El Americano and the Paraguayan Messi look to make the grade

Five World Youth Championship titles between 1995 and 2007 lends weight to the widely held notion that Argentina is a never-ending conveyor belt of precocious talent.

Performances in those tournaments catapulted the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Pablo Aimar, Esteban Cambiasso, Sergio Agüero, Mauro Zarate, Javier Saviola and many others into the glaring spotlight of interest from European clubs, newspaper and magazine profiles, sponsorship deals, vastly improved contracts and in many cases, big money transfers.

Not all of the youngsters, needless to say, made it to the top, but that is by the by. The under-20s are a source of immense pride for Argentine football.

The South American under-20 tournament kicked off in Peru at the weekend, with qualification for the World Youth Championship at stake. And while the focus is on making it to this year’s youth World Cup, this particular tournament is the chance for Argentina to set the record straight.

In the 2009 Under-20 South American Championship, they failed. With Sergio Batista, the man later appointed to replace Maradona with the full national side, in charge, they finished bottom of a six-team group and missed out on the World Youth Championship – the very same one they won on five occasions since 1995.

This debacle was largely hushed by the local press, but the ramifications and concerns did not go unnoticed. The pressure is on to improve this year, not least as they are without some of this generation’s most talented players including The River Plate Three – Erik Lamela, Manuel Lanzini and Roberto Pereyra.

Michael Hoyos looks surprised to score against Uruguay U20 on Sunday

Argentina began with a 2-1 win over Uruguay. Poor in the first half, the half time introduction of Boca’s Sergio Araujo and, particularly, Juan Iturbe vastly improved the team.

While the win settled early-tournament nerves, the way in which they won brought up something of a debate. The two goalscorers were, strictly speaking, not 100% Argentine.

In and around La Plata, Michael Hoyos is referred to as ‘El Americano.’ He was born in California, where his Argentine parents had moved to around 20 years ago. He quickly took to soccer. But a change in the family situation led to Hoyos moving to Argentina with his mother, his younger brother Kevin and his sister.

After earning a six month trial at Estudiantes upon returning to Argentina, both Michael and Kevin are now on the club’s wage bill, and Michael played an important part in winning the Apertura title win just last month.

But while Hoyos has the straight-forward choice of playing for the USA or Argentina, the situation surrounding Iturbe is considerably more blurred.

Born in Argentina to Paraguayan parents, the family returned to Asunción when Juan Iturbe was still very young.

Iturbe celebrates a goal of his very own against Uruguay

As a gifted 16 year old, he made his debut for Cerro Porteño, and was soon called up for the Paraguay under-16 and under-20s. He was fast tracked to the full national side by Gerardo Martino, playing played 17 minutes of a friendly against Chile. His characteristics – short, pacey, skilful, left-footed – led him to be dubbed the ‘Guaraní Messi’, or ‘The Paraguayan Messi.’

Interest from some of Europe’s top sides including Manchester United and Real Madrid ensued, and Cerro Porteño offered him a contract. Iturbe refused to sign.

In the middle of the conflict over several clauses of the contract on offer, Argentina stepped in. Iturbe went to Buenos Aires to train with the under-18s, and spent last season training with first division side Quilmes, although he never played for them. Technically, Iturbe does not have a club. It is thought Cerro will be paid a sum, up to $1m according to reports, for formation rights, and Iturbe may well move to Europe next summer after spending the next six months at Quilmes.

As for whether he is eligible to play for Argentina, lawyers have been forced to comb through the small print of the Paraguayan constitution – it states that citizens with dual nationality do not have to opt for one nation or the other till the age of 18. Iturbe is still 17. And although he scored against Argentina with the Paraguay youth teams, the full national side fixture he played in was not an official match.

Both Iturbe and Hoyos are highly regarded by AFA. The two of them went to the World Cup as part of a ‘sparring’ team for the full national side in South Africa, serving as a way to introduce them to the national team set up, and in a sense to warm them over to opting for Argentina.

Clearly, choosing Argentina over the USA or Paraguay is in itself a risk. Competition is greater and the chances of enjoying a successful international career are less clear-cut. Given their debut performance, perhaps that isn’t something they’ll have to worry about. What USA and Paraguay think, however, is a different matter altogether.

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