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$50m in sales and U20 Libertadores glory: Penarol's investment in youth is paying off

17:00 GMT+4 26/02/2022
giovanni gonzalez peñarol 2022
The Montevideo giants, who face off against arch-rivals Nacional on Sunday, are celebrating after lifting the South American crown at under-age level

The 2022 edition of the Under-20 Copa Libertadores ended with a final between two of South America's most exciting youth projects.

One one side, hosts and holders Independiente del Valle were looking to consolidate a brilliant run at junior level, which has seen the Ecuadorians not only reach three consecutive Libertadores finals, but also bring through an enviable number of talents who have since moved on – 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 the recruitment and development of young prospects in their bid to reclaim their place at the top table.

Uruguayan giants Penarol ran out winners in Quito, beating out Independiente in a thrilling penalty shoot-out after drawing 1-1.

It was the Montevideo side's first U20 Libertadores crown, and further proof that their work at the grass-roots is paying off handsomely both on and off the field, even while the first team is currently enduring a difficult start to the 2022 campaign.

It gave us all huge joy, it moved us all at a time when things aren't going well in the first team – and we know they will soon turn it around,” Penarol president Ignacio Ruglio, the architect of much of this recent success at youth level, beamed to reporters following victory.

“The kids did something huge, they are so excited.”

Trophies are all well and good, after all, but money also talks loudly. In that sense, Penarol are also reaping the dividends of their youth-first policy.

When 21-year-old Uruguay forward Facundo Torres left for Orlando City in January his reported $9 million (£6.7m) fee – a record for the MLS side – took Penarol's transfer revenue for the last four years up to just under $50m (£37m), an astronomical sum in the cash-strapped context of Uruguayan football.

That amount, moreover, has come from the sale of just 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 of the quartet are full Uruguay internationals, part of an exciting new generation for the nation.

Indeed, should the Celeste make the cut for Qatar most, if not all, of those players will be on Diego Alonso's World Cup squad, even though Nunez, at just 22, is the eldest of the four.

Furthemore, as a result of those sales, Penarol have managed to reduce their overall debt from almost $26m (£19m) in 2018 to $17m (£13m) in 2021, while they reported a healthy operating profit of $4m (£3m) for 2020 – a hugely positive outcome in a year severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Back at Penarol, the focus on homegrown talent is evident under president Ignacio Ruglio, sporting director Pablo Bengoechea and coach Mauricio Larriera – a triumvirate that arrived together at the club when Ruglio prevailed in December 2020's elections.

Of the current squad, no fewer than 17 graduated from the Manya academy, while exquisite playmaker Agustin Canobbio – another Uruguay international, as is 20-year-old forward partner Agustin Alvarez Martinez - joined from Fenix at 18.

Among that cohort is goalkeeper Randall Rodriguez, the hero of the U20 Libertadores win with two shoot-out saves, as well as Maximo Alonso, scorer of the decisive penalty.

It is a radical shift from the situation found as recently as 2019, when just 11 first-teamers, including three reserve goalkeepers and veteran captain Cristian 'Cebolla' Rodriguez, had come through the club ranks.

It also denotes an admirable consideration for Penarol's long-term future – as does Ruglio's edict that any youngster promoted to the senior side must first sign a three-year professional deal, to stop clubs from overseas swooping in to poach their assets.

“The promotion of youngsters is a commitment that I assume in every team,” coach Larriera told Ovacion shortly after taking over.

“Now, it is the case at Penarol and looking at the academy so closely is not as common as before because the big clubs are characteristically buying clubs.

“But now I have a direct commitment with Pablo Bengoechea and with the institution to look much more at the footballers formed in the club...

"Penarol are working very well with the academy and I see it in the way the players reach the first team. There is a process which supports that.

“I love working with the kids and talking with them, too, especially when they are young.”

Fortunately for Penarol, the kids are also proving their worth where it most counts.

In 2021, the Manya reclaimed the Uruguayan Primera Division title after three years when they defeated Plaza Colonia in the league final.

Fired by 10 goals from Alvarez Martinez, the club also reached the semi-finals of the Copa Sudamericana, the best continental campaign any Uruguayan club has managed since they fell to Neymar's Santos in the 2011 Libertadores decider.

Not incidentally, that run included a thrilling victory over arch-rivals Nacional, who were eliminated at the last-16 stage on away goals after 180 nail-biting, intensely physical minutes of play.

The latest edition of the Superclasico Uruguayo, one of the world's fiercest derbies, falls on Sunday, when Penarol welcome their adversaries to the Estadio Campeon del Siglo in search of their first win of the 2022 campaign.

The challenge now for Penarol will be capitalising on this success and sustaining it over several years, perhaps even building a serious bid for the senior Libertadores crown they last lifted in 1986.

This will not be an easy feat by any means, though.

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 talents represent bargain transfer targets not just for the likes of Europe and MLS, but also neighbouring sides from Brazil and Argentina.

A successful team often finds itself picked apart with alarming swiftness and left back at square one; hence the importance of selling sparingly and intelligently, as Penarol have done in recent years, and re-investing the funds raised with care.

Ever-ambitious, meanwhile, Ruglia is determined to change that second-tier status.

As he explained to Radio Uruguay, the president wants to end the disparity in transfer fees across South American nations.

“The last 10 sales of Brazilian players under 22 averaged $37.6m (£28.1m), for Argentines they paid $18.6m (£13.9m) and for Uruguayans $7.8m ($5.8m)... Where's the rest of the cash?" he asked.

Rugli is also seeking to improve links with European clubs in order to send young prospects in need of first-team minutes across the Atlantic on short-term loans.

Another of his plans is even more tantalising: an Intercontinental Cup-style one-off match against the winner of the UEFA Youth League, Real Madrid, which he says he has already floated with CONMEBOL chief Alejandro Dominguez.

The sky seems to be the limit for this exciting young Penarol side, and if they can shake off their current funk they could well impress not just at home, but also turn a few heads in the Libertadores too.