To paraphrase Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, it is not winning, but taking part that counts. That noble ideal still resonates today, yet is unlikely to find much traction among the 24 sides gearing up for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011. Beyond the sheer joy of simply hoisting the trophy, victory could change everything for the young players on show, with a fast track to professional success sure to open up before them.
The competition’s various coaches will frame their team talks accordingly, though their personal goals can hardly be said to differ. They too harbour dreams of emerging triumphant while wanting to prepare their charges for a future in the game. “It will be an unforgettable event for my players,” Croatian tactician Ivan Grnja told FIFA.com a few months ago. “They’ll gain experience which will be very useful for them for the rest of their careers. This tournament will be a springboard for each and every one.” Croatian legends Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban – all former FIFA U-20 World Cup protagonists – would no doubt concur.
“This World Cup could be a turning point in their careers,” said Austria coach Andreas Heraf. “It’s without a doubt the most important competition in the world after the senior World Cup. The media interest around it will be huge. It’s very important for youngsters at this age to participate in big international events. Some of them will perhaps never have this chance again. It’s a superb occasion to make a name for yourself.”
One step at a time
That is exactly what concerns Nigeria manager John Obuh, however. “A few players intend to take advantage of this World Cup to awaken the interest of big European clubs and obtain lucrative contracts,” said the Flying Eagles coach, whose squad draws heavily from the exciting generation that finished runners-up at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2009. “Above all, they don’t want to stay in Nigeria. I never stop telling my players that they need to learn to take care of things in their proper order. Right now, they have to focus all their attention on this competition. There’ll be time later to negotiate contracts overseas.”
Several of the young talents due to appear on Colombian soil have already found homes at leading European sides, though, with a few agreeing deals this summer. Argentinian duo Erik Lamela and Juan Iturbe recently clinched respective moves to Roma and Porto, for example, while Uruguay's set-piece specialist Adrian Luna has signed with Espanyol.
Even for these players, however, the FIFA U-20 World Cup represents a chance to improve further and use their skills to steer their nations towards glory. "I know what I have to offer to Uruguay", said La Celeste's Luna. "We want to make history, just like we did in the South American Championship. Uruguay have never won an U-20 World Cup and we’d love to do it."
Shared hope for glory
Having plenty to live up to since Uruguay's senior team recently ended a 16-year Copa America title wait, Luna has every reason to aim high, however, the goalscoring dreamer's thirst for victory is shared by all 503 of his peers. “We’ll be playing this World Cup to go all the way,” explained Joel Campbell, whose Costa Rica side by no means feature among the favourites. His thoughts are echoed by Mexico’s Ulises Davila, who hopes he and his team-mates can match their world champion U-17 counterparts: “Our goal is to go down in history and make everyone in Mexico immensely happy.” Over in the Argentinian camp, Iturbe is no less ambitious: “Our objective is to have a great tournament and fight for the world title. Argentina are potential winners of every competition we enter.” As for France, Antoine Griezmann has spoken of wanting to “win the World Cup and show the whole of France that the young players are there to take over in the coming years”.
While Brazil’s Casemiro and Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Otayf all told FIFA.com a similar tale, some coaches have been outlining a wider range of targets. Few possess as far-reaching ambitions as Ever Almeida, for example, with the man holding the reins for Guatemala, bent on effecting a complete cultural shift among the country’s national teams. “We wanted a side that was quick, very aggressive and very dynamic, with a very direct style of play,” Almeida said. “In general, Guatemalan football is technical but slow. We wanted to cut out three or four touches by the players. Now they arrive in front of the opposition goal a lot faster and they’re more rigorous in defence. They’re very solid on a tactical level.”
For his part, Croatia’s Grnja wants his charges to reach as far as possible, but to also do it in style. “We’ll be playing attacking football,” Grnja said. “We’re a disciplined side with battling qualities, motivation and pride. The players who contest the U-20 World Cup will embrace those values 100 per cent.”
Aside from those nuances, every coach at Colombia 2011 will set out with the same vision of lifting the trophy come 20 August. Only one team can prevail, of course, but all will improve their chances by settling for nothing less. “Success is not a goal in itself but a means of aiming higher,” said Pierre de Coubertin, which will likely be one maxim everyone at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup would go along with.