The FIFA World Youth Championship takes place in Argentina from 17 June to 8 July 2001. Twenty-four teams will be competing for the title and the hopes of the local fans rest above all on one player - Javier Saviola. The 19-year-old striker is expected to lead Argentina to the title and follow in the footballing footsteps of the legendary Diego Maradona.

Van Basten, Bebeto, Taffarel, Dunga, Prosinecki, Suker, Mijatovic, Sammer, Figo, Rui Costa, Francescoli, Salenko, Raúl, Higuita, Burruchaga, Ramón Diaz are just some of the world-famous stars who have taken part in the FIFA World Youth Championship in the past. First staged in Tunisia in 1977, this tournament has been the stepping stone to a magnificent career for many talented young players. Especially one who was voted FIFA Footballer of the Century in an Internet poll a few months ago, a certain Diego Armando Maradona.

In 1979 he led Argentina to the world youth title in Japan in the tournament that launched his career. Maradona was team captain, playmaker and goal scorer (six goals) all rolled into one and rightly voted player of the tournament.

Maradona's memories of those glorious days in Japan are still fresh. In his recent autobiography "Yo soy el Diego" (I'm Diego) he writes: "I have never enjoyed

playing football more passionately than I did at the World Youth Championship in Japan. It was a great tournament and I was a member of the best team I ever played for."

When the 18-year-old Maradona and his team mates returned home they were welcomed by tens of thousands of jubilant fans on the streets of Buenos Aires. It was the second pulsating party within a year - Argentina had won the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in 1978.

Saviola the wonder kid
Twenty-three years later another FIFA tournament is being staged in Argentina. And the football-crazy people on the Rio de la Plata are naturally hoping that the home side will be able to outperform the other 23 competing teams to win the World Youth Championship for the fourth time following successes in 1979, 1995 and 1997.

Their hopes are closely tied to one player in particular: Javier Pedro Saviola. The 19-year-old is considered the greatest talent to emerge in South America in recent years. He made his debut for River Plate, one of Argentina's biggest clubs, at the tender age of 16. Since then the slightly-built striker (1.69 m, 62 kg) has played almost 100 league games and scored more than 50 goals in total. He has long since broken into the full international side, and in the youth team managed by the top coach José Luis Pekerman he is considered the best player by far.

Saviola is the idol of many young Argentineans and the media and sponsors constantly vie for his attention. The quicksilver, technically gifted striker makes the headlines every day, recently largely because of a possible move to a top European side. A number of clubs are reported to be willing to pay well over USD 20 million for Saviola, who was voted South American footballer of the year in 1999 - at the age of 17!

Yet Saviola is not the only one who could make a splash at this tournament, as a number of players and teams are expected to do well. The starting line-up is at any rate well-balanced and extremely attractive. And the qualifying competitions staged by the various confederations showed that a host of highly skilled, attacking teams will be on show in Argentina, teams such as European champions France and African champions Angola.

The qualifiers were also rich in surprises, with traditional footballing nations such as Spain, Italy, Cameroon and Uruguay falling by the wayside, whereas Angola, Ethiopia and Finland qualified for the finals of a FIFA competition for the first time ever, thus reaping the first fruits of their improving youth work.

What is also remarkable is the fact that in Russia (1977), Yugoslavia (1987), Portugal (1989 and 1991) and Spain (1999) as many as four former world champions failed to get past the qualifying stages. Of the best four teams at the most recent World Youth Championship in Nigeria two years ago (Spain, Japan, Mali and Uruguay), only Japan managed to qualify for Argentina 2001.

Yet the tournament in Argentina is set to be a festival of football no matter what - and not just because of Javier Saviola.