In little under a year's time the whistle will sound to begin the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017. That may seem like a long way off, but for many players, the tournament is already on the horizon. In Africa, for example, the initial qualifying rounds (for the 2017 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations) have just been played, while Europe’s first five participating teams in the Far East next summer have already been decided.
The five European sides to have qualified for the finals – France, Italy, Portugal, Germany and England – each boast a squad bursting with young talent and intent on entertaining the watching world between 20 May and 11 June 2017.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most eyes will be on the French, winners of the recent UEFA European U-19 Championship in Germany following a 4-0 rout of Italy in the decider. Striker Jean-Kevin Augustin scored a record-equalling six tournament goals for Les Bleus, including the opener in the final, and will most certainly be one of players to watch. Augustin, who grew up close to the Parc des Princes, currently plies his trade for Paris Saint-Germain and one day hopes to be compared to French great Jean-Pierre Papin. “He’s very shy and doesn’t speak much, but he thinks about football a lot,” remarked PSG reserve team coach David Bechkoura recently. “He really thinks about his work and his development, and he knows exactly what he wants.”
Alongside Augustin is Kylian Mbappe, the AS Monaco youngster who scored five goals of his own at the U-19 Championship and who supplanted the great Thierry Henry as Monaco’s youngest-ever Ligue 1 goalscorer back in February, aged just 17 years and 62 days. “He has unbelievable ability, but he still has a lot of work to do to make the absolute most of his talent,” said Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim of a young man whose dribbling and acceleration have led to comparisons with Brazil forward Robinho. In midfield, France are ably led by the captain Lucas Tousart, who dictates play and can trouble opposing goalkeepers with a useful ability to strike from distance. He was also on the score sheet against the Italians.
Italy indeed had a day to forget against France in the final, but the Azzurini showed in previous rounds of the tournament that they also have some highly gifted individuals. Chief among them is Federico Dimarco, who “has what it takes to become one of the best left-backs in the world” according to Stefano Vecchi, his youth coach at Inter. “The way he controls the ball makes him perfect for the position, especially in a back five,” continued Vecchi. Dimarco also possesses a wand of a left foot, which he demonstrated to full effect by scoring a stunning free-kick to decide the semi-final against England. “He shows that physical superiority isn’t always as important as technical quality,” said Italy U-19 coach Paolo Vanoli.
It should come as no surprise that Italy’s main strength lies in its defence. The final against France aside, captain and centre-back Filippo Romagna marshalled the back line superbly and drew plaudits for his speed, strength in the air and ability to construct attacks from the back. “All in all I think we can be proud of how we performed [at the EUROs],” said the skipper. “We reached the final of a high-quality tournament and went further than a lot of big teams.”
As a collective Italy proved a potent threat from set pieces, whilst energetic midfielder Manuel Locatelli also received compliments for his ability to orchestrate play, as well as for a classy free-kick of his own against Austria.
Portugal were unable to emulate the achievements of the senior team in winning UEFA EURO 2016, but two very gifted attacking players emerged for their U-19s in the form of Diogo Goncalves and Buta. Benfica midfielder Goncalves shone in the Iberians’ midfield, especially in transition from defence to attack, and though he is usually deployed on the wing, where he can best utilise his speed, he often conducted Portugal’s play from a central position. In last season’s UEFA Youth League he netted an incredible seven goals in the first three matches and he has confidently compared himself to Argentine winger Nicolas Gaitan, who until recently was his team-mate at Benfica. “He plays in the same position as me and I really like him as a player,” admitted the young man.
Meanwhile, Buta’s two goals in Germany ensured he was Portugal’s leading scorer, but he had already underlined his pedigree by scoring four and assisting another three in qualifying. The pacy forward actually began his fledgling career as a right-back, but his knack for popping up in the danger area has led to his being picked in an attacking role almost exclusively.
For the host nation, Philipp Ochs’ acceleration, raw pace and athleticism put him a cut above his team-mates. The Hoffenheim prodigy scored all three of his side’s goals in their 4-3 loss to Portugal (two came from the penalty spot). He also opened the scoring in Germany’s U-20 World Cup play-off against the Netherlands and later held his nerve superbly to again convert in the subsequent penalty shootout. The 19-year-old left-sided midfielder made his Bundesliga debut back in August 2015 and has featured 13 times in the top flight. “Philipp has great attacking qualities and is an extraordinary talent who in the last few years has continued to develop at Hoffenheim,” said club sporting director Alexander Rosen on Ochs’ decision to sign a new contract until 2019 back in January.
One step further along in his career is Dominic Solanke, who as of October 2015 remains the youngest-ever player to represent Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League after he came on as a substitute in a 6-0 win against Maribor. A prolific scorer in Chelsea’s youth teams, the 5'10 (1.82m) Solanke has been tipped by many to succeed in the club’s senior side and been generously praised by former Blues striker Tore Andre Flo: “He works hard, he’s physically strong, he’s quick and he’s also good on the ball, regardless of how tight the space is or how difficult the situation.” Solanke formed an effective partnership with Isaiah Brown to spearhead England’s attack at the U-19 EUROs, scoring group stage goals against both France and the Netherlands.
So while the identity of the other teams to book their places in Korea Republic next summer is still unknown, the aforementioned names have already proven that they belong on such a stage. And indeed, there remains every chance of other young stars making a name for themselves by taking the qualifying phase and the competition itself by surprise. Watch this space for more...