As football fans the world over tuned into Germany 2006, they witnessed a whole raft of emerging young talents take their maiden steps at a FIFA World Cup™. It was the dawn of a new era for the likes of Lukas Podolski, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and four years on, those battle-hardened prodigies are now lighting up the fields of South Africa.
Take Podolski, for example, who fired in Germany’s opener in their 4-0 triumph over Australia. Named Best Young Player at the 2006 tournament, he joined Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich soon after, only to fail to blossom in Bavaria. A return to his old club Cologne last summer turned his fortunes around though, and he is currently enjoying a superb run with Die Nationalmannschaft, for whom he is only around 25 caps shy of his century at just 25 years of age.
Exposure to the 2006 global showcase at a young age had an even more marked effect on Ronaldo and Messi, who made it into the top three of the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards the following year, before first Ronaldo, in 2008, then Messi, in 2009, won both awards outright.
Diminutive Argentinian forward Messi emerged from the Barcelona youth academy with the club’s habitual stamp of quality and travelled to South Africa on the back of a prolific campaign that yielded 34 Liga goals and the title of Pichichi as top scorer in Spain. He was little used in Germany four years ago, much to the frustration of La Albiceleste fans, but he has become an integral figure for Diego Maradona’s side, the coach identifying the 22-year-old as his true successor on the pitch. “No one can hold a candle to Messi,” Maradona, himself a former youth prodigy, has said. “No one can do 40 per cent of what Messi has done.”
As for the jewel in Portugal’s crown, he too has taken the world by storm these past four years. Already boasting a runners-up medal from UEFA EURO 2004 when the 2006 FIFA World Cup kicked off, Ronaldo has since disputed a pair of UEFA Champions League finals as well as a FIFA World Cup semi-final. The Real Madrid icon and world’s most expensive player is now a superstar in his homeland, despite having failed to find the net for Portugal since February 2009.
Ronaldo’s erstwhile Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney was another promising newcomer at Germany 2006, though by that point he had already amassed impressive experience. He contested four of England’s five matches back then, as he recovered from injury, playing the full 90 minutes on just two occasions, but this time he is fully fit and carrying the hopes of a nation on his broad shoulders.
Like England, Spain will be hoping to lift the Trophy come 11 July, and they too were able to blood new talent last time out. Cesc Fabregas rose in stature as the tournament unfolded until he was entrusted with a starting berth in the Round of 16 meeting with France, while right-back Sergio Ramos lined up at kick-off for three games.
La Roja are undoubtedly a class act here at South Africa 2010, but they were surprisingly upstaged by two of the nominees for the 2006 Best Young Player award as a Switzerland side featuring Philippe Senderos and Tranquillo Barnetta posted a 1-0 victory in Group H on Wednesday. Since catching the eye in Germany, that duo have experienced differing fortunes. Former Arsenal centre-back Senderos has taken in spells at AC Milan and Everton without ever imposing himself, while midfielder Barnetta has become an increasingly popular figure at Bayer Leverkusen.
Reputations in the balance
Aside from the players whose teams failed to qualify for South Africa 2010 – including Ukraine’s Dmytro Chygrynskiy, who joined Barcelona last year, and Ecuador’s Manchester United winger Luis Valencia – a number of the hottest prospects from Germany 2006 have simply struggled to continue their upward trajectory. England’s Theo Walcott, for example, had never graced the Arsenal first team when he was called up by Sven Goran Eriksson at the age of 17, but after four years of Premier League experience he was back in the headlines on 1 June this year, when Fabio Capello opted to leave him out of his 23-man squad.
In a similar vein, Argentinian goalkeeper Oscar Ustari made the trip to Germany aged 19 and later joined Spanish outfit Getafe from Independiente, but despite moving to one of Europe’s most prestigious leagues he failed to make the cut for Maradona’s 23-man party.
More fortunate are the likes of Aaron Lennon (ENG), Marcell Jansen (GER), Mark Milligan (AUS), Asamoah Gyan (GHA), Guillermo Ochoa and Andres Guardado (MEX), Ryan Babel (NED), Park Chu-Young (KOR) and Valon Behrami (SUI), all of whom played cameo roles at Germany 2006 and have since become established players for their national sides. The rest of the tournament will tell whether those erstwhile young hopes for the future make a name for themselves in the here and now.