In the world of football, it is possible to be of a tender age but still boast considerable international experience. Indeed, 25 of the 736 players on the verge of competing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ have already gleaned valuable lessons from the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
At both Colombia 2011 and Turkey 2013, participating coaches were all in agreement: although performing well at the tournament was obviously important, the overall goal was to enable future senior team players to accrue crucial experience. The time has now come to see if that objective has been achieved.
Three of this year’s crop of youngsters have previously held aloft the prestigious U-20 trophy. Brazilian midfield maestro Oscar did it in 2011, capping off a highly successful event for him personally by scoring a remarkable hat-trick in the final against Portugal. Visibly delighted at the final whistle, he revealed the motivating factors behind his impressive showing to FIFA.com.
“We're really happy we managed to come back and give some joy to the Brazilian people,” he said. “With the World Cup and the Copa America [disappointments], it's been a difficult year for Brazilian football. This title will give us a lift as we build towards 2014.”
Three years later, the skilful 22-year-old now fulfils the playmaker role in a Seleçao side that is under significant pressure to triumph on home soil.
At Turkey 2013, France succeeded the Brazilians as U-20 world champions. The victorious Bleuets featured two players who will star at the upcoming senior World Cup, Lucas Digne and Paul Pogba.
In fact, the latter has become something of a regular fixture in France’s midfield, which will have come as no surprise to observers who witnessed his dominant display in the 2013 final, after which he was awarded the adidas Golden Ball.
“I always try to do something well, to do it better, and sometimes that means that I do too much,” he admitted at the time. “I need to keep things simple. That comes with experience, I think. The more matches you play, the more you start to understand the game and make the right decisions.
"That’s how you can tell a good player from a great player, like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Abou Diaby and Yaya Toure. I know that I still have a lot of work to do.”
Clearly, the Juventus midfielder has not reduced his level of effort, as he is now regarded as one of the most promising players in the world.
Colombia’s Juan Quintero, whose technical ability, shooting power and vision won over many fans in Turkey, might well have been been an adidas Golden Ball candidate like Pogba, had his team not been eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
He will likely retain fond memories of his Goal of the Tournament, as determined by users of FIFA.com, and of his ensuing transfer to Porto, where he has since gone from strength to strength.
His progress mirrors that of his compatriot, Monaco attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, who propelled the host nation to the quarter-finals at Colombia 2011, and who is now, three years down the line, charged with the not insignificant responsibility of inspiring Los Cafeteros to success at Brazil 2014, in the absence of the injured Radamel Falcao.
That burden is unlikely to overly concern the left-footed 23-year-old, however, given that he already boasts a UEFA Europa League title, three Portuguese League crowns and one Argentinian Championship, and has had to live up to the expectations that go hand-in-hand with being the son of a former international and wearing the No10 that most Colombians associate with the legendary Carlos Valderrama.
The 2011 U-20 World Cup provided a platform for a number of rising stars to shine, including Mexico’s Diego Reyes, who moved to Porto a year after helping his team-mates to claim third place in Colombia.
Having gained some first-team experience in Portugal this season, the Club America youth academy graduate can now attempt to achieve the objective he shared with the media following his move to Europe.
“I think I’ll succeed in Portugal, and enjoy a solid career as a regular for my club and my country, Mexico, which I love so much. And who knows, maybe we’ll even lift the World Cup in Brazil. Why not set your sights high?” he stated confidently.
To accomplish such a lofty aim, El Tri will need to negotiate the likes of Spain in the knockout stage. While La Roja’s squad is mostly made up of players who emerged victorious from South Africa 2010, the next generation is also represented in the shape of Atletico Madrid midfield man Koke, who took Colombia by storm three years ago.
Koke, or Jorge Resurreccion Merodio to give him his full name, represented Los Colchoneros’ reserve side at 16, made his senior debut in 2009 at 17 and scored his first La Liga goal at 19.
The precocious Madrid native already boasts an impressive footballing CV that includes a bronze medal from the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009, a Copa del Rey, a Liga Liga title, a UEFA Europa League crown, a UEFA Super Cup, a UEFA European U-21 Championship and a runners-up medal from the UEFA Champions League final. Will the World Cup be next on the list?
Nigerian striker Ahmed Musa, meanwhile, who also rose to prominence at Colombia 2011, already has a winners’ medal from a major international competition, namely the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Courtesy of the experience he has acquired at CSKA Moscow, winners of the last two Russian League titles and the 2013 Russian Cup, he has since developed into one of the Super Eagles’ key men.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi has not hesitated to call up several of Musa’s former team-mates at U-20 level, selecting Chelsea defender Kenneth Omeruo, Almeria midfielder Ramon Azeez and VVV-Venlo attacker Uche Nwofor, all of whom played a part in Nigeria’s 2011 quarter-final defeat by a French side that included Antoine Griezmann, who will travel to Brazil with Les Bleus.
Costa Rica have chosen three players in their 23-man squad who appeared at the 2011 U-20 World Cup, where the Central Americans’ run came to a halt in the round of 16 against host nation Colombia.
Diego Calvo and Yeltsin Tejeda offer different options in the middle of the park, while pacey forward Joel Campbell will be expected to provide some much-needed firepower for Los Ticos, who recently lost Alvaro Saborio to injury.
The pressure associated with such a critical role is unlikely to bother Campbell, who is coming off the back of an excellent season with Greek giants Olympiacos.
“Ronaldo has always been my idol and role model but I don’t think I’m like him, Samuel Eto’o or anyone," he told FIFA.com back in 2011. “I try to take the things they’re each good at and learn from them. I watch what they do on the pitch and try to put it into practice.”
The young Costa Rican found the back of the net twice in Colombia, with both goals coming in a 3-2 victory over Australia, for whom Tommy Oar also scored.
The dynamic Queensland-born winger had notched his first strike of the competition a few days earlier, firing home a spectacular last-minute free-kick against Ecuador to rescue a point for the Young Socceroos and clinch the Goal of the Tournament honours in the process.
Senior Australia coach Ange Postecoglou will have his fingers crossed that Oar can reproduce a similarly magical moment in Brazil.
Niko Kovac was a member of Croatia’s backroom staff at Turkey 2013, where he was too busy admiring the talents of Ante Rebic to think about potentially taking over as senior national coach a few months later.
When he did eventually take the reins, he turned to the Fiorentina front man, who helped his countrymen overcome a tricky World Cup play-off with Iceland in November.
Like Croatia, England also failed to advance past the group stage in Turkey, but that did not prevent Ross Barkley from putting in some eye-catching performances.
Close to breaking into the Everton senior XI at the time, the prodigious midfielder has since become one of the first names on the Toffees’ teamsheet, a status that recently persuaded Roy Hodgson to name him in his final squad for Brazil 2014.
All of these former U-20 stars are now dreaming of making an instant mark at a higher level, but history shows that there is actually no need to rush.
Long-serving Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, winner of the FIFA World Cup in 2006, and his Spanish counterpart, Iker Casillas, who hoisted the famous trophy in 2010, participated in the U-20 World Cup in 1993 and 1999 respectively, proving that in football, good things come to those who wait.