As a country, Turkey is famed for its hospitality and extraordinary love for football. A home to warm and passionate fans, it is a geographical bridge between east and west, spanning both Asia and Europe. And over the coming three weeks, the 75-million strong population will bring the football world together too.
With the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 set to kick off on Friday, excitement and anticipation have reached fever pitch, with a whole spectrum of emotions as much part of the event as top-quality football.
The 19th edition of the competition, which will be hosted in the seven cities of Antalya, Bursa, Gaziantep, Istanbul, Kayseri, Rize and Trabzon between 21 June and 13 July, promises to be an unforgettable one. With reigning champions Brazil and record tournament winners Argentina both absent, former victors Spain, Portugal and Ghana have taken over the mantel of favourites. However, there are several other sides, including France, Nigeria, South American champions Colombia, as well as Mexico - winners of the FIFA U-17 World Cup on home turf two years ago - who could also be serious title contenders.
It will also be intriguing to see how the hosts perform on their own patch. “We're unbelievably passionate about football,” former goalkeeper and Turkey’s most-capped player Rustu Recber told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “The people here love the game. They talk about hardly anything else for days on end. People can expect warm hospitality, powerful emotions and stirring passion. I really wish I was 20 again.”
For the next 23 days, the world’s 24 best youth teams will hold football fans under their spell. “Spectators will see the international stars of tomorrow here. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for my country to show what it can do,” said Turkey’s U-20 coach Feyyaz Ucar. Local Organising Committee President Servet Yardimci struck a similar chord, saying: “We will show the beauty of our country and our enthusiasm for football.”
Three newcomers - Greece, El Salvador and Cuba - will take part in FIFA’s second-oldest competition, with a total of 504 registered players hoping to lift the newly-minted trophy, the most prestigious piece of silverware in global youth football. The event also offers the youngsters the chance to follow in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors.
Not only did Sergio Aguero, Seydou Keita, Robert Prosinecki, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona all win the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player in previous editions; they also laid the foundations for hugely successful careers. “I hope the U-20 World Cup in Turkey will be fantastic this summer,” FIFA World Player of the Year Messi, who led Argentina to the 2005 title in the Netherlands, told FIFA.com in a video message. “Above all, it’ll be an opportunity for young players to showcase their abilities to the world.”
Numerous raw talents, who have already started to shine in various top leagues around the world, are determined to seize that chance with both hands. France’s Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba is among the more established names on display, as are Spain’s Barcelona winger Gerard Deulofeu and Uruguay’s Roma striker Nicolas Lopez. “You have to be ready to really battle, all in the knowledge that your efforts will perhaps be rewarded at the end of the competition," Andre Ayew told FIFA.com. The Ghana international knows what he is talking about, after helping his side to the FIFA U-20 World Cup crown at Egypt 2009.
That the eyes of the world will now be looking Turkey’s way is not something that has gone unnoticed. “It's the biggest tournament we've ever put on in Turkey, both in terms of the standard of the football and the scope of the organisation,” Rustu added.
With the hosts, who have been on a steadily upward trajectory since their third-placed finish at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, eager to show themselves in the best possible light, the stage is set for a truly magnificent event. Each squad houses promising young hopefuls, vying to become part of the ever-growing group of elite to etch their country’s name on the coveted prize.
It's the biggest tournament we've ever put on in Turkey, both in terms of the standard of the football and the scope of the organisation.
Millions of spectators are excited to see not only what footballing styles may appear in future, but also to catch a glimpse of the faces who could shape the game for years to come. With everything in place, kick-off cannot come soon enough.