There was a duel of ex-Premier League strikers over the past two weeks in the qualifying rounds of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. With Franco Di Santo scoring in both legs, San Lorenzo of Argentina cruised to a 3-1 aggregate victory over Universidad de Chile, for whom Angelo Henriquez was not on target.
Some Premier League fans may struggle to recall these names. Di Santo moved to Chelsea in 2008, while in 2012 Henriquez was snapped up by Manchester United. At the time, both slotted in under the category of “wonderkids” — teenage strikers who were making a name for themselves in South America. Unfortunately, both then became known under the cruel category of “flops” when they failed to make the grade in England.
The step up from South American club football to a global giant in the English game is a huge one. It was too big for this pair. It is very hard to hit the ground running in a different, more competitive style of football, especially with the additional strains of moving to a fresh culture at such a tender age.
– UEFA World Cup qualifiers on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games, replays (U.S. only)
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
But that is the way the market currently operates. The major European clubs no longer seem particularly interested in signing players from South American football once they have hit their mid 20s. They want youngsters — so this is a quick look at some of the latest crop lighting up South America.
Nicolas Siri of Danubio in Uruguay is a case in point. He only turns 17 next month, but is already a star. He has just enjoyed a wonderful week. The first time he was handed a place in Danubio’s starting line-up, he scored an important goal against local giants Nacional. And then came a perfect hat trick against Boston River — a neatly guided header, a superb running left-footed chip and a right-footed piledriver from the edge of the area. Instantly dubbed “the new Luis Suarez” in terms of style, he is being linked with Barcelona, who have had him on their radar since he starred for Uruguay at under-15 level.
This makes Matias Arezo look like something of a grizzled veteran at the age of 18. Arezzo plays for River Plate of Uruguay (a much smaller club than the Argentine outfit) and he, too, was banging in first division goals when he was still 16. Over a year ago, he looked thoroughly comfortable playing for his country at U23 level in the Olympic qualifiers. Stocky and alert, there is something of the young Sergio Aguero in him, and it is something of a surprise that he has yet to move on.
Across the other side of the La Plata, Argentina’s River Plate have unearthed some footballing silver in the form of Julian Alvarez. Now 21, Alvarez is being brought along slowly by coach Marcelo Gallardo and has to fight for a place amid the club’s rich attacking resources. But in glimpses — there were plenty of them last year in the Copa Libertadores — he looks like a genuine thoroughbred, a support striker with vision and quality able to drift between the opposing lines, combine at pace and score goals. There may be doubts about where he can best be employed; he might be one of those players best suited to the support striker’s role in an old fashioned 4-4-2. He is not a genuine centre-forward or a winger, and so does not slot easily into all the modern day formations. But he is sufficiently intelligent to find space and make himself useful. Alvarez would seem on the verge of great things.
Across Buenos Aires at Velez Sarsfield, playmaker Thiago Almada has been attracting a lot of attention, and has been linked with Manchester United. From the same neighbourhood as Carlos Tevez, Almada will turn 20 at the end of April. Despite his youth, he has been given plenty of responsibility in a young Velez side. He can drift in from a wide position or play as a conventional No. 10, and has the wonderful ability to play the decisive pass. The doubts about him are whether he is too lightweight for Europe — in which case he would be precisely the type of Argentine playmaker that has been so successful in Major League Soccer. Atlanta United boss Gabriel Heinze certainly knows all about Almada after developing him at Velez.
As a former defender, Heinze may also have his eye on William Pacho, a 19-year-old from Ecuador. Pacho’s club, Independiente del Valle, have specialised in producing football talent, and Pacho is one they have rolled out in 2021. A strapping left footer, he plays in the middle of the back three and has made an instant impression with both the accuracy and range of his passing, and for his ability to rove forward. The question marks are about his defending. He cuts a commanding figure, but is not blessed with express pace, which makes his decision making particularly important. The biggest test of his young career is about to come; in the first two weeks of April, his side are home and away against Gremio in the final qualifying round of the Copa Libertadores. It will be fascinating to see how he gets on.
One of his opponents will be Ferreira, or “Ferreirinha” as he is more intimately known to Gremio supporters. Over the last few years Gremio have also specialised in youth development, and have been highly successful with wingers. The diminutive Everton was sold to Benfica, Pepe is on his way to Porto in the middle of the year and now along comes Ferreirinha. At 23, he is a late developer, but he made up for lost time in recent months, showing both waspish dribbling skills and the ability to take out defenders with clever passing.
Reigning South American champions Palmeiras have used their wealth to assemble a deep squad. But they are not just signing players, they are also producing. Big left-footed central midfielder Patrick de Paula is one to watch, as is right-back/midfielder Gabriel Menino. But the most eye catching is winger Gabriel Veron, the star of the show two years ago when Brazil won the U17 World Cup. Veron has searing acceleration, but he has much more than pace. Strong on the ball, he has vision, an eye for goal and the ability to beat the defender on either side. It was very unfortunate that injury removed him from the Club World Cup and the Libertadores final at the start of the year.
Santos, beaten by Palmeiras in that Libertadores final, have been in such dire financial straits that turning to youth was the only option. Fortunately, Pele’s old club have excelled in turning out stars of late, and there are more on the horizon. Angelo, 16, has huge promise, as does composed teenage centre-back Kaiky. All-round midfielder Sandry has also had a splendid recent run. But the player attracting most attention is 19-year-old centre-forward Kaio Jorge, who has been linked with Napoli. There is something of Roberto Firmino in the game of Kaio; he drops to pressure opposing defenders and to link the play, and he offers penalty area threat as well. Is he quick enough to be a star at the highest level? Time will tell.
Hugo Souza began the 2020 season as Flamengo’s fourth-choice keeper, and ended it with a Brazilian league title to his name. With his giant gangling frame and his athletic ability he made some wonderful saves, and also made the occasional blunder that is part of the learning experience of any young keeper. Now 22, he has attracted the interest of Ajax, and it could be the right move. Kicking is one of his weaknesses, something the Dutch giants are sure to work on if the deal goes through.
And one gifted player who has just arrived in Brazil is Carlos Palacios, who said goodbye to Union Espanola of Chile after they were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores. Palacios now joins Internacional of Porto Alegre, and back home his progress will be followed with close attention. It has been some time since Chile produced a genuine star and Palacios could fill the gap. A support striker capable of operating all across the attacking line, he is strong and quick with a swagger of arrogance that bodes well. Working on his left foot would make him more of a threat. But, at the age of 20, he has time to find his feet in Brazil and grow into the player to answer Chile’s prayers.