Azteca beckons stars of tomorrow

The FIFA U-17 World Cup has sent stars shooting into the football stratosphere since its first instalment in China back in 1985. The 14th edition of the junior showpiece kicks off on Saturday 18 June in seven Mexican cities with 24 teams and 502 players aiming to emulate the achievements of famous alumni the likes of global superstars Cesc Fabregas, Ronaldinho, Iker Casillas and Kanu.

Click on the right for exclusive features on the participating teams.

Pressure will weigh heavy on the shoulders of the young hosts, who have been preparing and playing friendlies at a frenzied pace over the last year. Their coach, former international defender Raul Gutierrez, knows the strains and stresses facing his young side better than most. “We have a responsibility to the country to do our best,” he told “But this could be a great moment for Mexico,” he added, hoping to match the famous achievements of Gio dos Santos and Carlos Vela, who led the country to glory at the 2005 edition in Peru.

Azteca prize
Should the hosts reach the rarefied air of the Final, it will be a date with destiny at no less a treasured national icon than the Estadio Azteca, which will also host the third-place match. The hulking ground on the outskirts of Mexico City has hosted two of FIFA World Cup Finals and a number of world football’s most exhilarating moments, including Diego Armando Maradona’s moments of magic and mischief against England in 1986. “There can be no greater incentive than playing at the Azteca,” was the frank assessment of former U-17 standout and current Mexican senior team ace Dos Santos, a man who knows the tournament and the stadium intimately.

The junior level is an unpredictable one, however, and nerves often play a part with players of such a tender age. Mexico, led by Marcelo Gracia and Carlos Fierro, will need to keep their cool against both the champions of Europe, the Netherlands and Asian best Korea DPR in the first round if they want to entertain any hopes of glory at the Azteca on 10 June. African outsiders Congo will prove no pushovers either, as traditional African powers Nigeria and Ghana found out in African qualifying.

There can be no greater incentive than playing at the Azteca.
Former U-17 world champion Gio dos Santos

Brazil are, as always, among the favourites, having won three titles since 1997 and reaching the final on two other occasions. They have in their team a bevy of starlets who are already making waves with their clubs back home, most notably Chelsea-bound attacker Lucas Piazon. “We don’t always need to play Jogo Bonito,” he said, sending a resounding warning to Group F opponents Australia, Côte d'Ivoire and Denmark, that the South Americans are here not only to entertain, but to put another trophy in their cabinet.

Brazil’s South American neighbours and arch-rivals, Argentina, have a surprisingly disappointing record at these U-17 finals. Their coach Oscar Garre hopes he can guide his young team to a first-ever title at this age level and, in the process, make a return to the Azteca, where he won the FIFA World Cup for his country alongside Maradona in 1986. France, who won the title with a wonderful display in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001, are lining up behind a core of players from famous youth-purveying club Auxerre to spoil Argentine hopes alongside Group mates Jamaica and Japan.

New faces in the crowd
Mexico 2011 will also feature some emerging nations in the festival of flags. Panama, Uzbekistan, Rwanda and Denmark, one of six contenders from Europe, will all be lining up at their first U-17 finals. Surely, they will all be eager to cause a stir in their maiden outings and Danish boss Thomas Frank went so far as to half-jokingly proclaim, “We are the Brazilians of Scandinavia and we are here to win.”

The USA cross their southern border with a proud history as the only team to reach all 14 editions of the tournament. Their coach, former Colombian international Wilmer Cabrera, would like to take the Stars and Stripes past their previous best-ever finish of fourth in 1999, when Landon Donovan starred in New Zealand, but he knows his job is ultimately about “preparing future players for the senior team.”

The long road to fame and superstardom the likes of that achieved by Fabregas, Ronaldinho and co begins on 18 June for the young hopefuls in Mexico. Fans across the seven venues will be treated to an unpolished and youthfully exuberant display of football by some of the world’s most talented up and comers, as will you, users of the tournament’s official website,