The FIFA World Youth Championship (now called the FIFA U-20 World Cup) is the final proving ground for many a young hopeful. From the stunning tangos of Diego Armando Maradona in Japan in 1979 straight on through to a startlingly similar dose down in the Lowlands by Argentine heir apparent Lionel Messi last year, FIFA's second-largest competition has proven the stage for many a star turn in its nearly three-decade history.
With such indelible names as Maradona, Francescoli, Prosinecki, Bebeto, Dunga, Van Basten, Figo, Adriano, Riquelme, Trezeguet and Raul, each edition of the bi-annual global youth showpiece has heralded the arrival of more than just a handful of tomorrow's stars. UAE 2003 and Holland 2005 were no exceptions.
Played between 10 June and 2 July in six venues in the Netherlands and drawing huge crowds, the most recent tournament is best known - quite understandably - for introducing one young Lionel Messi to the watching world. Known prior to the tournament as a skill merchant with Barcelona from an early age, the young maestro still needed to test his talents on the international stage.
And as Maradona had done 27 years before at Japan '79, Messi took the competition by storm, scoring 6 goals in 7 games and drawing (and scoring) the pair of penalties that saw Argentina capture their fifth world youth crown with a 2-1 win over an outstanding Nigerian outfit in the final in Utrecht.
The slightly-built Argentine took home the golden ball as the tournament's top player and the golden shoe as its top scorer, all the while wowing animated and cultured Dutch crowds with perhaps the most intuitive and influential brand of individual brilliance since his personal hero, El Diego, who honoured the youngster with a tearful phone call before the final.
Since then he has followed in the footsteps of his idol, and - like Maradona - has earned plaudits in Catalonia for his ability on the ball at the Camp Nou. The 2005/6 season has been a breakout year for the youngster, as established team-mates like World Player of the Year Ronaldinho and Deco marvel over his outstanding talent.
"He's an excellent striker and I hope he isn't playing against us (at the FIFA World Cup in Germany)," Dutch international and Barca team-mate Mark Van Bommel recently told FIFA.com.
Boys to Men
Messi's chaplinesque perception and mind-boggling football IQ will not be lost on Barca mate Andres Iniesta. Currently playing in a midfield role for the Spanish champions and Champions League semi-finalists, largely coming off the bench, the Spaniard scored 3 goals as a marauding withdrawn striker alongside current Zaragoza hit-man (formerly of Barca) Sergio Garcia during Spain's run to the final of the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2003 in the United Arab Emirates (where they lost out 1-0 to Brazil).
Messi's captain in Holland in the summer of '05, Pablo Zabaleta (who just missed out on UAE 2003 where he would have lined up alongside Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez) has also gone on to big things on the big stage. Playing for Messi's cross-town rivals Espanyol, he has come up against his old mate on more than a few occasions over the course of the current campaign and is doing his all to muscle a path into Argentina's senior national team ahead of the finals in Germany this summer. "I'd love to be in the final 23," the hard-charging right-sided midfielder recently said.
In Utrecht on 2 July 2005, Messi's brilliance brought down a Nigerian outfit that was loaded with talent. Though the future of playmaker John Obi Mikel is still to be sorted, team-mate and left back Taye Taiwo has been excelling as a starter with club side Olympique Marseilles in France. In addition to wonderful defensive abilities and overwhelming brawn, his ability on set pieces and thunderous left foot have him a favourite with the sometimes-fickle Stade Velodrome faithful in the south of France.
Also in action at Holland 2005 was current Arsenal centre back Philippe Senderos, playing brilliantly in the absence of Sol Campbell and instrumental in the Gunners' return to form in both domestic football and in Europe. From the wonderful Dutch hosts, Ryan Babel has begun to get among the goals for Ajax, and looks keen to join club mate Hedwiges Maduro in Marco Van Basten's Oranje squad for the finals in Germany.
Though the United States failed to get past the Round of 16 in Holland last summer, their sparkling run in UAE two years before saw them come within a whisker of booking a place in the semi-finals, eventually losing out at the death to Argentina. Teenage phenom Freddy Adu (who played in both Holland and UAE) stood out in the Emirates, linking up brilliantly with midfielder Bobby Convey - who recently helped his Reading FC to the Championship title in England and a spot next season in the country's renowned Premiership. His team-mate from UAE - Jonathan Spector - has been doing well all season in defence with Charlton (on loan from Manchester United) and looks likely to join Convey in Bruce Arena's USA squad for Germany 2006.
In UAE, the Americans conspired to lose 1-3 to Germany in the first round in Abu Dhabi, before winning the group. Eddie Johnson - most-likely headed for Germany with the States - and one of the highest-paid players in Major League Soccer - failed to score on the day against Chelsea's Robert Huth and pint-sized Hamburg standout Piotr Trochowski, but he went on to earn golden shoe honours as the tournament's top scorer. Also in that group was Paraguay's Nelson Haedo Valdez, who can't stop scoring for Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen (he has 8 goals this campaign) and looks like leading the front-line for Paraguay at Germany 2006.
As this small sampling suggests, it's only a short trip from success at the FIFA U-20 World Cup to fame on the world's biggest stages. Who will shine in Canada next year? Only time will tell.