The Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior is South America’s premier domestic youth tournament and over its 48 year history has been the springboard for many a successful playing career. The competition is open to players under the age of 20 and is disputed across the month of January, during Brazilian football’s off-season.
It has become a highlight of the football calendar in the country and games can often attract crowds of 10,000 or more. At this year’s final over 35,000 fans were in attendance to see the game between Corinthians and minnows Batatais.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Copinha, as it is affectionately known in Brazil, has given the world the first glimpse of future stars such as Kaká, Neymar, Diego Ribas, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Lucas Moura and Manchester City new-boy Gabriel Jesus. Scouts from Europe’s top clubs are always in attendance and these are some of the youngsters they will have had their eyes on this time around.
Vinicius Júnior (Flamengo)
The 16-year-old Flamengo winger has been the revelation of the tournament. He is the name on everybody’s lips in the país do futebol and is already attracting interest from the likes of Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United. According to some reports United have even been rebuffed in their attempt to secure a first option on an eventual transfer of the player.
Watching him on the pitch it is easy to see why. He is quick, direct and skilful, and was always willing to take on opposition defenders, many of whom were three years his senior. At the Flamengo matches during the competition there was a notable murmur of excitement, of the sort reserved only for top players, every time he received the ball in the opposition half.
Unlike some players with the innate ability to beat a marker in a tight situation he does not lack for end product. In total he managed five assists and four goals in just seven games in the competition. Expect to be hearing the name Vinicius Júnior again in the near future.
Going into the Copinha many were expecting Fabrício Oya to be the main creative force in this Corinthians side but he was outdone by his team-mate Pedrinho, a diminutive left-footer who likes to cut inside from a starting position on the right.
Because of his rather frail frame there have been a few questions about his future at senior level but he has answered his doubters in fine style, scoring a number of well-taken goals and providing many cutting passes and assists for his centre-forward Carlinhos.
He strolled around causing havoc in games against limited opposition but, more importantly, he was also able to impose himself against the stronger sides Corinthians faced in their run to their tenth Copinha title.
Against Coritiba he provided a beautiful lobbed through-ball assist, against Internacional he scored a terrific opportunist’s effort, and in the quarter finals against Flamengo he scored one of the finest goals of the tournament, intercepting the ball in Flamengo’s half before cutting inside, beating three defenders and rifling a shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
In total he marked up six goals and six assists over the nine games and in the process won the award for player of the tournament. Owing to his physique a European club may be unwilling to take a punt on Pedrinho at the moment but he certainly has the ability to succeed at the top level in Brazil.
Pedrinho’s partner in crime was the tournament’s top-scorer with 11 goals in nine games and combined beautifully with his creative midfielders throughout the competition.
Carlinhos is very tall at 6’5” but still manages to be both mobile and reasonably elegant. He is able to play on the shoulder of the defender, looking to get in behind the defence, or to play with his back to goal, bringing his team-mates into play. At times he also drops deeper and makes surging runs from the midfield to drive the opposition defence back towards their own goal.
When playing with just one striker, as most teams do these days, it is vital to have someone who can stretch the defence as well as hold the ball up and create space for others. It appears Corinthians are developing such a player here.
His goals have come with his left foot, right foot and his head, from inside and outside the area, and he has even provided a few assists for the likes of Pedrinho, Marquinhos and his captain Mantuan. Carlinhos was decisive in the final, chipping in with a goal and an assist, and it would not be a surprise to see him get a few outings for the Corinthians first team in 2017.
It might seem a little over-the-top to include three players from one team when there were 120 teams involved in the competition, but it shows just how far ahead of the rest Corinthians were, both collectively and individually.
The only side that could really compete at their level was Flamengo but even the Rio giants did not have the strength in depth across every position demonstrated by the side from São Paulo.
Mantuan was the captain and the obvious leader for Corinthians, organising his team on the pitch and providing drive and thrust from the centre of midfield. For Timão he plays as the less defensive of the central two in a 4-2-3-1 but, owing to his football intelligence, could also play in the more defensive position or play any of the central roles in a 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2 or 3-4-3.
He has previously played as a number 10 and a full-back but is at his best when playing as a true box-to-box player, helping the defence with tackles and interceptions, starting play in the central third and arriving in the box to finish off team moves.
Versatile players who have an understanding of what it takes to play in a variety of positions are more and more in demand in the top European leagues with each season that passes, so the future could be bright for Mantuan.
Luiz Carlos (Juventus-SP)
Juventus are a small community club from the São Paulo neighbourhood of Mooca and going into the tournament nobody had tipped them to go very far. In the end, however, they made it all the way to a dream semi-final against Corinthians, mostly thanks to a resilient and well-organised defence that only conceded four goals in the seven games before they met the eventual winners.
Luiz Carlos was the commander of that back line and throughout the tournament showed a maturity and composure beyond his years. He was instrumental in the narrow victories over bigger clubs such as Bragantino, Avaí and Fluminense and marshalled his team-mates through the games.
Strong in the air and in one-on-one situations, and more than capable with the ball at his feet, Luiz Carlos has the potential to be an excellent no nonsense defender and many of the bigger Brazilian clubs will be sniffing around after his signature.