizão, who spent the first half of 2013 turning out for national Serie D side Nacional-MG in the Mineirao state championship. He was a player I had genuinely high hopes for, but after seven clubs in six years and a lack of consistent first team action it seems unlikely his career will hit the heights domestically in Brazil, let alone in Europe.

Nicolas Medina (Chile) – then of Universidad de Chile, Chile; now of Naval, Chile

What I Said Then:

A lively, skillful forward, Medina was at the heart of the Chile attack that ripped through their first two group stage opponents and did the same to Nigeria in the quarter finals. He was always a threat, looking the most likely against the Argentines and with Osasuna in Spain already sniffing round, it will surely not be long before he is playing in Europe.

What I Say Now:

Medina’s rumoured move to Osasuna was completed soon after the tournament, but he did not play a single match for the first team in his four years at the club and impressed only sporadically on loan at Eibar, Huesca and Castellon in Spain’s lower divisions. A brief, gameless, spell at Bulgaria’s Akademik Sofia was followed by a return to Chile, where he scored a decent nine goals in 19 appearances for Curicó Unido before moving to fellow second division side Naval at the start of 2013.

Alexis Sanchez is the only one of Chile’s forwards from that 2007 U20 World Cup squad to currently ply his trade in Europe, with Medina joined by Mathias Vidangossy, Michael Silva and Jaime Grondona back in Chile.

Nicolas Larrondo (Chile) – then of Universidad de Chile, Chile; now of Coquimbo Unido, Chile

What I Said Then:

Chile were a side that not only attacked well, but also defended superbly throughout the tournament. Larrondo was the most impressive figure in their defense, both technically and from a leadership perspective, always pulling him teammates into position and barking out orders. Without him, it is unlikely they would have made it all the way to the semi-final before conceding a goal.

What I Say Now:

Like Medina, Larrondo currently plys his trade in Chile’s second division, although in truth he could yet fall either further down the pyramid having made just one substitute appearance since joining the club at the turn of the year. After a solid start to his career at Universidad de Chile, he has struggled for playing time at all of his subsequent clubs, having made just 21 starts across four different clubs since leaving La U in January 2010.

That he has been unable to make a career out of decent technical ability and strong leadership skills says a lot for the direction in which Chilean football has gone in recent years, with a proliferation of quick, attacking teams influenced by the football played by the national team during the reign of Marcelo Bielsa (2007-11). Larrondo’s positive attributes have proved insufficient to cancel out his lack of pace.

Patricio Araujo (Mexico) – then of Chivas de Guadalajara, Mexico; now of Chivas de Guadalajara, Mexico

What I Said Then:

Although many praised the Mexicans for their expansive play in the final third of the pitch, they were also a defensively sound team, mainly thanks to the organisation skills of captain Araujo at the back. He put in assured performances in every single game they played and it is not coincidence that some of England’s top sides are now very interested in taking Araujo to the Premiership.

What I Say Now:

Nothing came of the rumoured Premier League interest in Araujo and he has continued to loyally serve Chivas de Guadalajara since impressing in Canada. He now has over 200 appearances for his first and only club and has also accumulated six caps for the full Mexican national team. Generally utilised in midfield, he is a solid, if unspectacular, player, who reads the game competently and passes simply but effectively from the centre of the pitch.

Alfonso Blanco (Mexico) – then of Pachuca, Mexico; now of Pachuca, Mexico

What I Said Then:

Blanco played like the typical expectation people have of a Latin American goalkeeper; good shot stoppers, but a little suspect on high balls. However, to describe Blanco as simply a good shot stopper would be criminally unjust. Throughout the tournament he produced a string of world class saves, his acrobatics more akin to the Olympics than a football tournament. If he can tighten up his game on crosses and set plays, then he definitely has the potential to be a world class keeper.

What I Say Now:

Like Araujo, Blanco plays for the same club that he did back in 2007, but unlike Araujo, Blanco has only returned to Pachuca after failing to establish himself at any of the five other clubs that employed him in the interim. He is yet to make a league appearance for Pachuca since returning to the club at the start of 2012, but has seen some playing time in the Copa MX, albeit without making much of an impression.

Blanco is a solid number two, but there has been little indication to date that he has managed to improve on the areas of his game that were lacking in 2007; nor has he been able to make the most of the strengths he did display at that tournament. 25 is still young for a goalkeeper, so he could yet prove himself a worthy domestic custodian, but he certainly looks highly unlikely to reach the lofty heights I predicted for him six years ago.

Luis Mejia (Panama) – then of Tauro, Panama; now of Fenix, Uruguay

What I Said Then:

Pretty much everything I said about Alfonso Blanco above applies to Meija, demonstrated mainly through his virtuoso display against Korea DPR in Panama’s first game of the tournament. Although the goals against column may not read in his favor, there was only so much Meija could do with such an inadequate defense in front of him. He will be hoping that the Korea performance has been enough to get him noticed by scouts in South America or Europe, as you can’t help but feel that another few years in Panama can only hurt his growth as a player.

What I Say Now:

Mejia got his move to South America when he joined Uruguay’s Fenix in 2010 and in the last season he has established himself as the team’s first choice goalkeeper, starting 27 of their 30 matches over the course of the league campaign. He was superb in the 1-1 draw against Peñarol with which they opened the 2013 Clausura, saving a penalty from Juan Manuel Oliveira amongst other heroics.

His acrobatics still impress and if he can continue to perform consistently for Fenix he can be hopeful of de-seating current Panama national team number 1 Jaime Penedo. Still only 22 and having already spent a brief spell on loan at French club Toulouse in 2011, a move to Europe may also yet beckon.

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