Earning a reputation is difficult enough; maintaining it often even tougher. However, the FIFA U-20 World Cup – long touted as a springboard for future stars – continues to live up to its lofty billing.
Evidence of the tournament’s enduring influence has again been apparent of late, with several youngsters making major moves on the back of their performances at the latest edition. All of New Zealand 2015’s top three players, in fact, are now looking forward to new adventures with high-profile clubs in Europe’s top leagues. Adama Traore of Mali, Brazil’s Danilo and Serbia star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – adidas Golden, Silver and Bronze Ball winners respectively – will be lining up in the colours of Monaco, Valencia and Lazio this season, each aiming to live up to their own recently enhanced reputations.
Monaco’s Malian maverick
Traore is the only one of the three not to have moved leagues, with Monaco having prised him from Ligue 1 rivals Lille. And while doing so required a reported fee of €14m, the midfielder’s U-20 showings convinced the club that this would be money well spent.
"He was named the best player of the U-20 World Cup, which speaks volumes about his qualities,” said vice-president Vadim Vasilyev. "This great hope of football has chosen to come to Monaco to thrive. His determination to join us, as he was made higher offers from important clubs, shows the quality of our project."
The other interested parties to whom Vasilyev referred were said to include Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Manchester United, offering Traore an enviable array of options. However, the 20-year-old, having thrived in New Zealand following a switch from central midfield to a No10 role, felt Monaco offered the best chance of furthering that tactical education.
“Playing for Monaco will give me the opportunity to learn many things,” said Traore, who agreed a five-year deal with the south coast outfit. “I have to physically improve and work on my positioning. I spoke with the coach Leonardo Jardim and he told me he will teach me how to position myself on the pitch, which is very important [to my development].”
Mestalla calls Danilo
The prospect of UEFA Champions League football was also cited by the 20-year-old as impacting his decision, although this could yet be denied to him by Danilo’s new employers. Valencia, after all, are 3-1 up after the first leg of a play-off tie that will determine which of the two sides advances to the group stage.
The Brazil midfielder attracted the Spanish giants with a series of assured and classy performances in New Zealand, leading by example in his role as Seleção skipper. Indeed, so impressive was the tall, graceful 19-year-old that Braga – for whom he had been a mainstay last season – were unable to fend off his many suitors.
That left Danilo himself to decide on this crucial next move, with the Spanish La Liga eventually emerging as his preferred destination. "I chose Valencia because of the club’s stature and history, and because I saw the good atmosphere that exists here,” said the adidas Silver Ball winner, who agreed a one-year loan with a view to moving permanently. “This is a very pleasing moment for me, facing a new challenge. Now I hope to be up to the greatness of Mestalla."
Serbia’s Serie A star
Danilo’s new coach, Nuno Espirito Santo, has spoken of the Brazilian’s arrival helping to make the club “much stronger”, and Lazio have similarly high hopes for Milinkovic-Savic. Their belief in the Serbian midfielder was amply demonstrated by the transfer fee - €9m plus bonuses - that tempted Genk into doing business.
Milinkovic-Savic, a first-team regular with the Belgian club and a potent creative force in Serbia’s triumphant U-20 campaign, had become – like his fellow New Zealand graduates – a sought-after commodity. Lazio saw off the likes of Fiorentina though, with sporting director Igli Tare describing the midfielder as “the little piece we were missing”.
And though eyebrows were raised in Italy at the price tag, this rising Serbian star was unfazed by the challenge of justifying such faith. “If Lazio have invested that amount of money, it's because it represents my value," he said. "The more time passes, the more I realise how important this transfer is. Moving here was a great opportunity, and I will remember this year my whole life. It’s strange because it all happened so quickly. First I become a world champion, then I joined such a big club.”
No place like home
Naturally, these award-winners are not the only stars of New Zealand 2015 to have attracted significant interest. Predrag Rajkovic, Milinkoviv-Savic’s team-mate and captain – named as the tournament’s top keeper – currently finds himself in a transfer tug-of-war, with Red Star Belgrade fielding offers from England, Germany and Turkish giants Galatasaray.
Rajkovic may opt to stay put, of course, and switching clubs is not a prerequisite for career progress. Viktor Kovalenko, the U-20 World Cup’s top scorer, is already attesting to that. Faced with the temptation of cashing in on the prolific Ukraine star, Shakhtar Donetsk made their position clear, with general director Sergei Palkin vowing not to sell “regardless of what offers we receive”.
Kovalenko will instead form a central pillar of Shakhtar’s future plans, with his recent Champions League debut against Fenerbahce representing a key breakthrough. “He is an extremely promising player for our club and there's no doubt he has a great future,” said the club’s coach, Mircea Lucescu. “Viktor has everything a player needs."
Like his fellow New Zealand 2015 graduates, Shakhtar’s newest star seemingly has the world at his feet. And like the others and so many before them, he is indebted to the U-20 World Cup for elevating his status to new heights.