Young stars shine as CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying kicks off

Two days into the CONMEBOL Pre-Olympic Tournament and the tournament already has its breakout star, the name that scouts will be scribbling in their notebooks: Yaimar Medina.

Independiente del Valle of Ecuador are a small club who in the last few years have become known all over the world for the excellence of their youth development work. They produced the likes of Moisés Caicedo, now at Chelsea, and in the middle of next year he will be joined at Stamford Bridge by 16-year-old wonderkid Kendry Paez.

On duty in the Ecuador under-23 side are two graduates from Independiente del Valle who have since moved on -- one of them is team captain Pedro Vite of Vancouver Whitecaps -- and another six who are still at the club. One of these decided the opening game of the tournament in the most stunning fashion.

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Colombia had a man sent off early, but they were holding Ecuador with relative comfort until 19-year-old winger Medina was introduced halfway through the second half. A goalless game finished 3-0, and it could have easily been five, all because of Medina. He tore Colombia to pieces with pace, movement, audacity and two-footed brilliance. He scored one well-taken goal with his right foot, added a glorious second with a left-footed chip, crossed to set up the third, set up a penalty (which was missed) and rattled the post with a wonderful free kick.

It was a remarkable display from a teenage winger who was mostly used off the bench a year ago in the Under-20 Championship and ended 2023 on the fringe of the Independiente del Valle starting lineup. He is not likely to stay at the club for long, though with just a few days to go, it could be too soon to expect a move in this transfer window.

However, there still might be time for some other moves. In the Argentina squad, Valentín Barco and Claudio Echeverri have both fixed up moves to England in the last few weeks, to Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester City respectively. There has been speculation linking Boca Juniors central midfielder Ezequiel Fernandez with a move as well, with clubs in Portugal, Spain and England reported to be interested.

Fernandez did not do himself too many favours in his side's opening game: a hard-fought 1-1 draw with Paraguay, even though the deplorable state of the pitch did not help. But there is no doubting his talent and versatility. He has enjoyed a good two years, first out on loan with Tigre and then back at Boca in 2023. Strong on the ball, with a good left foot and a capacity to come up with the unexpected, he made himself a key part of the Boca side that reached last year's Copa Libertadores final. But does he lack half a yard of pace?

A similar question might be posed about Telasco Segovia, Venezuela's 20-year-old midfield organiser. It is easy to see why the Argentines coaching Venezuela went crazy about this player when they first saw him and had a look at him in the senior national side when he was just 18. Tall, commanding, elegant, with vision and a range of passing, he has plenty in him of an old-school Argentine central midfielder. The dilemma here was the early move to Europe, first to Sampdoria in Italy and then on to little Casa Pia in Portugal.

It is to be hoped that he does not get lost in European football. There is an interesting player in there, as he made clear in Saturday's pulsating 3-3 draw with Bolívia. He was the best thing on the field, and Venezuela almost certainly made a mistake when they withdrew him thinking that the game was won. Hopefully, this tournament can help him regain his pre-Europe momentum.

Two of the pre-tournament favourites have yet to see action. Brazil play their first match on Tuesday and Uruguay start their campaign a day later. Both have players who deserve to attract plenty of interest and who will surely be on the move in the summer if a late bid does not come in before the winter window slams shut.

There are high hopes in Brazil for the strike partnership between Real Madrid-bound wonderkid Endrick and John Kennedy of Fluminense. Kennedy was fundamental to his club's first-ever Copa Libertadores win toward the end of last year. In the decisive rounds time after time, he came up with a vital goal in pressure situations and then he showed his class in a losing cause in the final of the Club World Cup, coming off the bench to give Manchester City some problems. He is quick, direct and, crucially, two-footed, making him a threat in the reduced spaces of the penalty area. Club coach Fernando Diniz has done a fine job steering a potential wild child in the right direction, and had this been a busier January transfer window he would surely have attracted some serious attention.

It is perhaps even more surprising that 20-year-old Luciano Rodriguez is still playing his club football in Uruguay. He spent 2022 in the country's second division and then had a year that some footballers only dream about. He was the breakout star of the 2023 South American Under-20 Championship, scored the goal that won the World Cup at that level, and then was part of the team that won the first national league title in the history of the little Liverpool club.

With the strength and speed to excel in wide areas and the subtlety to shine in reduced space, he can operate across the attacking line and will seek to keep the momentum going in the tournament in preparation for the inevitable move abroad, either now or in the summer.

The CONMEBOL Pre-Olympic Tournament features two groups of five teams, with only the two nations who finish first advancing to Paris this summer.