The 2022 edition of the Under-20 Copa Libertadores ended with a final between two of South America’s most exciting youth projects.
On the one hand, hosts and holders Independiente del Valle were looking to cement a brilliant run at junior level, which saw the Ecuadorians not only reach three consecutive Libertadores finals, but also bring in an enviable array of talent who have since evolved – including current internationals such as Brighton’s Moises Caicedo, Valladolid striker Gonzalo Plata and MLS duo Jhegson Mendez and Alan Franco.
On the other, one of the aristocrats of the South American game, a five-time continental champion, newly immersed in recruiting and developing young prospects in their bid to reclaim their place at the top.
Uruguayan giants Penarol lost the winners in Quito, beating Independiente in a thrilling penalty shootout after drawing 1-1.
It was the Montevideo side’s first U20 Libertadores crown, and further proof that their hard work on the pitch pays off on and off the pitch, even as the first team are currently enduring a rocky start to the 2022 campaign.
It has given us all immense joy, it has moved us all at a time when things are not going well in the first team – and we know they will soon turn things around,” said Penarol chairman , Ignacio Ruglio, the architect of much of this recent success. at youth level, passed on to journalists after the victory.
“The kids have done something huge, they are so excited.”
Trophies are all well and good, after all, but money also speaks loudly. In this sense, Penarol is also reaping the dividends of its youth-oriented policy.
When 21-year-old Uruguay striker Facundo Torres left for Orlando City in January, he announced a $9m (£6.7m) fee. – a record for MLS – has taken Penarol’s transfer income over the past four years to just under $50m (£37m), an astronomical sum in the cash-strapped backdrop of the Uruguayan football.
Moreover, this amount comes from the sale of only four academy gems: Darwin Nunez and Brian Rodriguez, sold to Almeria and Los Angeles FC respectively in 2019; Facundo Pellistri, signed by Manchester United the following year and now on loan at Alaves; and now Torres.
All foursome are full Uruguay internationals, part of an exciting new generation for the nation.
Indeed, if Celeste makes the cut for Qatar, most, if not all, of those players will be part of Diego Alonso’s World Cup squad, even though Nunez, at just 22, is the eldest. of the four.
Additionally, through these sales, Penarol managed to reduce its overall debt from almost $26m (£19m) in 2018 to $17m (£13m) in 2021, while it recorded a healthy operating profit of $4m (£3m). ) for 2020 – an extremely positive outcome in a year hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Back at Penarol, the focus on homegrown talent is evident under chairman Ignacio Ruglio, sporting director Pablo Bengoechea and coach Mauricio Larriera – a triumvirate who arrived together at the club when Ruglio prevailed in the December 2020 elections .
Of the current squad, no less than 17 have graduated from Manya academy, while top playmaker Agustin Canobbio – another Uruguay international, as has 20-year-old striker Agustin Alvarez Martinez – joined Fenix at 18 years old.
Among this cohort is goalkeeper Randall Rodriguez, the hero of the U20 Libertadores victory with two saves in the shootout, as well as Maximo Alonso, author of the decisive penalty.
It’s a stark change from the situation seen as recently as 2019, when just 11 first-team players, including three reserve goalkeepers and veteran captain Cristian ‘Cebolla’ Rodriguez, came through the ranks. club.
It also denotes admirable consideration for Penarol’s long-term future – much like Ruglio’s edict that any youngsters promoted to the senior team must first sign a three-year professional contract, to prevent foreign clubs to rush to poach their assets.
“The promotion of young people is a commitment that I assume in each team,” said coach Larriera Ovacion shortly after taking office.
“Now that’s the case at Penarol and watching the academy so closely isn’t as common as it used to be because big clubs usually buy clubs.
“But now I have a direct commitment with Pablo Bengoechea and with the institution to watch the footballers trained in the club much more…
“Penarol works very well with the academy and I see it in the way players reach the first team. There is a process that supports that.
“I love working with children and talking with them too, especially when they are young.”
Luckily for Penarol, kids also prove their worth where it matters most.
In 2021, the Manya reclaimed the Uruguayan Primera Division title after three years by beating Plaza Colonia in the league final.
Led by 10 goals from Alvarez Martinez, the club also reached the Copa Sudamericana semi-finals, the best continental campaign of any Uruguayan club since falling to Neymar’s Santos in the Libertadores’ decisive game in 2011.
It was no coincidence that this run included a thrilling win over rivals Nacional, who were knocked out in the Round of 16 on away goals after 180 intense and intense minutes of play.
The latest edition of the Superclasico Uruguayo, one of the fiercest derbies in the world, falls on Sunday, when Penarol welcome their opponents to the Estadio Campeon del Siglo in search of their first victory of the 2022 campaign.
The challenge now for Penarol will be to capitalize on that success and sustain it over several years, perhaps even building a serious bid for the senior Libertadores crown they last lifted in 1986.
However, this will not be an easy task.
The economic realities of Uruguayan football, which have been made even more acute by the ravages of the pandemic, mean that the club’s top talent represent advantageous transfer targets not only for Europe and MLS, but also for neighboring teams. from Brazil and Argentina.
A successful team often finds itself separated with alarming rapidity and left at square one; hence the importance of selling sparingly and intelligently, as Penarol has done in recent years, and carefully reinvesting the funds raised.
Always ambitious, Ruglia is determined to change this second-tier status.
As he explained to Radio Uruguaythe president wants to end the disparity in transfer fees between South American countries.
“The last 10 sales of Brazilian players under 22 have averaged $37.6m (£28.1m), for the Argentines they have paid $18.6m (13 .9 million pounds sterling) and for the Uruguayans, 7.8 million dollars (5.8 million dollars)… Where is the rest of the money? He asked.
Rugli is also looking to improve links with European clubs to send young prospects in need of first-team minutes across the Atlantic on short-term loans.
Another of his plans is even more enticing: a one-off Intercontinental Cup-style game against UEFA Youth League winners Real Madrid, which he says he has already kicked off with CONMEBOL chief Alejandro Dominguez.
The sky seems to be the limit for this exciting young team from Penarol, and if they can shake off their current funk, they could well impress not only at home but also turn some heads at the Libertadores.