Back in 1977, with the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™ just around the corner, the inaugural FIFA U-20 World Cup was held, a tournament that has since become the most important competition on the youth football calendar.
What started out as an experiment with just 28 matches is now a major event spanning 52 games. Whereas only a handful of locals went to the stadiums during that first tournament, nowadays it is a permanent fixture in the schedules of talent scouts and national team coaches. The 22nd edition is to take place in Poland in May this year, but before the up-and-coming stars of the game kick things off in exactly 100 days, we pay tribute to some of their predecessors.
The first FIFA World Youth Championship, as the competition was known back then, was staged in 1977 in Tunisia, where a Soviet Union team led by midfield orchestrator Vladimir Bessonov went on to lift the title. He also won the first adidas Golden Ball award and would go on to enjoy a successful career that included winning a gold medal at the 1980 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, as well as participating at three World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990).
Not a bad start by any means, but it paled in comparison to the player who would light up Japan 1979. There, a certain Diego Maradona gave the world a first glimpse of his incredible potential and helped an outstanding Argentina side to glory. The South Americans were unable to defend their crown two years later in Australia, but in 1981 the Albiceleste still had a striker who would go on to score the decisive goal in a World Cup Final just five years later: Jorge Burruchaga.
Uruguayan football legend Enzo Francescoli also impressed at the tournament, but it was Romania’s talisman Romulus Gabor who won the adidas Golden Ball. At Mexico 1983, Brazil’s Geovani made history by beating players such as Marco van Basten and Bebeto to the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards, becoming the first player to win both.
Robert Prosinecki was named as the tournament’s best player in 1987, but the elegant midfielder was far from the only star to shine that year: among his team-mates in the triumphant Yugoslavia squad were the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker.
In 1991, a ‘golden generation’ was hailed in Portugal as the tournament hosts made it back-to-back title triumphs. However, neither Luis Figo, Rui Costa nor Joao Pinto stole the show for the winners; instead it was Peixe, whose career surprisingly did not reach the same heights as his compatriots.
In subsequent years, soon-to-be global stars like Adriano, Hidetoshi Nakata, Fernando Morientes and Paulo Wanchope would grace the U-20 stage. In 1997 Argentina lifted the title with Juan Roman Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso, even if the Golden Ball was ultimately awarded to Nicolas Olivera. However, while the Uruguayan subsequently struggled to live up to expectations, several of his contemporaries, such as Thierry Henry, Michael Owen, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka all went on to reach the very top.
Indeed, it became a regular occurrence at U-20 World Cups for future top-class players to be pipped to the awards at the end of the tournament. This trend continued at Nigeria 1999, where Ronaldinho, Roque Santa Cruz, Xavi and Diego Forlan all participated, but saw the Golden Ball given to Seydou Keita, who was a surprise choice for some observers. Keita would later play for Barcelona and win the UEFA Champions League title twice.
Javier Saviola, who won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at Argentina 2001, likewise went on to play for Barcelona and later even joined their arch-rivals Real Madrid. Incidentally, one of the players he beat to the prizes that year was none other than Kaka, who was later named as FIFA World Player of the Year in 2007.
At United Arab Emirates 2003, illustrious names such as Andres Iniesta, Daniel Alves and Javier Mascherano all featured, but it was the relatively unknown Ismaeil Matar who took the Golden Ball. The attacking midfielder now has over 100 international caps for UAE.
In the history of U-20 football, only six players have ever managed to win both the adidas Golden Ball and the adidas Golden Boot at the same competition: Geovani (1983) and Saviola (2001) were the trailblazers, followed by Sergio Aguero (2007) Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah (2009) and Henrique (2011).
Who will follow in their footsteps?
Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi likewise took both awards in 2005 and is now considered one of the best players in the history of the game.
In 2013 in Turkey, Paul Pogba won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, having also helped France to the title. The midfielder and 2018 World Cup winner was flanked by the likes of Kurt Zouma, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Lucas Digne. Furthermore, Juan Bernat (Paris Saint-Germain), Paco Alcacer (Borussia Dortmund) and Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur) also showcased their talent at this edition.
Gabriel Jesus and Brazil may have lost the 2015 final to Serbia in New Zealand, but just a year later he won Olympic gold on home turf alongside Neymar. The striker has gone on to become a key player under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, where he won the Premier League title last summer.
England’s triumphant squad at the 2017 competition was spearheaded by Dominic Solanke, who is now a full international. Others, such as Federico Valverde (Uruguay; Real Madrid), Josh Sargent (eight senior caps for USA; Werder Bremen) and Jean-Kevin Augustin (France; RB Leipzig) also made names for themselves there.
The only question that remains is who will follow in their footsteps in 2019? Whoever it may be, if history is anything to go by, fans can look forward to watching some top-class players in action.