There will be 502 players on show at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, and every single one of them will be hoping the event provides a springboard for a career filled with goals, trophies and adulation.

For many of these 16 and 17-year-olds, Mexico 2011 will be their first taste of major international competition and a unique opportunity for them to showcase their skills. The U-17 World Cup has been a platform for emerging young talents ever since it was first staged in China in 1985, and it has launched the career of many, many players, from every corner of the globe and representing every imaginable footballing philosophy.

As reveals, the young footballers who have lit up the 13 editions of the tournament and collected individual trophies in the process have since gone on to take widely differing career paths. For some, things did not perhaps turn out the way they would have liked, while for others, the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe (given out to the best player and top scorer respectively) has been the first of many accolades.

Stars in the making
Many recent winners of the adidas Golden Ball have gone on to enjoy sustained success. Take Landon Donovan for example, who led a highly promising USA side also featuring DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu to the semi-finals at New Zealand 1999. The Los Angeles Galaxy man has since become an idol in his home country, producing several excellent performances at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, the biggest stage of them all.

One man enjoying even more success is Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who pocketed an  Golden Ball and Golden Shoe double in inspiring his country to the runners-up slot at Finland 2003, where he scored five goals in all. With his masterful vision and superb touch, the Arsenal star is now one of the most highly rated players in the world. 

Succeeding Cesc as player of the tournament at Peru 2005 was Brazil’s Anderson, who, like his successor at Korea 2007, Germany’s Toni Kroos, is now a fixture with his national team. Both are now making significant strides with their respective clubs, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, and are blazing a trail for future generations to come.

Falling short
There are occasions, however, when first impressions can be deceptive. There are so many factors involved in the transformation from promising youngster to full-fledged international star that potential alone is sometimes not enough, no matter how much of it a teenage starlet may possess.

A case in point is Spain’s Sergio Santamaria, who showed compatriot Fabregas the way by stealing the show at Egypt 1997, beating Brazilian icon Ronaldinho to the adidas Golden Ball and inspiring a formidable team that also featured Iker Casillas between the posts and Xavi in midfield. A peer of iconic central defender Carles Puyol, Sergio also broke into the Barcelona first team, but a dearth of opportunities eventually forced him to try his luck in the backwaters of Spanish football.

The inaugural winner of the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-17 World Cup China 1985, Brazilian midfielder William failed to light up the international scene, though he did have the consolation of making quite a name for himself at home. A national championship winner with Vasco da Gama in 1989, he also won three Rio de Janeiro state titles between 1992 and 1994, a career record he is entitled to feel proud of.

Ghana trailblazer fades away
Top of the class at Italy 1991 was Nii Odartey Lamptey, who outshone Alessandro del Piero, Marcelo Gallardo and Juan Sebastian Veron as Ghana made off with the title. A great future beckoned for the Ghanaian, who excelled when taking his first steps as a professional at Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven, both high-profile European clubs, in the early 1990s. He enjoyed an equally rapid promotion in the national team set-up, winning a starting place alongside Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah in the full Ghana side.

Yet, by the time the decade had come to a close, Lamptey’s stock had fallen, the result of brief and unsuccessful stays with a string of clubs in England, Italy, Argentina, Turkey, Portugal and Germany. A move to Shandong Luneng of China followed in 2001, by which time he was 27, brought a smile back to the midfielder’s face and was the prelude to a homecoming with Asante Kotoko.

Compared at one point of his career with Pele, like many before and after him, Lamptey perhaps failed to live up to his rich potential, though in reaching the top at the FIFA U-17 World Cup he achieved something that every player appearing at Mexico 2011 would dearly wish to emulate.