From starlets to stars

According to Argentina's 2006 FIFA World Cup™ coach Jose Pekerman, the FIFA U-17 World Cup provides youngsters with the ideal preparation for long and successful international careers. It is a sentiment shared by current Brazil tactician Dunga.

The statistics certainly support their belief. Sixty-seven of the participating players at the 2006 FIFA World Cup were graduates of the biennial youth event, including three who turned out for Italy's triumphant side in the final. It represents an impressive return for a tournament whose field has previously included only 16 teams.

For the first time, this year's world U-17 finals will involve 24 squads competing for honours, and as the selected 504 players gear up for an assault on Mexico's crown, takes a look at some of their celebrated predecessors.

Argentina and Brazil lead the way
It is apparent why Dunga values the FIFA U-17 World Cup so highly. Since assuming the Brazilian reins following Germany 2006, he has utilised a number of its former headliners, including Peru 2005 standouts Marcelo and Anderson. The latter recently helped the Seleção win the Copa America 2007, alongside Juan (Ecuador 1995) and Diego (Trinidad and Tobago 2001).

Brazilians have consistently emerged from the competition to excel for some of the biggest clubs on planet football and reach the senior national team, among them Andre Cruz (China 1985), Sonny Anderson (Canada 1987), Julio Cesar, Fabio Aurelio (both Ecuador 1995), Ronaldinho (Egypt 1997) and Adriano (New Zealand 1999).

Although Argentina have yet to conquer the FIFA U-17 World Cup, they have still used the tournament to introduce some sparkling talents to the world. The first Albiceleste superstar-to-be to make his mark on the championship was Fernando Redondo (China 1985), and the elegant midfielder preceded the likes of Roberto Abbondanzieri (Scotland 1989), Juan Sebastian Veron, Marcelo Gallardo (both Italy 1991), Aldo Duscher, Esteban Cambiasso, Pablo Aimar (all Ecuador 1995), Gabriel Milito (Egypt 1997), Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez (both Trinidad and Tobago 2001) and Fernando Gago (Finland 2003).

Brazil and Argentina are not the only nations across the Americas to have used the FIFA U-17 World Cup to nurture future luminaries. Two of Bolivia's greatest all-time players, current national team selector Erwin Sanchez and his USA 1994 team-mate Marco Etcheverry, both illuminated the inaugural finals in 1985, as did Costa Rica legend and now coach Hernan Medford, while USA's Landon Donovan claimed the adidas Golden Ball at New Zealand 1999 ten years after his compatriot, Claudio Reyna, had radiated on Scottish soil.

Road to stardom
African sides have enjoyed considerable success at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and a number of their starlets have been able to transcend their form from the junior to the professional stage. Among the continent's alumni are Ghanaians Samuel Kuffour (Italy 1991 and Japan 1993), Stephen Appiah (Ecuador 1995) and Michael Essien (New Zealand 1999), Nigerians Nwankwo Kanu (Japan 1993) and John Obi Mikel (Finland 2003) and Real Madrid's Malian midfielder Mahamadou Diarra (Egypt 1997).

Other former students of the showpiece include two-time Asian Player of the Year Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan 1993) and Australians Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell (both Ecuador 1995) and Mark Schwarzer (Scotland 1989), while another goalkeeper who surfaced 18 years ago was Mohammed Al Deayea. The Saudi Arabian, who has since appeared in four FIFA World Cups, helped his nation overcome a Scotland side featuring Brian O'Neil and Paul Dickov in the final.

European success stories also include France's 1998 FIFA World Cup-winner Emmanuel Petit (Canada 1987), Portuguese winger and 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year Luis Figo (Scotland 1989), Germany's Sebastian Deisler (Egypt 1997) and a sea of Spaniards, namely Iker Casillas, Xavi (both Egypt 1997), Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres, (both Trinidad and Tobago 2001), Cesc Fabregas and David Silva (both Finland 2003).

Azzurrini starlets, Azzurri kings
Italy's FIFA U-17 World revelations comprise Maurizio Ganz (China 1985) and Francesco Coco (Japan 1993), who both starred for Milanese giants Inter and AC, and Gianluca Pessotto (Canada 1987), whose devoted, trophy-laden service to Juventus was rewarded by the club retiring their No7 jersey in his honour.

When it comes to success, though, three of Italy's FIFA U-17 World Cup graduates stand out from the crowd. Alessandro Del Piero represented the Azzurrini on home soil in 1991 and two years later, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and playmaker Francesco Totti's participation in the competition ended in a 4-0 defeat by Ghana, which sealed their first phase elimination. The pair exacted revenge by helping the Azzurri open their 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign with a 2-0 win over the Black Stars. It was, of course, the opening act in a campaign which culminated in Italian hands gracing the hallowed trophy on 9 July in Berlin's Olympiastadion.

The 504 teenagers set to showcase their talents in Korea will have doubtlessly fantasised about one day competing for the trophy that the Italian trident, along with Petit and Ronaldinho, have proudly raised aloft. For some, this opportunity is sure to come as early as South Africa 2010.