Africa stands at the very heart of the footballing world this term with September's FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 marking the start of a season that will end in style with next summer's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. In between those two events, and almost equidistant in geographical terms, Nigeria will be next to share its passion for the beautiful game in its role as FIFA U-17 World Cup host nation.
The action begins on 24 October, when the stars of tomorrow will take their first ever steps in the global arena. In total, 504 players have been called up to show their worth - and vie to take up the baton from illustrious former participants Ronaldinho, Iker Casillas, Michael Essien and Luis Figo? The youngsters heading to Nigeria are nothing like as celebrated as their predecessors, of course, but some have already rubbed shoulders with the finest talents in the game by earning first-team experience despite their tender age. Even that is unlikely to rival the pressures they are about to face, however. "They know their obligations and they know that the national shirt sits heavy on the shoulders," 1986 FIFA World Cup winner and current Argentina U-17 coach Jose Luis Brown told FIFA.com.
Brown's charges will get the tournament up and running against Group A rivals Honduras in a game that would not be out of place in the semi-finals, proof that the competition is likely to be engrossing right from the opening whistle. Runners-up on the South American stage and serious candidates to go all the way, the young Albicelestes must nonetheless face 2007 bronze medallists and recent European champions Germany in their section. And if that were not challenging enough, their final group opponents are another team heavily backed to take the title - reigning champions, hosts and three-time winners Nigeria.
As for Brazil, they will go into the tournament eager to clinch their fourth title at this level, having previously prevailed in 1997, 1999 and 2003. They will also be keen to erase memories of their last two appearances, which ended in defeat to Mexico in the 2005 final and a Round-of-16 loss to Nigeria last time out. Spearheading the Seleçao bid will be fearsome duo Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, who have already captured the imagination of the Brazilian public and given future opponents a stark warning thanks to their displays in the Brazilian top flight.
How concerned Spain will be by that warning is debatable, with the European side surely belonging among the elite company of the overall favourites. Regularly dominant on the Old Continent, La Roja hope to at last transfer their local supremacy to the highest level.
Talented and unpredictable in equal parts, Mexico went from winning everything in Peru in 2005 to failing to qualify to defend their title at the following edition in Korea Republic. Who knows what side the young Aztecas will bring to the party this year? Their American neighbours to the north cannot be written off either, particularly as they are the only country to have appeared in every edition of the competition, often faring well. They start as potential outsiders.
In terms of Europe's representatives, the same goes for a solid Italy side, an ambitious Turkey team and a Netherlands squad out for revenge. All featured in Peru before failing to qualify for Korea Republic and all have enough quality to make a mockery of the prediction process. The same could also be said of Japan and Korea Republic, whose fluid play and excellent youth training programmes may be finally about to produce tangible results.
Lastly, a surprise of sorts could come from Gambia, though as two-time African champions at this level, it would be far from a shock to see them prosper. Enjoying a football renaissance at the moment, Algeria could also go far, and both they and Gambia will undoubtedly acclimatise themselves to the hot and humid Nigerian conditions ahead of their rivals.
As a country with a fervent love of the game, Nigeria looks likely to be the perfect venue for this festival of football. Thousands of fans travelled to follow the Golden Eaglets in Korea Republic two years ago and their noisy, playful support clearly lifted the team coached by Yemi Tella, who has since passed away. Those same supporters are doubtless readying themselves to fill the stands and cheer on the stars of the future, with Abuja, Bauchi, Calabar, Enugu, Ijebu-Ode, Kaduna, Kano and Lagos the eight cities selected to welcome the 24 trophy hopefuls.