World ready for Korean kick-off
© AFP

It seems like only yesterday. Referee Frank de Bleeckere's final whistle provoked scenes of euphoria among Mexican players, who danced to the beat their pulsating, all-conquering football had set during the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2005. El Tri's thrilling 3-0 defeat of holders Brazil had been a fitting climax to a tournament that had captivated from the outset and introduced a new crop of boy wonders to the world.

These players have since progressed in ability and prestige. Marcelo, Denilson and Anderson have surfaced in senior Brazil squads, and joined Real Madrid, Arsenal and Manchester United respectively, while Giovanni Dos Santos has earned promotion to the first-team squad at Barcelona.

On Saturday, 685 days after a sea of green, white and red flags were waved in triumph at the Estadio Nacional in Lima, the 12th edition of the youth extravaganza will commence. The setting for its activity is Korea Republic, and with FIFA.com screening all matches live (in certain territories), more eyes than ever before will be on the 504 participating teenagers.

Among those whose gaze will be fixed on proceedings will be scouts from the biggest clubs across the planet, eagerly endeavouring to spot the superstars of tomorrow. This degree of unpredictability is one unique aspect of the competition's rich appeal.

Whereas the U-20 event provides players whose ability has already been widely witnessed, such as Canada 2007 standouts Dos Santos and Sergio Aguero, with the opportunity to vindicate their reputations, the FIFA U-17 World Cup gives youngsters the chance to announce their genius to the watching world for the first time.

It can be taken for granted that a selection of these aspirants will do just that, entering Korea 2007 as virtual unknowns and exiting it with their names on the lips of fans and the wish-lists of the most esteemed clubs across the globe. That is not to suggest that the 24 squads are exclusive to anonymous names. Brazil's Lulinha, Spaniard Bojan Krkic and Germany's Toni Kroos will all be out to justify considerable hype.

Wide open
For the first time in the competition's 22-year existence, 24 nations will compete for honours in the Far East, joining the U-20 showpiece as the FIFA tournament with the second-biggest field. In spite of the eight-team increase in numbers, one side conspicuous by their absence are Mexico, whose habitual bravery and ability to entertain will be missed by the neutral supporters.

They will, however, be intrigued to witness the arrival on the world stage of Haiti and Honduras, the sides who stunned the reigning global kings for places in Korea. The CONCACAF minnows will make up two of the seven FIFA U-17 World Cup newcomers, along with Belgium, England, Syria, Tajikistan and Togo, who will be looking to build on their senior side's achievement of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™.

For their part, England will rely on the likes of Henri Lansbury, Michael Woods, Daniel Welbeck and Nathan Porritt, on the books at Arsenal, Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Manchester United respectively, along with Crystal Palace prospect Victor Moses, to challenge youth football's elite. In Group B, they will face record three-time champions Brazil, whose triumphant South American U-17 Championship campaign in March has left them confident that they can go one better than they managed two years ago.

Three other former winners will also be represented in Korea: Nigeria, Ghana and France. The Mini-Bleus' previous two appearances in the competition ended in a quarter-final exit at Canada 1987 and supremacy in 2001, and the vastly-experienced Francois Blaquart will be hoping to mastermind a repeat of their success in Trinidad and Tobago.

Ghana, who pocketed gold in 1991 and 1995, will take on Trinidad on Monday seeking to end a run of three successive draws in the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which, although extending their unbeaten run in the competition to nine games, culminated in their first phase exit from Peru 2005. The Black Starlets were pipped to the regional title by their West African rivals Nigeria, who will take encouragement from the fact that they have emerged triumphant on the two occasions the trophy has been presented on Asian soil, at China 1985 and Japan 1993.

With tournament regulars Argentina and USA, as well as continental champions Japan, New Zealand and Spain, also raring to go, the unique drama of the FIFA U-17 World Cup is set to thrill the football-crazy Koreans.

Let the action begin.