For the next three weeks the United Arab Emirates will challenge for the attentions of international football fans around the world, as the country hosts the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup. The latest edition of this tournament sees 24 teams compete for a trophy that has been lifted by only eight sides in its history.
Proceedings get underway on Thursday evening and, if past competitions are anything to go by, there should be plenty of strong performances and surprises in the days ahead. But the U-17 World Cup’s real attraction is the chance to watch the debut big-stage appearances of players who will likely go on to become the internationally-acclaimed stars of the future.
A top destination
In recent years UAE has become one of the quickest growing tourist and sports destinations in the world, thanks to the contemporary lifestyle it offers and a blend of diverse cultures from around the globe. And in October and November the tourists are sure to pour in, as they seek the ideal place to indulge in their favourite leisure activities while taking in some high-quality football action.
The 15th edition of the U-17 World Cup will be held over the course of 23 days, in six of the Gulf nation’s emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Fujairah, Dubai and Al Ain. For the lucky fans who make the trip, it will be a chance to watch some blazing contests beneath the warm sun.
It will be particularly interesting to see how Nigeria and Brazil fare this time out. The two sides have the best records of any nation playing, with three titles apiece. Nigeria nearly claimed a fourth crown when they hosted the tournament four years ago, while Brazil have recently been somewhat off the pace, their last win coming back in 2003.
In an earlier interview with FIFA.com, Brazil coach Alexandre Gallo spoke about how significant winning the title was to his players: “Our players are burdened with the expectation that they must win, just because they were born Brazilian. Where we come from, winning is a duty, and every game we play is like the most important event in our lives, which only increases the pressure.”
Two-time champions Mexico arguably present the most serious challenge to the big two. They snatched the title on home soil two years back by winning every game on their way to the final, where they then beat Uruguay in an encounter watched by nearly 100,000 spectators in the Estadio Azteca. If they repeat the performance in UAE they will be only the second team to defend the title.
All eyes on the prize
Hosts UAE have Mexico on their minds as well, as they look to emulate El Tri by becoming only the second team to win the tournament as hosts. Huge crowds of home supporters are expected to cheer their white-shirted heroes on in their quest to improve on their performance at Nigeria 2009, when they made it to the last 16.
However, former UAE goalkeeper Muhsin Musabah believes the youngsters “mustn’t obsess about the results, about winning and losing. They have to enjoy the games and bring all the skill and technique they have to the fore. That way they will certainly feel the benefit in the future and the tournament will give them a huge morale boost.”
Argentina will also be aiming high in a tournament that has been one of their greatest frustrations over the years - the proud footballing nation failing to carry home the cup in 12 attempts. They have achieved a tournament-best third place on three occasions, the last time coming a decade ago, and the South American champions will be giving their all in order to complete their collection of silverware.
Italy are also looking for their first title. Their morale is sure to be high after reaching the final of the UEFA U-17 Championship in May, where they were defeated by a Russian side that will be keen to repeat their continental feat on the world stage here in the Gulf. In a recent interview with FIFA.com, Russia coach Dmitry Khomukha said: “Our next goal is to put on an excellent performance at the U-17 World Cup and win it.”
With former champions Ghana, France and Switzerland not making the cut, and traditionally strong sides like Spain and Germany out of the running, the time is ripe for the tournament debutants to prove their worth. Newcomers such as Iraq, Morocco, Venezuela and Sweden could find themselves making history if they manage to reprise the heroics of the former USSR and Switzerland, both of whom won the title at the first time of asking in 1987 and 2009 respectively.
The question remains: when the 52 matches are done and dusted on 8 November, who will be left standing? To find out the answer, all you have to do is follow the tournament here on FIFA.com.