The date is the twenty-seventh of June 1977, the place is the El Menzah stadium in Tunis, and Turkish referee Orhan Cebe is leading out the French and Spanish teams for the presentation line-up.

He is probably totally unaware that he is about become part of history. There are several thousand spectators present, most of them waiting to see their own team, Tunisia, take on Mexico in the second match. In a quiet and nearly neutral atmosphere, Orhan Cebe conducts the pre-match checks and rituals without the least inkling that this match will usher in a new era in the world of football.

In the official box, the pleasure that this event brings to João Havelange, seated alongside Monsieur M'Bazaâ, the Tunisian minister for youth and sports, is visible to all. All day long the FIFA President has been the centre of attention; he has been available for discussion, attentive and in good humour, and some young Tunisians tell him of their hopes for the national team, which is in a strong position in the qualifiers for the World Cup 78 in Argentina.

Orhan Cebe suddenly gives a loud blast on his whistle which resounds round the ground and gets the crowd's attention. The first match of the WYC has ended, with Spain just edging out France by two goals to one.

The Syrian referee Farouk Bouzo, an impish and perceptive man, who is watching the end of the match from a window down in the depths of the stadium, will be next on to referee the match Tunisia vs Mexico, and he knows something special is happening. During the evening at the hotel he told us: "You'll see, now the pioneers have shown us the way", but he doesn't elaborate on what he means by this symbolic phrase that sounds so full of portent.

Twenty years later, its significance is there for all to see. When the subject of pioneers comes up there has to be historic precedent and Farouk Bouzo had seen it. It is French referee Michel Vautrot who has the honour of bringing that first tournament to a close in the same stadium on 10 July 1977, and he has to conduct a marathon penalty-shooting session after the Mexico-USSR final has ended 2-2. No fewer than seventeen penalty kicks are needed before the USSR emerge as winners, 9-8.

Shortly afterwards, João Havelange, dressed all in white, presents the Coca-Cola Cup to Andrei Bal, captain of the Soviet team, with FIFA General Secretary, the Swiss Helmut Käser, looking on thoughtfully, but with relief and satisfaction also visible in his expression. At the end of these two weeks of competition, João Havelange has just seen one of the firm promises he made during his candidacy for the presidency of FIFA in June 1974 come to fruition.

Twenty years after Tunis, the tournament is firmly established as the World U-20 championship. Every two years it is held in a different country and it has become a vital part of the calendar for young up and coming players, as well a testing ground for coaches wanting to try out new plans and team formations and for those who are in charge of the Laws of the Game wanting to try out alterations. A real laboratory for putting new ideas to the test. How many times have we seen relatively unknown teams upsetting opponents supposedly toughened by high level competition? How many times between 1977 and 1997 have we marvelled at the talents of young players emerging on to the stage of world football for the first time? Who could forget Japan '79 and the amazing display put on by a certain Diego Maradona. He showed us football like no one else ever has, with the exception of Pelé himself.

Maradona pulled off two incredible coups. Before this WYC in Japan, the land of the rising sun where plans for a "J-League" of their own were being discussed, the status of this competition for juniors at international level was still very vague. The media hadn't got very involved. What the press wrote showed that they were not really interested, and radio and TV lagged even behind them. Journalists would attend if their own country was represented. But after 1979, with Maradona's superb performance and the whole Argentina side's achievement in winning the cup providing the spark, things changed drastically. The competition rose in stature, it was now a real world championship. FIFA and its long-term partner in youth football, Coca-Cola, redesigned the whole format of the tournament and gave it global dimensions. This change was appropriately received by the world press who were now highly enthusiastic, but it was really due to the performance of one exceptional player. So in addition to winning the tournament, this was perhaps the second success that could be attributed to Maradona.

From 1979 on, more and more journalists attended each new tournament, more spectators attended, more countries sent out radio and television coverage. It was in Australia in 1993 that how far the WYC had come was really apparent. In a huge country where rugby rules, with cricket, surfing on the waves of the Gold Coast, Indy car racing at Brisbane and golf all vying for what was left of spectator interest, football arrived like a comet landing from outer space, in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and even in the heart of Adelaide, then the home of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix.

Over the two week period of the competition, it was in this country of charm and surprises, far from the rest of the world, that I attended the best organised tournament of all WYCs and without doubt the most entertaining. Every day something would happen that topped what had gone before and would in turn give way to the next surprise. Every day, stadiums were full of noisy, good-humoured, enthusiastic fans. Are we dreaming? No, this really is Australia, land of extremes, the home of rugby, and this is a football crowd, watching a youth game and showing incredible passion for the sport. I remember the Australia-Brazil match in Melbourne, a place in the semifinal at stake. There was an expectancy in the air that morning and every patriotic Australian was eager for the match to start.

The idea of the home team getting so far and now taking on mighty Brazil at this stage had captured their imagination. Despite the defeat (0-2), a crowd that was voluble and generous in its applause gave a tremendous ovation to both the young "Socceroos" and the victorious Brazilian side. Something was sealed that day between these cosmopolitan people of varied traditions and the game of football. One other thing that impressed me deeply during this time in Australia; the remarkable run of the Ghana team.

Since the WYC had been first introduced, Africa had always been part of it, getting a team to the final in 1989, where Ghana encountered that star-studded Portuguese side. But in Australia they called for superlatives. The team had been excellently coached by Fred Osam-Duodu, and their skills and flair made each of their matches something spectacular. An almost endless list of talent: Ahinful, Gargo, Addo, Kuffour, Duah, Lamptey, Akonnor..., now among the stars of today with their various big clubs in Europe. How can I forget that comment made in the post match press conference by David Burnside, the English coach, to a crowd of experienced journalists, after his side had been knocked out by the amazing Ghanaians: "If one of you can stand up and tell me how to beat this Ghana team and their trainer, I'll be the happiest man in Australia." No-one dared ask him any more questions. It was an admission of impotence and at the same time a tribute to that young African side, going on their way at incredible speed. "Maybe that's the football of tomorrow," laughed one of the older English journalists.

We had come a long way from Chile 1987, when Nigeria, and even more noticeably Togo, had been present but finished way down among the also rans.

Chile 87? That was another tournament of sensations, another unforgettable festival of good football. By the poolside of the Sheraton hotel, on the heights above Santiago, I talked with João Havelange for over an hour in the quiet of the morning. I asked whether, ten years after its inception, the biannual gathering of the world's elite young players still gave him as much pleasure. "It always brings out new emotions in me," he said, "for each time round I am surprised and reassured by the progress, the level and the quality of play. For me, the introduction of these youth tournaments will always be an achievement of which FIFA can be proud." As is his custom, João Havelange visited and stayed in each one of the towns used as venues for the matches. That year, 1987, had been noteworthy for the resurrection of Chilean football, after all the political turmoil the country had been through. It would be hard to forget the emotions in the national stadium in Santiago, which not long before had been the scene of barbarous military events, now packed to capacity with 85,000 spectators eagerly awaiting the opening ceremony. The imposing setting included the Cordillera of the Andes, looking over the stadium like an angel recording the passing of time.

Chile '87 is memorable above all as the tournament of the Yugoslavs, with Prosinecki, Boban and Suker and all the others in the team. This was an enthralling side to watch, but the coach had had great difficulty getting them together and they had nearly had to withdraw. It was only two weeks before the competition started that the team had really been put together, so they had prepared in great haste. But what a fabulous result. World youth champions, and Robert Prosinecki voted best player of the tournament, later becoming a star on the international scene. Memories remain of the extraordinarily warm welcome provided by the people of Chile, opening their hearts and showing their friendship to all visitors. If we were selecting the most moving tournament, Chile would get my vote.

But there have been many other sensations as well. Looking back over the list of stars who first came to the world's attention during one of the WYCs in these twenty years, some names stand out above the rest. In addition to Maradona in 1979, other exceptional players who deserve mention here are Marco van Basten of Holland who played in the 1983 competition, and Bebeto of Brazil, winners of the competition that year, who would later add another gold to his collection as a member of the World Cup winning team in 1994.

It's difficult to make a definitive selection from among all of the young players who first came on the scene at a WYC and then went on to a long successful career at senior level.

But here's a worthy list. From Argentina: Jorge Burruchaga, Gabriel Calderon, Sergio Goycochea; from Brazil: Dunga, Taffarel, Jorginho, Muller, Bismarck, Silas; from Austria: Toni Polster; from Germany: Andreas Möller, Matthias Sammer; from Ghana: Odartey Lamptey, Charles Akonnor; from Portugal: Rui Costa, Paolo Souza, Abel, Peixe, João Pinto; from Colombia: René Higuita; from Uruguay: Enzo Francescoli, Ruben Paz; from the USSR: Khidiyatullin, Protasov, Salenko, Zavarov; from the USA: Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, and from Spain: Raúl. These and others who have emerged during the competition's twenty year history show why there is great interest among the continents for holding it.

When FIFA decided in 1981, after two successful tournaments (1977 and 1979), to run the competition under a new name, they chose Australia for the first venue.

The first championship for the World U-20 title also marked the increase in playing time from 80 minutes up to the normal senior duration of 90 minutes.

During this tournament, it was Qatar, coached by the Brazilian Evaristo, were responsible for a major upset; finishing second in their group and beating the old masters England 1:0 in the semifinal in Sydney. The final between Qatar and Germany will be remembered for the violent downpour that took everyone by surprise. The Sidney Cricket Ground was flooded and the Germans, perhaps not too surprisingly, were better able to adjust. As European champions in 1981, they had been favoured to win this trophy too, and they did so after a very smooth tournament.

Two years later it was the Scots who qualified for the WYC finals as European champions, and they went to Mexico with high hopes. But these were short-lived. Mexico 83 was played in a typically South American atmosphere, and it was teams from that subcontinent who made the best impression. There was an expectation of magic in the air as kick off time drew near for the dream final Argentina-Brazil on 19 June 1983 in the Aztec stadium, bursting with 110000 passionate football fans. A pity that the technical level of the match did not live up to the ambience. Brazil won, and went on to repeat their triumph two years later in the Soviet Union.

Unlike other host countries, the Soviet Union used six cities as venues, between 24 August and 7 September 1985, among them Baku (Azerbaijan), Yerevan (Armenia), Tbilisi (Georgia), Minsk (Belarus) and Moscow, where the famous Lenin stadium was the ground chosen. Having battled valiantly to win the semifinal against Nigeria in a very intense match, the Brazilians all embraced their goalkeeper Taffarel at the end of the match – he had played a heroic part in their victory. He was a decisive figure again in the final against Spain, a well-balanced and very competitive side. Under appalling conditions in the Lenin stadium, Brazil introduced an era of back-to-back wins.

Four years later at Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), it was the superb generation of young Portuguese players, coached by Queiroz, who would steal the headlines. They took the title after beating Nigeria in a memorable final played in the futuristic Fahd stadium. In the course of this tournament, the most extraordinary match in the history of the WYC was played out. This was at Dammam, in the quarter-final. After 58 minutes, the USSR were leading Nigeria 4-0, and the Soviet coach Boris Ignatiev took off Kiriakov, who was the heart of the team. For Ignatiev and the Soviet players a nightmare began. Within 24 minutes the unbelievable had happened - the Africans had caught up at 4:4, the last two goals coming the 83rd and 84th minutes. After a hectic half hour of extra time, where the players' nerves were right on edge, penalty shooting had to decide the outcome, and after pathetic efforts on both sides, the Nigerians won 5-3.

In the twenty years of the competition's history there has never been anything to equal the swing of this match.

The Portuguese won the final, with the Nigerians not having fully recovered from their efforts to get that far, but from the point of view of talent and inspirational football there were equal amounts on both sides. The way Jorge Couto and João Pinto played in that match will long be remembered. A whole generation of young Portuguese seemed to have arrived on the world football scene, and two years later they confirmed their presence by taking the WYC again, this time on home soil. The tournament in Portugal built up to a final in the de la Luz stadium in Lisbon, where the host country would meet Brazil. Two weeks earlier, the opening ceremony in the Das Antas stadium in Porto had been held, also a memorable occasion. On a completely impromptu basis, João Havelange and Mario Soares, then president of the republic, chatted with some of the fans, spectators and members of the media corps. A simple discussion evolved, with both men showing the same passion.

The final was played in a festival atmosphere and the home team defeated the Brazilians to hold on to their title. So the Portuguese (1989 and 1991) had managed to emulate the Brazilian's feat (1983 and 1985) of winning and then defending the title. They were the only two teams to have achieved consecutive wins, until Argentina joined them this year, with wins in 1995 and 1997.

This brings us to 1995, when the tournament was held in Qatar, although it had originally been scheduled for Nigeria. After holding enquiries and going through numerous reports, FIFA's Emergency Committee decided that a change of venue was unavoidable.

The beautiful setting of the Gulf state of Qatar provided an almost perfect background for the competition. It was a special tournament, because all the matches were played in Doha, the capital, which has four superb stadiums, all very close to each other. What an experience that was. Who else could offer such a rich infrastructure today? And the late change of host country left the Emirate of Qatar only a few weeks after the decision had been made in which to prepare for this major event.

Congratulations! This eighth World Youth Championship for the FIFA/Coca-Cola Cup saw innovations in the competition rules – the Golden Goal was introduced and teams were allowed to make three substitutions instead of two.

The final was an all South American affair, Brazil v Argentina, won by the latter, but this match had nowhere near the technical level and the intensity of the play off for third place between Spain and Portugal (2:3). The three Portuguese goals in the space of thirteen minutes will long be remembered.

In Malaysia 1997 we all experienced a total change. The tradition of football is not yet established there and there were disappointments on the non-sporting side, which affected the whole incoming "soccer family". It was a pity, because while the stadiums were all architecturally delightful, the crowds did not turn up; yet the show would have been well worth their trouble. With two swee-ping victories in which they scored ten goals, the Brazilians looked strong early favourites.

But they did not even reach the final, where they were expected to meet their old rivals Argentina. Because the latter made a faux pas on the way, Brazil had to play them earlier, but they met a fully recovered Argentine team who would go on to victory. In the final, their opponents would be the well organised Uruguayans, getting that far for the first time in their history. As in Qatar, it was 22 South Americans who lined up for the final, but again it was Argentina's eleven who had the better tactics. Thanks to this success, Argentina (1979, 1995 and 1997) joined the group of teams who have won the title three times bride Brazil (1983, 1985 and 1993) and in front of Portugal (1989 and 1991).

This is a competition that certainly does not lack surprises. Next time round, Nigeria is again scheduled to be the host country, and doubtless we shall see more upsets, more magic, maybe even some miracles. Since its modest start in El Menzah in 1977 the competition has never wavered in its idealism for the youth game, nor has it lacked in spectacle or emotion. Above all emotion. The next round will be with us soon.