A little over a year has gone by since the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 came to a thrilling finale in 16 October’s title decider between Brazil and Ghana, with the Africans claiming the title on penalty kicks.
Yet the real relevance of a youth tournament such as this, designed to give young talents the opportunity to burst onto the global stage, only really becomes clear over the passage of time. Indeed, showing glimpses of world-beating skill at youth level is one thing but making a successful transition to the senior professional game is another, with vast numbers of such hopefuls eventually failing to make the grade.
FIFA.com therefore thought it pertinent to take a look at some of the highest-profile starlets who are currently thriving in club football a year after the showpiece in Egypt. Starting with champions Ghana, an injury crisis that assailed the Black Stars’ senior squad ahead of the 2010 CAF African Cup of Nations opened the door for a host of those who had triumphed on Egyptian soil. A worthy runners-up finish justified that faith and four players, in the shape of Daniel Agyei, Egypt 2009 adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe winner Dominic Adiyiah, Jonathan Mensah and Andre Ayew, all made the cut for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
The latter duo even made a starting place their own on South African soil, with Ayew in particular one of the key performers in a Ghana side that came within a crossbar’s width of being the first African team to reach the last four. “People expect a lot from us now, which is only natural after the performances we’ve had,” Ayew told FIFA.com in an interview last month.
From silver medal to silverware
In Brazil too, young stars of their Egypt 2009 campaign have been making their mark on the senior stage for club and country. The two leading lights are both attack-minded midfielders in Paulo Henrique Ganso, who helped Santos to Paulista state and Copa do Brasil titles in 2010, and Internacional’s Giuliano, scorer of a clutch of vital goals in O Colorado’s Copa Libertadores win.
Part of a process of rejuvenation ushered in after A Seleção’s disappointing quarter-final exit at South Africa 2010, both youngsters were fixtures in new national boss Mano Menezes’ squad lists until a knee injury that will sideline Ganso until the turn of the year.
“To have had that experience with the U-20s in a knockout tournament was a crucial part of my development,” said Giuliano, his team's captain and the adidas Bronze Ball winner at Egypt 2009, in an interview with FIFA.com. “It’s a great opportunity to experience life with the national team and to be that bit better prepared before joining the senior set-up.”
Even among those national teams that did not make the latter stages in Egypt, there were young players who made such progress that within the year they were part of their countries’ FIFA World Cup squads. Uruguay, for instance, were beaten 3-1 by Giuliano's Brazil in the Round of 16 but made full use of the U-20 competition to polish the rough diamond that was Nicolas Lodeiro.
The creative midfielder subsequently broke into the senior Uruguayan side in time for La Celeste’s qualifying play-off with Costa Rica. “I simply couldn’t believe it when I saw my name in the starting XI for the first leg in Costa Rica,” said Lodeiro, now with Dutch giants Ajax, when speaking to FIFA.com prior to South Africa 2010.
Meanwhile Korea Republic, who reached the quarter-finals at Egypt 2009 where they were beaten 3-2 by champions Ghana, also took two veterans of that campaign to South Africa 2010. They were midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung and striking sensation Lee Seung-Yeoul, scorer of three senior goals in the months preceding the African showpiece. Nigeria, who exited at the Round of 16 in Egypt, also put their faith in youth in the shape of Monaco midfield man Lukman Haruna, a starter in the Super Eagles’ opening two games in South Africa against Argentina and Greece.
Time still on their side
Though an appearance at the very highest level proved beyond them, a slew of other individual stars of the last edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup have continued to make impressive progress since their Egyptian adventure. One such example was Lewis Holtby, who shone in a Germany squad that reached the last eight at Egypt 2009 even without many of the players that had claimed European U-21 glory just months previously.
Little used to date by club side Schalke 04, this season he has thrived on loan at Bundesliga revelations and joint league leaders Mainz. “He’s a very classy player,” said Die Nationalelf senior boss Joachim Low. “He’s one of those who make it worth paying the ticket price for. His time will come.”
The surprise winner of the adidas Golden Glove at Egypt 2009, Costa Rican keeper Esteban Alvarado, has yet to see much action since joining Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar from homeland side Saprissa, though he could do worse than follow the examples of Jose Salomon Rondon or Vladimir Koman. Venezuela's Rondon has gone on to become an integral performer for La Liga side Malaga while Koman, the outstanding player in the Hungary side that finished third in Egypt, has made a starting berth his own for his country at senior level.
The next edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia is fast approaching, with the competition scheduled to take place between 29 July and 20 August 2011. And though there is no way of knowing just which players will catch the eye, the evidence of Egypt 2009 proves that there are few better ways to launch a top-flight career in the beautiful game.