Carlos Cuesta is the rare South American talent not yet snapped up by European club at U20 World Cup
European clubs are looking to pick up South American talent at an ever younger age. Some youngsters make the move across the Atlantic long before it is clear how good they are going to be.
Occasionally, though, one slips through their fingers -- and one such case is Colombian centre-back Carlos Cuesta.
On Thursday, the opening day of the Under-20 World Cup in Poland, Cuesta broke the hearts of the hosts. He kept Poland at bay, snuffed out the danger of their attack, started off the moves of his team and provided the platform for Colombia's 2-0 win.
Some centre-backs are all aggression, physically imposing specimens. Cuesta, meanwhile, is almost gentle in the way he goes about his business. His tackles sometimes have the air of a patient schoolteacher making his point to an errant pupil -- and he has been giving such lessons for a while.
He turned 20 in March, and first appeared in front of a continental audience in October 2016, when he was only 17. His team, Atletico Nacional, were away to Coritiba of Brazil in the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent. Cuesta was on the bench, but was called upon early when the right-back suffered an injury. Not long afterwards Nacional had a centre-back sent off, too, and so Cuesta had to shuffle across in the middle. In a tight stadium with a red-hot atmosphere, against motivated opponents and with plenty at stake, Cuesta looked utterly unruffled. By the end of the game, a 1-1 draw, he had clearly established himself as a name for the notebook.
Since then he has clocked up plenty of first-team minutes for the Medellin giants, and has won league and cup titles. A full two years younger than most of the players around him, he played with distinction in the 2017 South American Under-20 Championships -- and by this year's version of the tournament he was ready to shine.
In Chile at the start of the year he was the captain and defensive organiser of a team that conceded just three goals in nine games. This, of course, is a remarkable testament of solidity. Even so, Colombia nearly failed to book their place in the Under-20 World Cup. They had real problems scoring goals, and were just seconds away from a first-round elimination. With the referee's whistle almost in his mouth, Cuesta went forward to score the 96th-minute goal against Chile that eliminated the hosts and kept Colombia alive in the competition.
Since then the forward line has been revamped, and there are high hopes of Juan Camilo "Cucho" Hernandez of Huesca, who scored two goals last year against Costa Rica on his senior international debut. Hernandez was a disappointment on the debut match against Poland and was substituted in the second half, but he should have plenty more opportunities in the competition, especially with Cuesta marshalling a tight defence.
Hernandez is on the books of Premier League outfit Watford, and has been loaned out to now-relegated Huesca. How, then, has he already been picked up by a European team while Cuesta remains in Colombia? How could such promise and sustained excellence have been flying under the radar?
Perhaps the answer lies in Cuesta's stature, or rather lack thereof. He is not quite six foot, which makes him small for the position. But for a side that aim to defend with a high defensive line, he would surely be tailor made. After all, AC Milan's Franco Baresi was on the short side for a centre-back, but that did not stop him being perhaps the greatest defender of all time.