20 South American Players to Watch out for in 2014
Compared to its European equivalents, domestic South American football is criminally overlooked. Some of the most historic teams in the world, and the finest youth talent, roam the continent's pitches, while new stars are emerging across the region on a continual basis.
But apart from the transfer rumour section in national newspapers and sports websites, the obscure names that light up stadiums in Argentina, Brazil and beyond are often unfamiliar until boarding a plane across the Atlantic Ocean.
The following is a list of 20 footballers based in South or Latin America to keep your eye on over the next 12 months. From young hopefuls waiting to break through to seasoned veterans keen to end their careers on a high, the cream of a continent can be found in these local heroes.
After the euphoria of making the Copa America final in 2011, the following two years have been devastating for Paraguayan football. Olimpia's run to the Copa Libertadores, however, helped raise spirits crushed by the national team's failures; Angel Romero is another bright spot for the Guarani nation.
The 21-year-old Cerro Porteno star ironically came to the fore in 2013 thanks to sacked Paraguay coach, Francisco Arce, who installed him as first-choice in attack for the Clausura. Arce's faith was repaid in full by the youngster, while Cerro went on to lift that title.
Romero's excellent displays in that tournament led to him be named Paraguayan Footballer of the Year by daily newspaper ABC, and the promise of Libertadores football next year will give the youngster a great chance to enhance his burgeoning profile.
Chile international Eugenio Mena is without a doubt one of the most underrated defenders in South America. The 25-year-old is deceptively strong as well as versatile, and he has everything needed to become a fixture in the Roja squad for the World Cup.
The left-back, who is also adept at playing in the middle (albeit slightly on the small side at 5'10"), is halfway through a 12-month loan at Brazilian giants Santos.
Having won everything worth winning with Universidad de Chile and Jorge Sampaoli, Mena now has the chance to push forward in the uncompromising Serie A, attracting European suitors as well as the Chile coach himself.
Even as a teenager with Gremio, great things were expected of Leandro. The only surprise about his breakout season in 2013 is that it occurred in the second tier of Brazilian football, Serie B.
The 20-year-old striker, with more than a hint of Neymar about him, was drafted in by Palmeiras in response to 2012's disastrous relegation. Leandro responded by forming a brilliant partnership alongside ex-Santos man Alan Kardec, adding 13 to his partner's 14 goals to help the Verdao make an instant return to Serie A.
Blessed with lightning-quick feet and a low centre of gravity, Leandro is any central defender's nightmare. Watch out for his dribbling ability and spectacular goals throughout next year's action.
Lanus coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a Boca legend during his playing days, has enjoyed an excellent start to his new vocation. Having gone close in all three national championships disputed since taking over in 2012, the Mellizo broke his trophy duck in December as his side romped to the Copa Sudamericana title.
While attacking flair played a big part in that success, the outstanding goalkeeping talents of Agustin Marchesin was just as crucial to the Grana's run.
Marchesin, 25, has the fantastic agility and long reach common to many South American keepers, which make them such formidable shot-stoppers. But the Lanus man does not suffer as some do on the high ball, claiming crosses with ease and confirming his talents as an excellent all-round last line of defence.
There were few reasons to be cheerful for River Plate fans during the second half of 2013. But one of the bright spots for the Millonarios was the emergence of this tenacious midfielder, who emerged from obscurity to become almost the first name on the teamsheet.
The native of Tucuman, who at just 12 worked as a golf caddy to provide for his family ("Cancha Llena") was one of the River youngsters who triumphed in the 2012 Copa Libertadores Under-20 competition. The 21-year-old made 21 appearances in the last season and has already made many friends among the Monumental faithful for his tenacious, committed style.
Unlike most of the names on this list, Martin Silva is not a football newcomer. Far from it—the Uruguay international is already on the wrong side of 30 (just). But he deserves a mention as, arguably, the best goalkeeper currently operating in South American football.
Silva has shone since moving to Paraguayan giants Olimpia and proved himself an immense presence in this year's Copa Libertadores when he steered the Decano to the final.
Just 13 goals escaped past the keeper in that tournament, and though penalty heartbreak against Ronaldinho's Atletico Mineiro ended the Olimpia dream Silva is perfectly placed to challenge Fernando Muslera for the Celeste No. 1 during the upcoming World Cup.
20-year-old Cordoba native Luciano Vietto was handed his debut at Racing in 2011, by none other than Diego Simeone during a brief spell in Avellaneda. While El Cholo used the wonderfully talented youngster as a playmaker, Vietto found his calling in Racing as a drifting striker, to sometimes devastating effect.
An impressive 13 goals in 32 games during 2012/13 under Luis Zubeldia announced Lucho as a revelation in Argentine football. He emerged out of a rich bed of Academica talent, with bold youngsters such as Ricardo Centurion, Luis Farina, Rodrigo de Paul and Bruno Zuculini all shaking the Primera Division with their skill and fearless attitude.
Although the 2013 Inicial was a disappointment, Vietto is still rated highly and will be keen to show his real talent once the Argentine league resumes following the summer break.
The year 2013 was a glorious one for Atletico Nacional. Not only did the Medellin giants lift the Apertura title in the first half of the year, but for good measure they repeated the triumph during the Finalizacion to complete a rare double in Colombian football.
The contribution of Fernando Uribe was vital for both those successes, as well as in the Copa Colombia which completed the haul. The striker was dubbed the club's "Salvation" for his ability to score in crucial games and formed a fluid partnership with veteran Juan Pablo Angel, who returned to his first club at 38 to great effect.
Rapid, tricky and able to shoot off both feet, Uribe is ready to step up and a move possibly to Argentine or even European football could be on the horizon.
Leandro Paredes' career so far has been one marked by frustrating events out of his control. First, when the natural playmaker saw Juan Roman Riquelme reverse his decision to quit Boca Juniors, starving his team-mates of minutes.
Rather more serious was a horror clash on the training ground with goalkeeper Agustin Orion, which saw Paredes rupture ankle ligaments and spend almost the entire Inicial championship on the sidelines, according to InfoBae(in Spanish).
Currently recovering from an unrelated injury, Paredes has suffered in the second part of 2013 but is itching to get back in form and show what he can do. Still just 19 and blessed with a first touch and range of passing reminiscent of Riquelme himself, it is no wonder that he is thought of as Roman's natural successor at No. 10.
Like Juan Sebastian Veron, San Lorenzo's Alan Ruiz is a native of the city of La Plata, some 60 kilometres south of Buenos Aires. The cultured young midfielder has some way to go before he can match the achievements of La Brujita, but he has made an excellent start.
Ruiz, 20, was somewhat overshadowed during San Lorenzo's victorious 2013 Inicial campaign by the emergence of Angel Correa, a more explosive, unpredictable talent. But he is a calming presence in the centre of the pitch, possessing a maturity and intelligence on the ball that far outstrips his tender age.
At just 23 years old, Peru international Raul Ruidiaz has already achieved a great deal in his fledgeling career. But 2014 will see the diminutive forward look to build on a wonderful previous 12 months and keep up his record: In the last four years, three of them have ended in a title win.
Already a legend at boyhood club Universitario, for whom he netted 21 in 39 games this year to lead them to the title, Ruidiaz also shone on loan at Chile's Universidad de Chile. At just 5'5", however, he struggled in a subsequent move to Coritiba in Brazil, raising fears that he could be too small for a more physical football.
If Ruidiaz can find a way to play with the big boys, his speed, ability and finishing talent could make him one of Peru's best prospects. The 2014 Copa Libertadores will be an acid test as he goes up against South America's best.
Tiny speed wizard Angel Correa's runs and tricks were one of the highlights of the 2013 Inicial championship. The winger was ever-present for San Lorenzo and his four goals helped the Cuervo lift the title in December, confirming Correa as a top talent at just 18.
The question is, will he continue to develop his talent in Argentina or elsewhere? San Lorenzo are determined to keep their teenage gem put, but the exit of Juan Antonio Pizzi puts his future in doubt: Mundo Deportivo report (in Spanish) that Pizzi's new club Valencia, or Atletico Madrid, are ready to pounce.
It was one of the strangest transfers to hit Brazilian football in recent years. Santos playmaker Ganso, alongside young team-mate Neymar, seemed to have the world at his feet, with European clubs clamouring to take him across the Atlantic.
But the attacking midfielder did not even leave the Paulista conurbation, opting instead to move across the city in 2012 for a lucrative transfer to Sao Paulo.
After a disappointing first year in the club, Ganso finally began to discover his real form with the arrival of coach Muricy Ramalho. The magical passes and deft touches came back to the lanky midfielder, and 2014 represents a great challenge for him to convince Luiz Felipe Scolari he has what it takes for the Brazil squad.
Eder Alvarez Balanta
Almost nobody in Argentine football had heard of lanky Colombian centre-back Eder Alvarez Balanta when he lined up this year for River Plate to take on Racing Club. After an inspired 90 minutes, the young defender was one of the hottest properties in the entire Primera Division.
Balanta burst on the scene while still an amateur in 2013, impressing with his strength at the back and quality in bringing the ball out with his feet. Praise and comparisons to Colombian legends have streamed in, as has apparent interest from European heavyweights.
Despite the rumours, however, it appears the defender will stay put in Buenos Aires a while longer, further enhancing his reputation at just 20 years of age.
Throughout the history of Argentine football, it is the flair and attacking which tend to gain the most attention. But we should not overlook the fact that the nation has an almost unmatched tradition of producing tough-tackling, uncompromising yet talented central midfielders.
In the same vein as Rattin, Redondo, Simeone and Mascherano, Guido Pizarro is a top talent to watch.
The 23-year-old destroyer racked up over 100 appearances for Lanus, finally leaving in 2013 to pursue his career at Mexican giants Tigres. A previous bid to move to Europe with Fiorentina floundered because of visa trouble, but in the competitive Mexican league Pizarro has an excellent chance of winning new admirers.
At 23 years old, Nacional's Santiago Garcia has already enjoyed a roller-coaster career. Now it is time for the pacey forward to consolidate in Montevideo and possibly even push for a place in Oscar Tabarez's Uruguay squad.
The man they call Morro is a prolific goalscorer, netting a terrific 23 in 26 matches in Nacional's Uruguayan Championship triumph back in 2010/11. But he also has a knack of scoring them just when it counts, as bitter rivals Penarol will no doubt testify having felt Garcia's wrath in more than one derby.
Disappointing spells in Brazil and Turkey behind him, the forward has all the talent to firmly establish himself as a top Uruguayan talent.
Having burst onto the scene with Internacional, the world seemed to be at Leandro Damiao's feet. A glut of goals in state and national championships forced the striker into the Brazil set-up barely out of his teens.
Damiao, however, faded during 2013, seeing both his Selecao place and rumours of a European transfer disappear accordingly.
In 2014, though, the strong yet skilful forward will be out for revenge. A blockbuster move to Santos, the former home of Pele and, more recently, Neymar, emerged in December (Fox Sports Brasil) and Damiao will look to make up for a disappointing 2013 with a season that puts him back into the spotlight.
Does the surname seem familiar? It should do. Giovanni Simeone is none other than the offspring of Argentina legend and current Atletico Madrid coach Diego, but unlike his father, he prefers to show his talents right in front of goal.
The striker dubbed predictably enough "Cholito" is just 18, but made his debut for a struggling River in the 2013 Inicial and became a regular presence in the front line.
Two goals in 11 games was not exactly prolific for the physical Simeone, but a shining record in youth divisions suggest that it will only be a matter of time before he hits the net on a regular basis.
Unheralded until 2013, a brilliant display of goalscoring in Brazil saw Atletico PR striker Ederson feted as one of the top young talents around. The coming year will bring even greater challenges for the 24-year-old hitman.
Ederson smashed 21 Serie A goals for Atletico in 34 matches, an astonishing achievement for a player who made his debut for the club in that same season, having spent previous years farmed out on loan.
Those goals were enough to confirm him as the league's top scorer and lead his club to third place and a Copa Libertadores spot just one year after promotion. The Libertadores will give the youngster a whole new stage, and the tricky little forward will be the focus of attention when Brazilian football resumes in January 2014.
With 49 international caps and over 10 years in European football under his belt, Maxi Rodriguez is hardly an unknown. But 2014 could prove to be the zenith for the Newell's Old Boys forward as he continues to enjoy an Indian summer to his career back in Argentina.
Three excellent seasons for Newell's since rejoining the Lepra in 2012 has put the versatile star, who can also play in midfield, back in the spotlight. His club lifted the 2013 Final championship and made it to the Copa Libertadores semi-final this year, while Rodriguez himself has fought his way back into the Argentina squad.
Turning 33 on January 2, another great season would confirm Maxi in the group for the upcoming World Cup, giving him the chance for a glorious swansong with the team tipped by many as serious contenders in Brazil.