It’s a long way from teenage upstart to senior superstar, but a number of football’s most recognisable names have made their first impression on the game at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldinho, Nwankwo Kanu, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas are just a few who have graced the competition before going on to greatness
Join FIFA.com for a look back through the 14 editions of this junior showpiece and the finest gems it has unearthed.
Following the establishment of the U-20 finals in 1977, FIFA began to dig even deeper into the fresh soil of football’s future with the inaugural U-17 tournament taking place in China in 1985. Fernando Redondo lined up in Albiceleste colours in the Orient, but even the presence of the soon-to-be Real Madrid darling couldn’t keep Argentina from missing out on the knockout rounds. Also among the cast for the opening party, won by Nigeria, were Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry, who would later go on to be a hero in the USA with DC United, and Costa Rican legend and future coach Hernan Medford.
Two years later and the tournament was on again, this time in Canada, staying true to FIFA’s pledge to bring global football to less-established locales through its youth competitions. Holders Nigeria reached their second consecutive final but they were edged to the crown by the Soviet Union, who beat France in the quarter-finals. Among those little Les Bleus was future FIFA World Cup™ winner and Arsenal and Chelsea icon Emmanuel Petit. The venue for 1989 was Scotland and the main star-in-the-making was Portugal’s Luis Figo. Also involved were future USA ground-breaker Claudio Reyna and the sensational Victor Ikpeba, who shone for Nigeria as they failed to reach the semi-finals for the first time.
Hard lesson for Del Piero
Italy 1991 was packed with future greats, but the biggest name among them – Alessandro Del Piero – could not keep the hosts from being eliminated in the group stage. Player of the tournament Nii Lamptey of Ghana went on to become a poster-boy for unrealised potential, but Samuel Kuffour, an unused sub in the final win over Spain, went on to enjoy a glittering career with Bayern Munich and Roma. Marcelo Gallardo and Juan Veron lined up for semi-finalists Argentina, while Craig Moore was a defensive rock for Australia, who had used the U-17 finals as a launching pad and reached the last eight in three of its first four editions.
Japan 1993 was a showcase for an outstanding generation of Nigerians, with the likes of Celestine Babayaro, Nwankwo Kanu, Wilson Oruma and Ibrahim Babangida in a side that took their second crown. The Italians went out in the first round again, even with future world-beaters Gianluigi Buffon and Francesco Totti in the team. Ecuador were given the honours of hosting in 1995, after the finals were taken away from them in 1991 following an outbreak of cholera. Among the stars in South America’s first U-17 event were Esteban Cambiasso and Pablo Aimar for Argentina, Harry Kewell - who put the Aussies in the quarter-finals once again - and current USA and Everton No1 Tim Howard. Japan were bolstered by the likes of 2002 World Cup stars Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono.
Ronaldinho was the little big man in Egypt in 1997, scoring two goals as Brazil stormed to their first title. Among the other future leading lights were current world champions Iker Casillas and Xavi, both of whom shone for Spain. Seydou Keita – who won 14 titles from 2008 to 2012 as Xavi’s club teammate with FC Barcelona – was also on display for Mali. Two years later and it was time for the USA to shine, reaching their first semi-final of a global competition since 1930. Landon Donovan was named player of the tournament and was joined by current national team standout DaMarcus Beasley. Chelsea's Michael Ession was an unused sub for Ghana, who edged the Americans to third place.
The Caribbean was crawling with stars of the future in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001. Current Argentina hot-shots Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez were on show in the semi-finals, while Spain and Chelsea ace Fernando Torres tormented opposition defences. Since then, El Niño Torres has became the youngest player to reach the 100-cap mark for La Roja.
Two years later and Finland was the destination. The tournament’s top player and scorer – Cesc Fabregas of runners-up Spain – was already on course for bigger things to come with Arsenal, Barcelona and Spain. Jon Obi Mikel’s Nigeria were less fortunate, going out on a coin toss in the first round after finishing tangled in every category with Costa Rica.
Peru 2005 also produced a raft of stars, most of them wearing green as Mexico’s super-charged ‘golden generation’ took top honours thanks to the outstanding efforts of Gio dos Santos and Carlos Vela among others. Their neighbours to the north, the USA, unearthed a find of their own in the bulky form of striker Jozy Altidore.
Two emerging talents from Korea 2007 have already reached the top. Germany’s Toni Kroos has made a mark not only with Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, but also with the German senior national team. He has taken part in two major tournaments so far (the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and UEFA EURO 2012). Bojan Krkic of Spain has twice won the Champions League with Barcelona and is currently lining up for Dutch powerhouses Ajax.
Two years later, another a very special player entered the stage: Mario Gotze. German pundits have already labelled him a "once-in-a-century talent." He and his team lost in the round of 16 against eventual champions Switzerland at Nigeria 2009, but this didn’t damage his rise and he is currently a regular in the German senior team and Bayern Munich. Stephan El Shaarawy also made his mark in Nigeria. The Italian lost in the quarter-final - also against Switzerland – but he is now an established star at AC Milan and with the senior national team.
The class of 2011, when the finals moved to Mexico, is led by Jamaica-born England-man Raheem Sterling, who is already inspiring fans on Merseyside with his performances for Liverpool this term. He's even earned a senior England call-up based on his good club form.
The next questions is an enticing one: what future giants of the world game will line up in UAE in the autumn of 2013? Only time will tell.