As Egypt prepares to host the 17th edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the locals may well be wondering what to expect. The tournament's billing has traditionally promised 'a look at football's stars of tomorrow, today', but has the 32-year-old showpiece really lived up to this kind of hype? FIFA.com set about finding out.
Diego makes his entrance
Tunisia staged the first-ever FIFA World Youth Championship, as it was known in 1977, and the star of the title-winning USSR side was midfield general Vladimir Bessonov. After laying claim to the tournament's adidas Golden Ball award, the Dynamo Kiev star went on to enjoy an outstanding international career, winning Olympic gold in 1980 before starring at the 1982, 1986 and 1990 FIFA World Cups™.
A good start, then, but nothing compared to the sense of history-in-the-making that accompanied the 1979 edition in Japan. This was the tournament at which a certain Diego Maradona gave the world a memorable first glimpse of his awesome potential, inspiring an outstanding Argentina side to glory alongside his prolific partner in crime, Ramon Diaz.
Argentina conceded their crown two years later, but the Albiceleste side of 1981 did contain a striker who would go on to score a FIFA World Cup-winning goal just five years later, Jorge Burruchaga. Uruguayan legend Enzo Francescoli also impressed in Australia, but it was Romulus Gabor - the rock on which the bronze-winning Romania side was built - who claimed the adidas Golden Ball.
It was generally felt that Gabor, despite going on to win 35 caps for his country, failed to live up to his potential, and the same was widely said of Geovani, the star of Mexico 1983. The Brazilian's vision and skill had seen him edge the likes of Marco van Basten, Toni Polster and Bebeto to both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe awards, but it was to prove the high point of a career that never truly got off the ground.
Geovani's fellow Brazilian and winner of the 1985 Golden Ball, Silas, undoubtedly fared better, starring for Sporting and Sampdoria in a career that also encompassed two FIFA World Cups in 1986 and 1990. A supporting cast in USSR that included the likes of Claudio Taffarel, Rene Higuita and Krassimir Balakov also provided evidence of the tournament's growing strength, and this trend was to continue at Chile 1987.
Star-studded supporting casts
The elegant, imperious Robert Prosinecki proved a popular choice as the tournament's outstanding player, but the title-winning Yugoslavia team alone provided the midfielder with a plethora of worthy rivals such as Zvonimir Boban, Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker. There was similarly stiff competition in Saudi Arabia two years later, with Diego Simeone, Sonny Anderson and Oleg Salenko all in the running for honours. Yet it was Brazil who again provided the Golden Ball winner, and though Bismarck didn't go on to conquer the world, he did earn a place in the Seleção squad at Italy 1990.
Portugal 1991 witnessed the crowning of a 'golden generation' as the hosts retained the trophy, despite the efforts of emerging talents such as Giovane Elber, Andy Cole and Paulo Montero. Yet the player identified as the competition's shining star was not Luis Figo, nor Rui Costa or Joao Pinto, but rather Peixe, who unlike his overlooked team-mates went on to enjoy a surprisingly unspectacular career.
Adriano, a standout at Australia 1993, was another Golden Ball winner who failed to scale the expected heights, and this pattern of Brazilian promise unfulfilled was continued by Caio, the star of the 1995 edition. Rather than conquering the world, he was left to look enviously at the success enjoyed by those he had pipped to the prize, such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Fernando Morientes and Paulo Wanchope.
South America again dominated the podium in 1997, but while an Argentina side including Juan Roman Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso took home the title, it was Nicolas Olivera who bagged the Golden Ball award. The Uruguayan's happiest times thereafter were spent with Sevilla, but although he also appeared at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, his achievements have been overshadowed by rivals from that class of 97 including Thierry Henry, Michael Owen, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka.
By this stage in the history of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, there was an established pattern of future superstars failing to land the end-of-tournament awards, and this continued at Nigeria 1999 when Ronaldinho, Roque Santa Cruz, Xavi and Diego Forlan all missed out on the Golden Ball. Yet while Seydou Keita was perhaps a surprise recipient at the time, the Malian is currently cementing his reputation as an outstanding, hard-tackling midfielder with the mighty Barcelona.
Messi spearheads new generation
The Camp Nou has proved a popular destination for stars of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and Javier Saviola - winner of both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe at Argentina 2001 - was expected to become a Barça legend when he completed a £15 million move at the age of just 19. As it transpired, El Conejo never really won the hearts of the Catalan faithful and is currently to be found warming the bench of Barcelona's old rivals, Real Madrid. Incidentally, Kaka featured among the players beaten by Saviola to the 2001 honours, not the first time a future FIFA World Player had found himself overlooked.
At UAE 2003, the role of bridesmaid fell to the likes of Andres Iniesta, Daniel Alves and Javier Mascherano, with the erstwhile unknown Ismaeil Matar emerging as the tournament's star attraction. The attacking midfielder has offered fleeting subsequent glimpses of his talent in the senior ranks but with UAE now out of the running for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, we will be denied the opportunity of judging him on the game's greatest stage.
Yet it says much for the continued ability of the FIFA U-20 World Cup to showcase the best emerging talent that the two most recent recipients of the tournament's Golden Ball award are expected to be star attractions in South Africa. Lionel Messi, the star of Netherland 2005, needs no introduction of course, with many already insisting that the Barcelona star is the world's greatest player. His fellow Argentinian, Sergio Aguero, who shone in Canada two years ago and went on to dazzle just as brightly at last year's Men's Olympic Football Tournament, is another youngster for whom hopes could hardly be any higher.
The only question now is: who will follow in the footsteps of this galaxy of stars? Whoever it is, history would suggest that Egypt can safely expect a treat.
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