The international calendar of South American football kicks off the new decade on Saturday with a tournament that is a mixture of the possibly irrelevant and the probably important. It is the continent's under-23 championship, held in Colombia's coffee-growing region, and it serves as the qualifying competition for this year's Olympic Games.
The importance of men's football in the Olympics can certainly be questioned. The key year was 2008, when Barcelona reluctantly let Lionel Messi go to take part in the Beijing Games. But if they lost the battle, they won the war. At that point it was made clear that the Olympics were not part of the FIFA calendar, and there was no obligation for clubs to release their players. Men's football at the Olympics never fully recovered, and if the tournament itself has lost relevance, then the same applies even more to the qualification process.
This is the first time South America has staged an under-23 tournament since 2004. For the past three Olympics, the under-20 competition doubled up as the Olympic qualifiers. And plenty has changed in the past 16 years, most notably the balance of footballing trade between Europe and South America has moved more strongly in the favour of the former.
South Americans make the move across the Atlantic at an ever younger age, and considering European clubs do not have to release their starlets, this coming under-23 tournament is full of holes. Brazil, for example, have had to hurriedly replace almost half their squad once the news came in that many European-based players, such as Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli and Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz, would not be made available. A genuine, full-strength continental under-23 competition would feature the likes of Lautaro Martinez of Inter Milan and new Bayer Leverkusen signing Exequiel Palacios playing for Argentina, the Real Madrid pair of Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo for Brazil, Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur for Uruguay.
The coming tournament in Colombia is, then, greatly diminished. Even so, it remains interesting. The Olympic football competition may have lost importance, but it will still mean plenty for the South Americans. Many of the countries on the continent have little Olympic tradition -- the likes of Uruguay and Paraguay, for example, have few medals to boast of. Football is their chance to get on the podium. The South American qualifiers will travel to Tokyo in a state of some optimism, and there will only be two of them.
The scarcity of places available gives a sharp edge to the qualifying process. Ten countries are competing for two slots. In the four previous occasions that South American staged an under-23 competition, Brazil failed to make the cut twice -- a huge blow considering, at that time, they were still striving to complete their trophy cabinet by winning the gold medal.
This means that those players in action in Colombia in the coming weeks (the tournament stretches until Feb. 9) will be under pressure, and how they cope could have important consequences for their future at club and international level. Plenty of European scouts will be there to take notes and make recommendations, and the senior national team coaches will also be watching closely.
The South American nations now have their leading players strewn all over the globe, which makes it difficult to have a criteria for selection. How, for example, can the form of one player in Mexico be compared with that of another in Ukraine?
One of the bases of comparison is the level of performance for the national team at youth levels. The under-20s have taken on huge importance in this respect. Uruguay have turned it into an art form, consistently refreshing their senior squad with successful graduates from the U20s, but the level at under-23 will obviously be higher. And so those who shine in the next few weeks can expect a promotion to the senior ranks, especially as this year features another Copa America, which may include some experimental squads.
And so the train of opportunity will be calling in Colombia in the next few weeks. Those who climb aboard might be putting their careers on the fast track.