The recently completed FIFA World Cup™ featured countless graduates of the FIFA U-20 World Cup. It has been a recurring them for several decades now. Names such as Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Cesc Fabregas, Luis Figo, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Aguero and more recently, James Rodriguez, Oscar and Paul Pogba, have all cut their teeth in FIFA’s second biggest men’s tournament.
Now the next generation of talented youngsters in Europe are aiming to take a step towards stardom by helping their team safely navigate through the qualifying campaign, and secure their ticket to next year’s U-20 showpiece in New Zealand. The coming fortnight in Hungary will see eight nations – Austria, Israel, Portugal and the hosts (Group A), plus Bulgaria, Germany, Serbia and Ukraine (Group B) – vie for six berths on offer to New Zealand 2015.
The 13-day event commences on Saturday and will be played in four locations, namely Budapest, Gyor, Papa and Felcsut, with the latter venue named in honour of Hungary’s greatest footballer; the Ferenc Puskas Football Academy. While the continental champions will not be known until 31 July, the top three teams in each group will qualify for New Zealand 2015, thus marking out the final group-stage matchday – 25 July – as a red-letter day.
Dethroned kings shape up
Group B will feature a host of enticing fixtures with reigning champions Serbia surviving the lengthy qualifying campaign to earn a finals return. The group also includes 2008 champions Germany and Ukraine, winners in 2009 – although neither side has featured in the finals since lifting the trophy.
In such elite company Bulgaria will be considered outsiders by many. But as they prepare to feature in their first UEFA U-19 finals since 2008, coach Aleksandar Dimitrov believes underdog status may prove an advantage. “The good point is that there will be no pressure on us,” he said. “If I was in the shoes of the other coaches, I wouldn't allow any team to be underestimated. I see a spark in their eyes," Dimitrov said of his players. “They have the mentality and desire to go further.”
Germany will enter the tournament no doubt buoyed their senior team’s recent glory in Brazil. New coach Marcus Sorg – who took over from Christian Ziege last year – has successively helped the team end a surprising six-year drought from the competition, eliminated six-time European champions Spain along the way. “Like all German teams, we put great emphasis on discipline and organisation,” said Sorg. “Of course we also have players with exceptional quality, especially in attack. We want to play quality football at the highest level, and I think that is also what is expected of us."
Israel aim for new highs
Group A includes a mix of nations with varying degrees of success at this level. Leading the way are Portugal who won the world championships in 1989 and 1991. Austria and Hungary have featured in the U-20 World Cup on several occasions each, while Israel are seeking to create history with maiden qualification.
Coached by Israel footballing icon Eli Ohana, the Class of 2014 are seeking to break new ground, having never previously featured in a FIFA World Cup at youth level. “This means a lot to Israeli football because we don't have so many achievements, so every time we have some success it's a big excitement,” Ohana said. “It's good for the experience of the players and if we qualify for the World Cup it will give them a boost personally, and also a boost for youth football in Israel.”
Much focus will be on hosts Hungary, one of the grand old names of European football. Coach Geza Meszoly aims to help produce a new generation of stars as the Magyars seek a return to their glory days. “Our players get to play more and more international matches (by playing in this tournament) which is very important for their careers,” said Meszoly. “For Hungarian football it is very important that these players can step up again to the full national team to help us reach higher levels: a World Cup. We are aware of that and can bear that responsibility.”