Only a handful of players are lucky and talented enough to compete on a world stage. Aside from the challenges of the tournament itself, earning a place in your national team and then navigating the perils of regional qualifying make it quite a monumental challenge indeed for a young player to reach that level in the first place.
Even more remarkable, then, that this summer USA creator Freddy Adu will be lining up for his third FIFA U-20 World Cup. No longer the precocious 14-year-old who graced the stages of UAE 2003, Adu - still the second-youngest member of the squad - is now wearing the armband as captain of the American side with the experience that comes with being a full senior international.
"It's a great accomplishment for me to be heading into my third U-20 World Cup," said the 17-year-old, who recently underwent a move from DC United to Real Sal Lake in Major League Soccer. "But I'm more excited about this tournament in Canada than I was about either of the other two (UAE 2003 and Netherlands 2005)."
Still with that spark of irrepressible, youthful enthusiasm in his voice, Adu went on to tell FIFA.com that he thinks this current crop of USA players is the best he's seen yet.
"This group is just fantastic," he remarked with a spark of excitement and captain's pride. "Some of us have been playing together now, through the national team programs, for five or six years. We understand each other really well and I think we could really do something big up in Canada."
Reunited with Rongen
In his first U-20 finals, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, young Freddy captured hearts in the Gulf state with his jinking runs, whimsical style and beaming smile. In the end, the Americans only just missed out on a spot in the semi-finals by losing 2-1 in extra-time to a Javier Mascherano-led Argentina. Now, after a disappointing last 16 exit under the stewardship of Sigi Schmid at Holland 2005, the phenom is reunited with his coach from his debut U-20 finals, Thomas Rongen.
Adu, for one, couldn't be happier. "He (Rongen) is a great coach - I love playing for him," says the Ghanaian-born prodigy, who early on in his rise to fame and fortune drew comparisons to Pele. "He's the kind of guy who gives you a lot of freedom on the field… he's one of those guys you really love to play for. He lets you express yourself and encourages you to be free and have the belief to create with the ball. And that's how I like to play."
The former Ajax defender has a similar respect for his young talisman, handing him the captain's armband at such a tender age and referring to Adu as a "natural leader".
When asked about the honour of captaining his adoptive home country, that natural leadership comes pouring out. "It wasn't thrust upon me," he insists. "I wanted to be captain. The coach sat me down and talked to me about it (before the qualifying campaign in Panama in January of 2007) and I jumped at the opportunity. I have the experience of two World Cups and I think I know how to lead the team. I like to lead by example, not just be a guy who's screaming all the time out on the field. I'll always try to keep it positive and constructive out there. I mean, I hate getting yelled at all the time so that's not the kind of captain I plan to be."
Adu will soon be playing against the likes of LA Galaxy signing and international superstar David Beckham with his new club, and is still often linked with big-money moves to such heady destinations as Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. However, the U-20 finals are foremost in his mind and he took time to look ahead to Canada and reflect on a tough group stage which includes a 6 July tussle with giants Brazil in Ottawa.
While a meeting with the Seleção might frighten some young footballers, Adu would not fall into the faint-of-heart category. After all, in his four FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups to date he has come up against not only Brazil, but Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain.
"Playing Brazil is the most exciting thing you could ask for," he announced. "Personally, I can't wait for the game… and I think I speak for everyone on the team when I say that. The excitement is huge. You can't ask for a bigger challenge than that. Games like that are how you measure yourself. If you can't get up for that kind of game, or get a huge rush thinking ahead to it, then you're not a player at all."
The Americans will also have to take on Korea Republic, against whom Adu scored a stunning solo goal in the U-17 World Cup in Finland in 2003, and Poland in Group B. However, despite the strength of their group, the captain - like his coach - believes that this could be the best USA U-20 team of all time with such standouts as Michael Bradley (son of US senior coach Bob), Danny Szetela and Josmer Altidore all hitting peak form.
The Americans have qualified for the last six U-20 World Cups (11 overall), with their best finish coming back in 1989 in Saudi Arabia, led by current national team number-one 'keeper Kasey Keller. If the confidence and swagger of Adu, coach Rongen and a host of talented young players are anything to go by, this could just be the USA's chance to win a first world title.
"This team is loaded," Adu remarked in closing. "I think we can really do something!"