The first competition that Argentina played with the third star on their shirts was the South American Under-20 Championships. And just over a month after the euphoria of winning their third World Cup in Qatar, the youth tournament brought them back down to earth.
Argentina will not fill one of the four slots that South America has later this year in the Under-20 World Cup in Indonesia. They are not even among the six sides that will compete for these places in next week's second round. They go home after the group stage in which they managed just one victory and three defeats.
Theirs always looked the more difficult of the two groups. With three slots available in the second round, the favourites to progress were Brazil, Argentina and hosts Colombia. But a solid Paraguay side ended up springing an upset, and with Brazil also safely through the final place was between Argentina and Colombia -- and in front of a fervent crowd in Cali, the hosts won 1-0 to send Argentina packing.
True, Argentina's preparation was hampered by the reluctance of European clubs to release players. This competition does not take place on a FIFA date, and so there is no obligation to release -- and with players leaving South America at an ever younger age, this is becoming a problem for the Under-20 Championships.
Manchester United's Alejandro Garnacho topped a list of players who were not available. But Argentina are not the only team facing this problem, and in terms of the crunch Colombia game they could hardly complain. The Colombians have so far been unable to field star striker Jhon Duran, who signed for Aston Villa on the eve of the tournament and has been in Birmingham for medical exams. And captain and midfield powerhouse Gustavo Puerta, who scored an outstanding goal in the previous game against Brazil, was suspended and forced to sit out the meeting with Argentina.
So there is no room for excuses. There were some interesting names in the Argentina squad -- Maximo Perrone has just signed for Manchester City, and his central midfield partner, team captain Gino Infantino also looks to have a fine future. Recent Brighton signing Facundo Buonanotte suffered a neck injury in the opening game and was not seen again, but wide striker Brian Aguirre impressed and Real Madrid playmaker Nico Paz showed some elegant left footed touches.
But three defeats, and three goals, in four games tells a story, and it is not a happy one for team coach Javier Mascherano, who made his name in this very competition twenty years ago. He was criticised for trying to implant a Barcelona-style passing game. But the idea, not helped by the quality of the pitches, was very poorly executed. Too often the passer and the receiver were too close together, making it easy for the opposition -- and especially Brazil in a 3-1 defeat -- to steal possession and charge at goal. And by the end of the four games it was hard to identify a collective idea of play. Mascherano seemed unsure of his best team, a point illustrated by the change he made in goal.
Highly rated Federico Gomez Gerth made a bad error in the opening game against Paraguay, and lost his place to Franco Herrera -- whose disastrous error against Colombia was responsible for the only goal of the match. The competition, then, comes to an early end for Argentina.
Into the second round, which kickoff next Tuesday and goes on until Feb. 12, are Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. Brazil, so disappointing in this competition over the past decade, have a physically strong side with flashes of talent -- especially from Andrey Santos, the central midfielder recently acquired by Chelsea, and from centre-forward Vitor Roque. Paraguay are solid and base their game on an excellent pair of centre backs in Gilberto Flores and Thiago Servin. And boosted by home advantage Colombia are a threat, especially if they manage to get Duran back across the Atlantic.
The main challengers from the other group will be Uruguay, possibly the most impressive team on show so far. Uruguay's return to football's top table has been based on promoting players through the conveyor belt of the Under-20s. Ever since 2007 they have come up with a succession of interesting teams at this level, and the current side looks especially impressive. The standouts so far are central midfielder Fabricio Diaz and Luciano Rodriguez, a strong striker able to operate across the attacking line. Both play for Liverpool of Uruguay -- but, almost certainly, not for much longer. Scouts will have another two weeks to put them -- and all other players on show -- under the microscope as South America's youth battle for a place in Indonesia.