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Argentina and Brazil head U-20 World Cup favorites
by Paul Kennedy, June 29th, 2007 7AM

TAGS:  argentina, brazil, mexico, spain, under-20 world cup


Argentina the defending champion, and Brazil, the South American champion, are the favorites, along with European champion Spain, at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, which begins Saturday in Canada. They have combined to win the last seven U-20 world championships.

Argentina's 2005 victory in the Netherlands gave it five titles, one more than Brazil. Other teams to watch include Mexico and Nigeria.

Here's a look at the favorites.

ARGENTINA. Much of the talk is about who is not in Canada -- among them 2005 U-20 World Cup standout Lionel Messi, who starred against the USA in Argentina's Copa America opener on Monday, and Real Madrid winter signees Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain -- but Sergio Aguero and Mauro Zarate give Argentina the top 1-2 punch at the Under-20 World Cup. Aguero, who signed with Atletico Madrid last season, has already played for Argentina's senior national team. Zarate agreed one of the most stunning transfer deals of the summer when Velez Sarsfield sold him to Qatar club Al Sadd for $20 million -- a deal his agent admitted wasn't great from a soccer point of view but it gave Zarate and his family financial security.

BRAZIL. Like Argentina, Brazil's U-20s will be without several of their best young players, recent Manchester United acquisition Anderson, who is with Brazil at the Copa America. Brazil's hopes suffered a blow when playmaker Lucas, who will join Liverpool, next season, pulled out of the U-20 World Cup at the last minute with an injury. Still, Brazil has plenty of young talent. Forward Pato Alexandre helped Internacional win the 2006 Club World Cup. Left back Marcelo was another Real Madrid winter signee.

SPAIN. Gerard Pique, who is on loan from Manchester United to Real Zaragoza, gives Spain a powerful force on defense. Alberto Bueno, whose goals gave Spain a 2-1 win over Scotland in the final of the 2006 U-19 European Championship, is one of six players from Castilla, Real Madrid's "B" team. One of the other Castilla players in Canada is midfielder Adrian Gonzalez, son of former Real Madrid great Michel.

MEXICO. No CONCACAF team has reached the final since Mexico fell to the Soviet Union in the final of FIFA's inaugural youth championship in Tunisia in 1977, but the Tricolores have high hopes of doing very well in Canada. Two years ago, Mexico won the U-17 World Cup in Peru, and two of the biggest stars on that team are in Canada with the U-20s. Giovanni Dos Santos, son of former Brazilian indoor soccer star Zizinho, should make Barcelona's first team next season. Arsenal snapped up Carlos Vela after the U-17 World Cup and loaned him to Salamanca of the Spanish Second Division, where he scored eight goals during the 2006-07 season.

NIGERIA. Chelsea's teenage star John Obi Mikel was instrumental in leading Nigeria to second place at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands. He was eligible to return in 2007, but he has been kicked out of the Nigerian national team program for missing a game with the senior national team. Only five Nigerians are European-based, all playing in second-tier countries: Oladapo Olufemi (Anderlecht, Belgium), Kingsley Salami (Cardiff Football Academy, Wales), Moses Adams (Westerlo, Belgium), Ezekiel Bala (Lyn Oslo, Norway -- Mikel's former club) and Akeem Agbetu (Kolding, Denmark).

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