The birth place of many stars
While many talented players have taken part in FIFA U-17 World Championships, by no means all of them have made the breakthrough later to become stars, let alone superstars. But some can clearly be said to have definitely achieved the highest level, for example Alessandro Del Piero (Italy), Juan Sebastian Veron (Argentina) Nwanko Kanu (Nigeria), Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan) and Ronaldinho (Brazil). But not all of this group of five top players can look back on their U-17 days with the same feelings.
During the 1991 U-17 World Championships which were held in Italy that year, Alessandro Del Piero (now 25) did not make a big impression. Although he was a regular starting player, he could not do much to prevent Italy being eliminated after the group games. At that time he was under contract to Padua. But now he has an established reputation as an offensive midfielder with a dangerous shot and is regarded as one of Italy's best and most popular footballers - in the world star category. After an enforced break of several months due to injury, Del Piero won back his regular place in the Juventus line-up and has recently signed a new contract that will make him the highest paid footballer in the world.
Veron's closely shaven head is a familiar sight on TV these days, but he too did not have the happiest of times at the U-17 championships in 1991. True, Argentina managed to win the bronze medal, but Veron spent a lot of the time on the substitutes' bench. However it did not take long for him to develop into a top class player back home, and overseas clubs soon began to take an interest in this untiring and highly competitive midfield motor from Buenos Aires. He ended up transferring to Italy, where he played first for Sampdoria Genoa, then for their rivals AC Parma. Now 24 years of age, he moved last July to his third Italian club, Lazio Rome, for a fee of about 30 million dollars.
Until about six months ago, the name Ronaldinho was hardly known outside Brazil. But since he played in the Copa America and the Confederations' Cup - both held in June - the 19 year-old's fame has spread around the world. Ronaldinho's goals played a big part in helping Brazil - who had won the Copa America - to reach the final of the Confederations' Cup. Several European clubs are interested in the fast, skilful forward, but for the moment he is happy to stay at home with Gremio Porto Alegre. His U-17 memories are happy ones; he had a good tournament and was among the scorers in Egypt in 1997 when Brazil won the competition.
Japan's success in reaching the quarter-finals of the 1993 U-17 World Championship which was held in their own country can be put down largely to the account of one player: midfield organiser Hidetoshi Nakata. He went on to become a mainstay of the national team and led them to the World Cup final round in France 98. Even though the team were eliminated early on, Nakata received a lot of praise. In July 1998 he was signed on by the Italian Serie A club AC Perugia. Now conspicuous with his blonde dyed hair, Nakata was voted "Asian Footballer of the Year" in 1998 and 1999, and has a huge following back home. Many Japanese travel to Italy just to watch him in action.
Hardly any other African footballer can match the achievements of Nwanko Kanu - and he is still only 23. He has played for Ajax Amsterdam and Inter Milan and signed this year to play with Arsenal in London. With Ajax he won the Champions' League title and with Inter the UEFA Cup. In 1993 he won the U-17 title with Nigeria in Japan and in 1996 they were Olympic champions in Atlanta (USA). But his career has not been without its dark side; in 1996 it looked as if he would have to give up playing football for good, when a medical examination revealed severe heart problems. But after an operation and a five month break he was able to play again, and took part in the 1998 World Cup in France. Now he is one of the key players in the Arsenal squad.