Twenty-four teams, one trophy

The 15th century saw a plethora of explorers embark on expeditions to the New World, in search of glory and untold riches. Now, in 2011, Colombia, the nation that takes its name from the most famous of those pioneers, is welcoming the world to its shores for a very modern form of swashbuckling adventure.

More than 500 years since Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean, 24 teams from all corners of the globe have travelled to South America with their eyes on one glittering prize: the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

The captain who manages to guide his crew to victory at the event will have the honour of brandishing aloft the striking silver trophy in Bogota on 20 August. Champions last time around in Egypt in 2009, Ghana’s plans of defending their crown were scuppered in qualifying, but five former winners are among the teams keen to succeed them.

Argentina (six wins), Brazil (four), Portugal (two), Spain and France (both one) not only have the proven pedigree, but can also boast squads brimming with players accustomed to competing at the top of the game. La Albiceleste’s Juan Iturbe and Erik Lamela, as well as A Seleção’s Oscar and Philippe Coutinho, have already proved themselves in some of the best leagues in the world, as have French prodigies Gael Kakuta and Antoine Griezmann.

Contenders out to etch new name on trophy
But despite their previous triumphs and the firepower they have at their disposal, these would-be conquerors are not going to have everything their own way in Colombia, especially not as far as the host nation is concerned. Led by winger James Rodriguez, fresh from a fantastic season with Porto, Los Cafeteros intend to combat any incursions into their territory by going on the offensive themselves, as they dream of a glorious conquest on home soil.

England, meanwhile, whose hopes at this level have often been sunk prematurely in the past, are determined to make their mark on the tournament once and for all. To achieve that aim, the English will need to negotiate some tough-looking group-stage encounters with Argentina, Mexico and Korea DPR.

Other nations arriving with the wind in their sails include Cameroon, Egypt, Mali and Nigeria, who hope to make it two African successes in a row at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, following on from Ghana’s eye-catching exploits two years ago. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), on the other hand, has never previously supplied the champions, but Korea DPR, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Australia will attempt to rectify that record.

And despite the absence of USA for the first time since 1995, CONCACAF’s delegation is certainly not to be taken lightly, with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico in particular likely to provide their group opponents with stiff competition.

The remaining European qualifiers, namely Austria and Croatia, will also be confident of departing from the Americas with some newly-acquired silverware. While the Austrians reached the semi-finals in 2007, their last appearance in the competition, the Croatians’ record is not quite as impressive. Their only campaign ended in a Round-of-16 exit at the hands of Brazil in 1999, even though finishing above Argentina in the group phase was a notable achievement in itself.

South America’s other two representatives, Uruguay and Ecuador, may not have had as far to travel as most of the other teams present in Colombia, but both would still prefer to push back the return leg of their journey for as long as possible. Finally, New Zealand, the solitary Oceania side on show, will be aiming to improve on their first and last appearance in the competition in 2007, when they failed to pick up a single point.

Hidden gems
In total, 504 patriotic competitors await whatever the fates have in store for them across eight welcoming host cities: Armenia, Barranquilla, Bogota, Cali, Cartagena, Manizales, Medellin and Pereira.

The players will not be the only ones looking to strike gold during the 18th edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, however, as scouts from some of the biggest clubs on the planet have descended on the event in the hope of discovering the next Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Rafael Marquez, Andreas Moller, Michael Essien or Junichi Inamoto, all of whom initially rose to prominence at the tournament.

But this year’s competition is not just about going for gold. The colour that organisers hope will make the most lasting impact at Colombia 2011 is green, thanks to the government’s support for the environmentally-friendly initiative known as Green Goal.

“FIFA and the Colombian FA have backed the planting of 35,000 trees in the heart of the country and in the Andean region,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, making reference to one of the key points of the environmental and climate protection programme. “We thank them for their meaningful support for this project, which should provide us with a carbon-neutral World Cup."

As competing sides make final preparations for the crucial duels that lie ahead, and fans look forward to a month of intriguing battles, one thing is clear: the quest for glory is well and truly underway.