A contagious buzz swept through football: the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentinaâ„¢ was less than one year away. Supporters’ attention was distracted, however, by the kick-off of the maiden FIFA U-20 World Cup, which was to begin in Tunisia on 27 June 1977.
They were nevertheless skeptical. Would this new tournament actually showcase the stars of tomorrow, or would these aspiring players simply fade into obscurity? That question has been categorically answered over the past 32 years.
Indeed, 485 graduates of the tournament’s 16 editions to date have gone on to appear in the FIFA World Cup, including Diego Maradona, Enzo Francescoli, Dunga, Andreas Moller, Davor Suker, Manuel Rui Costa, Luis Figo, Dwight Yorke, Roberto Carlos, Thierry Henry, Xavi, Ronaldinho, Michael Owen, Petr Cech, Michael Essien and Lionel Messi, among innumerable other future luminaries of the senior game.
It has evolved from a 28 match experiment into a 52 game extravaganza; from a small platform to a grand stage; from a temporary hangout for local fans to a workstation for club scouts and senior national team coaches. The FIFA U-20 World has, quite simply, secured an indelible place on the footballing calendar.
If the FIFA U-20 World Cup’s first installment was largely bereft of future greats, it did set the tone for the drama for which it would become renowned, with both semi-finals and the final being decided by penalty shootouts, the latter of which involved Soviet Union edging Mexico 9-8.
The Soviets were only one hurdle away from defending their crown at Japan 1979. However, their last obstacle was an Argentina side featuring a No10 desperate to prove a point having been left out of his country’s FIFA World Cup winning squad the year previous. Maradona duly proved that point in front of 52,000 spectators in the final, inspiring the South Americans to a 3-1 victory.
It would take Argentina another 16 years to get their hands on the trophy once again, although they have monopolised it thereafter, winning five of the last seven editions to become record six time champions. Not that these conquests have come without struggle.
Jose Pekerman’s team trailed Uruguay in the Malaysia 1997 final until an equaliser from the 16 year old Esteban Cambiasso and a deciding goal from Diego Quintana in front of a vibrant, 62,000 crowd. No fewer than nine players who turned out in that final went on to represent Argentina at senior level. La Albiceleste also emerged 2-1 victors in the 2005 and 2007 deciders, with Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero headlining respective defeats of Nigeria and Czech Republic.
The FIFA U-20 World Cup has produced two other multiple champions: Brazil and Portugal, who have four and two titles to their name respectively. Spain, West Germany and Yugoslavia have also emerged triumphant, the latter doing so at Chile 1987 with a dazzling cast that included Roberto Prosinecki, Predrag Mijatovic, Zvonomir Boban and Suker.
Only three of the previous champions namely Brazil, Germany and SpainÂ Â will be represented at this year’s tournament. And while it remains to be seen whether a seventh nation can etch their name on the trophy, one thing that can be taken for granted is that 23 days in Egypt will showcase the prodigious genius of a series of future superstars.