A springboard to the stars
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“What a player!” France coach Gerard Sergent said of Japan’s Mana Iwabuchi during the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup New Zealand 2008. “She’s only 15, I think, but you can see she is a future star of women’s football.”

Iwabuchi had given a dazzling demonstration of her talent in Japan’s 7-1 group-stage victory over France, and later went on to collect the adidas Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player. “My dream is to represent the Nadeshiko and play against the best in the world,” she said. Happily for her, that dream would quickly become a reality.

Indeed, three years after her exploits in New Zealand, Iwabuchi found herself competing in women’s football’s showpiece event in Germany. The diminutive Japanese’s rapid rise culminated in her lifting the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, making her a perfect symbol for what the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup can represent: a launchpad to the stars.

Stars and starlets
The third edition of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup is about to kick off, although it could be argued that the tournament really began in Baku on 6 July. That was the day the Official Draw took place, in the presence of football greats such as Berti Vogts, Ronald de Boer, Willy Sagnol, Shota Arveladze and Dietmar Hamann. They knew that, for the future stars of women’s football, the event would mark the start of a long and brilliant journey.

“This draw is a big event,” Arveladze, Georgia’s all-time leading scorer, told FIFA.com. “It signals the start of a great adventure, both for the country and the participants. It’s a big, important competition, but I encourage the players, above all, to have fun, smile and enjoy the moment. And, beyond that, just to see how far they can go.”

I encourage the players, above all, to have fun, smile and enjoy the moment.
Shota Arveladze, former Georgian international forward

Iwabuchi is not the only player to have enjoyed a rapid ascent to prominence following an U-17 Women's World Cup. Germany’s Alexandra Popp and Korea DPR’s Jon Myong-Hwa, for instance, both also starred at New Zealand 2008 before competing for the world title at senior level just three years later. More recently, Dzsenifer Marozsan excelled for Germany at New Zealand 2008 before helping them finish second behind USA at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012, where she also took the adidas Golden Ball award.

“The U-17 side was a crucial step in my career,” Popp, top scorer at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Germany 2010, said recently. “After the European Championships, we played in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand. There was a great atmosphere, even though, in the end, we only finished third. These tournaments are an important way of gaining experience and improving.”

Popp’s illustrious compatriot, Dietmar Hamann, shares her enthusiasm – albeit as a spectator on the sidelines. “I enjoy women’s football,” Hamann said in an interview with FIFA.com. “The sport is improving by the year. I think it’s great to be able to give young female players the chance to measure themselves against others through a competition of such scale.”

The highest level
As its name suggests, the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup is a global event. And in Azerbaijan, the host country for the competition’s third edition, the 16 best teams in the world are ready and raring to go. Players such as USA’s Summer Green, Brazil’s Andressa and Uruguay’s Yamila Badell have already been identified as potential stars of the tournament, and are tipped to shine at many more to come.

“Playing at a World Cup is the pinnacle of any footballer’s career,” former Netherlands international Ronald de Boer told FIFA.com. “You simply can’t play at a higher level than that. I myself played at two World Cups: USA and France. It’s all people ever talk to me about. It’s the best thing a player can experience.

That message will no doubt be prominent in the minds of the 304 participating players as they prepare for the ultimate test in their category.