If you plan to climb a mountain, it is always best to set out early – whether the peak you hope to scale is the Matterhorn or simply a metaphor. That certainly applies to young footballers anxious to reach the heights of the game, with an early grounding in top-level contests such a boon to a burgeoning career. The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup was launched with that in mind and since the inaugural edition in New Zealand in 2008, three more final tournaments have given promising talents a crucial platform. Many have gone on to approach, or even conquer, the summit of world football.
Japan's Mana Iwabuchi is the standout example, having achieved great things since shining at the age of 15 during the 2008 tournament. Despite her team being knocked out in the quarter-finals, Iwabuchi's technique, creativity and vision set her apart from her peers, and she was awarded the adidas Golden Ball as best player. Further reward came with a call-up to Japan's senior team aged 17 in 2010, and she promptly helped them win the FIFA Women's World Cup™ the following year.
"Having the chance to play at world level when you're young is invaluable," she recently told FIFA.com. "When you see the world's greatest players at international tournaments, you feel that you want to improve yourself more and more. I really enjoyed playing in that competition."
A runner-up in the trailblazing 2008 edition, USA's Morgan Brian no doubt enjoyed much about her New Zealand odyssey as well. And although the adventure ended in a final loss to a Korea DPR side featuring Hong Myong-Hui and Jon Myong-Hwa, she put her disappointment behind her when the Stars and Stripes lifted the World Cup in Canada last year.
Germany's 2008 vintage
Dzsenifer Marozsan was another player to catch the eye in New Zealand, her goals, assists and set-piece acumen driving Germany through to the semi-finals. Those qualities also earned her the adidas Silver Ball, and she has continued down the road to success ever since, first for the U-20s and more recently the seniors. Her national-team medal collection attests to that, with titles including the 2010 U-20 Women's World Cup, UEFA Women's EURO 2013 and the 2016 Women's Olympic Football Tournament.
"I followed the path I had to take to play for the seniors in the future," she told FIFA.com, having also picked up the adidas Golden Ball despite finishing a losing finalist at the 2012 U-20 Women's World Cup. "I'm very honoured to have played for all the youth sides from the U-15s to the U-20s. I owe the fact that I was able to make it into the [senior] Nationalmannschaft to the experience I gained in those teams."
Germany clearly boasted a vintage array of talent in 2008 as forward Alexandra Popp, midfielder Leonie Maier, defender Tabea Kemme and goalkeeper Almuth Schult also won gold alongside Marozsan at Rio 2016. And New Zealand likewise served as a launch pad for the host nation's own Rosie White¸ as well as Brazil's Raquel Fernandes and the Colombian quartet of Yoreli Rincon, Ingrid Vidal, Natalia Gaitan and Natali Ariza. All have gone on to become key figures for their national sides.
As for England's Lucy Bronze, a semi-finalist in 2008, she played a starring role in her team's third-place finish at Canada 2015 – and the best may be yet to come for the 23-year-old. As England coach Mark Sampson says, "She has what it takes to be the best full-back in the world."
Two years after New Zealand, the U-17 Women's World Cup touched down in Trinidad and Tobago, where spectators were introduced to Germany's Melanie Leupolz – another gold medallist in Rio – and Nigerian forward Francisca Ordega. The tournament was a first as well for Canada's Ashley Lawrence, plus Andressa of Brazil, both now fully integrated into their nation's senior set-ups thanks in part to their U-17 experience.
Indeed, the Canucks midfielder and Seleção forward followed up their exploits in Trinidad and Tobago by returning for another helping at Azerbaijan 2012. "I'm trying to pass a bit of my experience on to the other players and give a bit more stability to the team," Andressa told FIFA.com during her second tilt. "I've tried to describe the atmosphere of a World Cup. I've warned them that the games will be very tough, while trying to give them confidence."
Memories and emotions
As it turned out, she and her team-mates ended the tournament as mere spectators, as did Lawrence and Canada colleague Kadeisha Buchanan, future Hyundai Young Player Award winner at the 2015 World Cup. Instead, it was France who went all the way, powered towards the finish line by Griedge Mbock Bathy – adidas Golden Ball winner despite being a defender.
She has since become a regular for Les Bleues and club side Lyon, but she remembers her time in Azerbaijan fondly. "My trophy is at home in a cabinet where I keep all the medals I've won since I was little," she explained to FIFA.com in 2014, before defending her nation's colours at the U-20 Women's World Cup in Canada. "I've placed it in the middle, and every time I look at it, it brings back a whole load of memories and emotions."
That same year, the U-17 Women's World Cup was held in Costa Rica, and fans were treated to the goalscoring feats of Venezuela duo Deyna Castellanos and Gabriela Garcia, who packed the adidas Golden Boot and Silver Boot into their respective bags when all was done and dusted. It was Bronze Boot winner Hina Sugita who stole the limelight, though, leaving for home with the adidas Golden Ball after helping Japan clinch the title – and thus becoming the latest young star to announce her ability at a U-17 Women's World Cup.
Now it is time for a whole new crop of revelations to begin their ascent to the summit, and all the various hopefuls are currently going through their final preparations. The expedition begins on 30 September, when Jordan will be the backdrop to the launch of a fresh set of stellar careers.