Many of the biggest names in world football got their start at the FIFA U-20 World Cup (previously the FIFA World Youth Championship). Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Enzo Francescoli, Javier Saviola, Ashley Cole and Ronaldinho are just a few of the major stars of world football whose route to the pinnacle of their profession took them through this very competition.
FIFA.com caught up with a few of the senior game's brighter-burning stars for a chat about just what the U-20 finals meant to them. Join us as we turn back the clock...
It seems best to start at the beginning and the biggest name to have graced the U-20 stage: one Diego Armando Maradona. Voted alongside Pele as the greatest player of the 20th century, Dieguito got his global start at the second FIFA U-20 World Cup back in Japan in 1979.
"As soon as we reached Japan we knew we couldn't lose - especially me. I prepared myself really hard because I wanted to take revenge for being left out of the senior Argentina team for the 1978 World Cup," said Maradona, whose telepathic understanding with Ramon Diaz in the Far East has become the stuff of legend. "The team we had there was, by far, the best one I've ever played with. I never had so much fun on a football pitch! At that time, I defined it as the greatest happiness of my life and. To be honest, apart from the birth of my daughters, it's hard to find another joy like we had in Japan. If you ask any Argentinean, they will tell you: "yeah, that team was awesome...we used to wake up at four in the morning to watch them on TV."
Passing the torch on down the line, Barcelona starlet Lionel Messi was the most recent supernova to catch fire at a FIFA U-20 World Cup. Holding Maradona as his greatest sporting hero, Messi - before he was emulating the golden goals of Diego on senior level with Argentina and the Blaugrana - was lighting up the stages at Netherlands 2005 as a precocious 17-year-old kid and the youngest member of the Argentina squad.
"I hold dearly a lot of memories from Netherlands 2005," Messi, top scorer and best player of the Lowlands finals, told FIFA.com. "I will never forget it. Nobody knew me before this tournament and after it was over people were recognising me in the streets. I think it is one of the most important things that has ever happened to me and it's essential in the formation of any top player."
At 19, Messi is still technically eligible for this summer's finals in Canada, but will more than likely pull on the senior Albiceleste jersey for the Copa America.
Real Madrid Goalkeeper Iker Casillas is widely considered one of the best shot-stoppers in the world. He, like Diego and little Lionel, was once a world-beater at U-20 level, winning the title in Nigeria in 1999. Whereas Spain tend to struggle as lovable losers at senior level, their reputation in the youth ranks is a fearsome one, with one title to their name, three top-four finishers and qualifying for all but four U-20 finals since the first in 1977.
"It (Nigeria 1999) was a very special tournament for me," the Real Madrid and Spain senior team number-one told FIFA.com. "Almost all of the players who won the title in Nigeria are now playing in the top flight in Spain. That competition was a springboard that opened the door for a great generation of Spanish players. It was one of the best moments in my career, winning the World Cup in a full stadium...it was madness!"
The Spain world champions of 1999 were a star-studded lot indeed. In front of Casillas were Carlos Marchena, Xavi, Daniel Aranzubia and Gabri to name only a few.
Iker even has a bit of advice for the young Spanish side headed to the finals this summer in Canada. "I would tell them to go there with the highest hopes," he said. "Even if they are already playing with their clubs, they must throw themselves into the competition because this only happens once in a lifetime, and it's beautiful winning it."
However, memories of the FIFA U-20 World Cup are not all pleasant and rosy. Casillas' current team-mate at Real Madrid, Mahamadou Diarra, was a member of the outstanding 1999 Mali squad that lost 3-1 to Spain in the semi-finals...and the pain still remains. "I couldn't play in that tournament because I was injured and I had to watch the matches from the stands," he remembers. "So I have a pretty bad taste about the tournament as i didn't play and we didn't win! Even though he eliminated my team, Casillas and I are good friends now. I talk to him a lot, but I prefer not to talk about that tournament."
When asked, which trophy in his personal cabinet means the most to him, former Brazil star Bebeto does not point to the FIFA World Cup he won in the USA in 1994, but rather the humble U-20 World Cup he raised aloft back in Mexico in 1983.
"That's where it all began. When Brazil won the World Cup for the fourth time in 1994, Dunga, Jorginho and I had been playing together since that World Championship in Mexico," he said. "After such a long time together, we were like brothers, and today these guys are part of my family. That's why I'd choose Mexico 1983. The first one is always the hardest."
Javier Saviola, one of Barcelona's great young stars, also looks t the title won on home soil in 2001 as one of his greatest football experiences. "It was marvellous to play a World Cup and better still, to win it!" said the marksman who hit 11 goals in seven games alongside Maxi Rodriguez, Andres D'Alessandro and Nicolas Burdisso at Argentina 2001. "Before the tournament started, Barcelona was questioning whether they wanted to buy me or not and my performance at the (U-20) World Cup convinced them that I could be useful for the team. It was a very important moment in my life."
The finals in Qatar in 1995 produced a great many stars like Fernando Morientes, Mark Viduka, Raul, Ivan De La Pena and Hidetoshi Nakata. Juan Pablo Sorin, currently of Bundesliga outfit Hamburg, was captain of the Argentina team that took the honours.
"The experience left a mark in our careers and it will stay forever," he told FIFA.com. "We won playing some great football and we made a titanic effort, since we didn't have the stars that many of other teams had at that time. We pulled together and made Argentine football stronger."
"For these reasons," Sorin continued, "I can honestly say that Qatar 1995 was the greatest title I've ever won as a player."
What new kings of world football will this summer's Canadian finals toss up? Will there be another Messi in the mix, a Casillas or a Bebeto perhaps...maybe even a Diego Armando Maradona?