Some of the biggest stars in the world football firmament got their first taste of the bright international lights at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Before the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldinho, Kanu, Xavi, Landon Donovan and Cesc Fabregas went on to become household names, they were just nervous teenagers chasing a big and elusive dream.
“It was a long time ago, but I remember the tournament like it was yesterday,” said retired goalkeeper Roberto ‘Pato’ Abbondanzieri about the 1989 edition in Scotland, where his Argentina lost in the quarter-finals to Luis Figo’s impressive Portugal. “It was a like a dream come true and the first time I was able to pull on the shirt of my country and play for my colours. It was a World Cup for Argentina and the thrill was huge.”
Abbondanzieri used the tournament as a launching pad for greater success, going on to amass 50 senior caps for La Albiceleste, represent them at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ and collect six Argentinian and four Copa Libertadores titles. Even with a full trophy cabinet and countless highlights at full level, his fond memories of the U-17 finals still linger. “Our loss to Portugal still leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “But it was the first step on the road to the top level of football. It made me grow up faster.”
With the benefit of wisdom gained 22 years ago, Abbondanzieri concludes with a bit of advice for the new generation of hopefuls who will line up: “You are lucky to play in a World Cup, so you have to enjoy every moment,” said the man who picked up the Zamora trophy as Spain’s top keeper during his 2006/07 season with Getafe.
It opened so many doors for me; it really changed my life. We went from being nobodies to household names.
Iker Casillas is another net-minder whose road to glory began at the U-17s. Before he became virtually canonised by Real Madrid’s Bernabeu faithful and the first Spanish player in history to hoist the World Cup in Johannesburg in 2010, Casillas represented his country on a semi-final run in Egypt in 1997. He wasn’t the team’s only star in the making, either, as Barcelona and La Roja ace Xavi was handling the play-making duties.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Casillas told FIFA.com, before turning his attentions to the next generation: “Even if they’re already playing for their clubs, they have to throw themselves into the tournament and have the highest hope. It’s a beautiful thing,” added a man who went on to win the FIFA U-20 World Cup two years later in Nigeria.
Fast-forward to 2001 and the sultry Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago were the setting for the U-17 extravaganza, a tournament studded with future stars including Fernando Torres, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. “Just to take part in a world tournament at that age is so special, so you can imagine what it was like to win it,” exclaimed Florent Sinama-Pongolle, who finished top scorer for champions France and was selected as the tournament’s best player.
“It opened so many doors for me; it really changed my life," Sinama-Pongolle went on. "We went from being nobodies to household names.” The team’s creator-in-chief Anthony Le Tallec was equally moved: “It’s an unforgettable thing. I became someone at that tournament.”
“Winning the title was a dream come true for me and for Mexico,” Giovani dos Santos said of Mexico’s historic victory in Peru in 2005. “It was our first world title as a country and everyone welcomed us home as heroes. We brought such joy to the people and it was amazing.” Captain Patricio Araujo, now of Guadalajara, sounded a similar tune: “That championship changed our lives completely. People suddenly knew who you were.”
“It was a great experience,” was the assessment of Danny Welbeck, England’s star from Korea 2007 who is currently starring for the senior side, as well as with his club Manchester United. “It was a good chance for us to get away and test ourselves against players from different countries and different parts of the world. We all benefitted from it. There’s nothing better than to represent your country, especially at such a young age.” Raheem Sterling, currently representing the senior England national team and Liverpool, also remembers his U-17 journey - in Mexico two years ago - with a fondness. "It's special to play for your country, no matter what age level. It's just that simple."