With the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup commencing in Alexandria on 24 September, expectations are running high for the long-awaited opening whistle. The fervent support of the Egyptian fans, the presence of a well-balanced field of 24 teams, some spectacular venues, and the promise of new champions - after Argentina's unexpected failure to qualify - are all raising hopes that this will be a vintage edition of FIFA's second-oldest competition.
As always, the tournament will offer many fans a first glimpse of the stars of tomorrow, with no fewer than 485 former FIFA U-20 World Cup participants having already gone on to participate in the FIFA World Cup™, 21 of which went on to win it. Last time around, in Canada 2007, the standout player was Sergio Aguero, who helped steer Argentina to a record sixth title at the event and has since gone on to establish himself firmly in the senior team. Aguero's achievements two years ago in winning the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe, awarded to the competition's best player and top scorer respectively, matched those of Lionel Messi during another Argentine success at Netherlands 2005 and Javier Saviola when the South Americans won on their home soil in 2001.
All of which makes Argentina's failure to qualify for Egypt 2009 a genuine surprise, though there remain a host of genuine top-class title contenders hoping to take full advantage of their absence. Among them are South American champions Brazil, whose players will be looking to match the exploits of former U-20 stars turned full internationals such as Alexandre Pato, Daniel Carvalho, Kaka and Ronaldinho.
Of the European contingent, Germany appear to have the greatest strength in depth, as underlined by their status as reigning European U-17 and U-21 champions. England, for their part, are sure to be buoyed by reaching the final of the UEFA U-19 and U-21 Championships this summer, while the Czech Republic will be determined to prove their runners-up finish at Canada 2007 was no one-off.
When it comes to African sides, Ghana's Black Satellites qualified in style by winning the 2009 CAF African Youth Championship, with front-man Ransford Osei, scorer of six goals at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, in inspired form. Host nation Egypt should also not be overlooked. Now under the guidance of Czech supremo Miroslav Soukup and banking on the talent of star player Mohamed Talaat, the young Pharaohs will feel a repeat of their third-place finish at Argentina 2001 is a realistic aim.
The hosts open their campaign against Group A rivals Trinidad and Tobago on 24 September at Alexandria's Egyptian Army Stadium, the first official match at the 80,000-seater venue, which was constructed as part of Egypt's unsuccessful bid to hold the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Another visual highlight should be the same city's other arena, the 80-year-old Alexandria Stadium which incorporates part of the old city walls within its structure. Cairo's International Stadium will be where most of the action is, however, as the ground hosts no fewer than 13 matches, including two of Egypt's group-stage games, two quarter-finals, both semis, the third-place play-off and the final.
As well as Cairo and Alexandria, Port Said, Ismailia and Suez are also due to host matches at Egypt 2009, which is the third time Africa has welcomed the event, following on from Tunisia 1977 and Nigeria 1999. What is more, bumper numbers of spectators are expected to reflect the ever-growing importance of this competition, with the 2007 edition attended by a cumulative crowd of nearly 1.2 million, together with a worldwide television audience of over 500 million viewers.