22 years, innumerable thrills
© AFP

It began on Chinese soil in 1985, a younger brother to the established FIFA World Youth Championship (now the FIFA U-20 World Cup). The FIFA U-16 World Championship has since evolved into an U-17 competition, adopted a new name, increased its participants from 16 to 24 teams and, unlike any other men's or women's FIFA event, crowned champions from five different confederations.

This unpredictability has added to the seductive appeal of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, but consistency has been found in its capacity to exhilarate the watching world and to set prodigious talents on the road to senior eminence, among them Luis Figo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Hidetoshi Nakata, Francesco Totti and Ronaldinho. The twelfth instalment, which begins on Saturday, promises much of the same.

African dominance
Global tournaments have been monopolised by sides from Europe and South America. No team from outside of their borders has claimed gold at the FIFA World Cup™ or the FIFA U-20 World Cup, while the only exception to their otherwise exclusive rule of the FIFA Confederations Cup is Mexico's triumph in 1999. But during the first decade of the FIFA U-17 World Cup's existence, masterdom belonged to West Africa.

Nigeria was the first name inscribed on the trophy in 1985, and the Golden Eaglets claimed silver two years later before returning to the top of the podium in 1993. In Japan, Ghana lost out to their arch-rivals in what remains the only final between teams from the same continent, but they did reign supreme in both the previous and the subsequent editions of the competition, overcoming formidable Spain and Brazil sides in the respective finals.

Moreover, a number of Nigerian and Ghanaian youngsters have used the junior tournament as a springboard to the senior national team. Last year, one-time Black Starlets Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah played leading roles in the Black Stars reaching the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup.

Brazil hit back
Despite being eternal favourites, Brazil struggled to make their mark on the FIFA U-17 World Cup during its early editions. But when they stormed into the final of Ecuador 1995, scoring 11 goals and conceding just one in the process, they appeared destined to right that wrong. However, the Seleção's 1991 conquerors Ghana once again had their number in Guayaquil.

When the sides met again in the event's deciding match two years later, though, the South Americans exacted their revenge, recovering from a first half deficit to sink their African adversaries 2-1. The principal star of Brazil's maiden world triumph in the category was Ronaldinho. Then known as Ronaldo (he later assumed Ronaldinho, or 'Little Ronaldo', to avoid confusion with his celebrated namesake), his irrepressible skills helped the Seleção conquer the world, just as they did at senior level in 2002.

Brazil successfully defended their crown in 1999, accounting for Ghana's exit following a nail-biting penalty shootout in their semi-final, and they added a third title in 2003 before booking a meeting with Mexico with Peru 2005's prize at stake. With Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela in sparkling from, El Tri ran out 3-0 winners to make CONCACAF the fifth confederation to gain representation on the trophy.

The others are the AFC, CAF, CONMEBOL and UEFA, for whom France and USSR claimed the honours. Making only their second appearance on the world U-17 stage, les Bleus tasted glory at Trinidad and Tobago 2001, while the Soviet U-16s rippled opponents' nets 20 times in five games to reach the climax to the 1987 tournament, where they emerged triumphant from a penalty shootout with holders Nigeria.

Underdogs
While the podiums at the last two tournaments have had familiar looks to them (Brazil, Spain and Argentina at Finland 2003; Mexico, Brazil and Netherlands at Peru 2005), the FIFA U-17 World Cup has traditionally provided a setting for minnows to defy their modest footballing statuses. This has certainly been applicable to African teams, from a penalty shootout denying Guinea a place in the deciding match at the inaugural finals to Burkina Faso stepping out of the shadows of their esteemed neighbours to finish third in 2001.

Their Asian counterparts have also upset the odds over the years. Oman beat Germany 3-0 and Nigeria 2-1 in transit to the last four in 1995; Qatar made it to the semi-finals at Italy 1991, before successive penalty shootout losses to Ghana and Argentina left them outside the medals, and tiny Bahrain topped their group and then eliminated Brazil en route to a fourth-place finish at Scotland 1989, which was won by rank outsiders Saudi Arabia.

For their part, Australia came agonisingly close to provoking an even greater surprise in neighbouring New Zealand in 1999. After winning a pool which featured Brazil and Germany, the Joeys lost 8-7 on penalties to the Seleção.

Regardless, their contribution to a series of unexpected runs to the last four of the FIFA U-17 World Cup will have raised hopes among Korea 2007's outsiders that anything is possible.