Talented teenagers make passage to India as football bids to find its feet on the subcontinent
Talented teenagers make passage to India as football bids to find its feet on the subcontinent
Nobody is under any illusions: FIFA’s age-group tournament is incomparable to a World Cup proper. Yes, it involves 24 teams from across the globe, and yes, it will be broadcast across 187 territories — BeInSports have the rights for Saudi Arabia — but with an average attendance of 12,000 and very few players known by even the most ardent follower, it can often be a hard sell.
FIFA is keen then to push the idea that this is a unique event that should be embraced by all.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for India because we don’t know if a World Cup event like this will ever be here again,” said Javier Ceppi, FIFA’s tournament director.
“And it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the players because we don’t know if they will ever get the chance to play in a World Cup again.”
Traditionally, pre-tournament trumpeting tends to paint a picture of a biennial event that produces the stars of tomorrow. Ronaldinho, Andres Iniesta and Toni Kroos are among the high-profile names to perform at this level (see below for more players to have graced the tournament). Yet development takes time and not all players excel at U17 level. The likes of Fernando Torres and Landon Donovan are the exceptions rather than the rule, as a scroll through the list of the tournament’s Golden Ball winners demonstrates.
Of the 16 teenagers named player of the tournament since the inaugural event in 1985, only three have gone on to play at a senior World Cup, with two — Cesc Fabregas and Kroos — winning the ultimate prize. The list of top scorers produces slightly better results with five having played at a World Cup proper, but the likes of Yuri Nikiforov and Wilson Oruma never became household names beyond their own precinct.
Earlier this week, The Guardian newspaper listed what it thought were 60 best young talents in the world. Twenty one of them are playing this month in India and that number could have been higher had Christian Früchtl, a gargantuan German goalkeeper, not been promoted to the Bayern Munich bench after Manuel Neuer suffered a broken foot. Brazilian Vinicius Junior, meanwhile, was refused permission to travel by his club Flamengo, who have already signed an agreement with Real Madrid to sell their prize asset to the Spanish side next summer for £45 million.
The difficulty with identifying talent at such a young age is that players develop physically at different rates. A taller, stronger player who appeared a world-beater in his early teens is just as likely to fade into obscurity as his teammates’ bodies catch up.
It works both ways. At 18, Scott McTominay was struggling to get any action for Manchester United reserves, but after growing 10 inches in a little under two years, last season he made his Premier League debut under Jose Mourinho.
So if the ultimate purpose of the tournament is not necessarily to produce future stars, what is it?
For India, it is about educating the public, generating excitement in the game, and making it clear that the sport does not require pristine Premier League pitches. Social media is the preferred marketing vehicle rather than costly posters and promotional materials and it seems to be working: India’s opening match against the US, taking place today, has sold out, even with the host nation’s coach, Luís Norton de Matos, only giving his team a five percent chance of victory.
“Of course, we would like to write history, but, in the US, players have competitive football from aged seven,” he said. “Those players come here with 10 years of competition behind them. We do not have that. So my advice is my players enjoy every minute because it’s a moment they will never forget. If they give 100 percent and lose it is not the end of the world.”
Three talented teens who became global greats
LUIS FIGO: The peerless playmaker scored twice in the 1989 tournament as Portugal finished in third place. That was to set the tone for the rest of his international career as the most prominent part of the famous Golden Generation experienced nothing but near-misses on the international stage. At club level, however, Figo was one of the best players of his, or any other, era. A midfield maestro who starred at both Barcelona and Real Madrid, winning the Champions League in 2002 with Real and the Ballon d’Or in 2000.
ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO: For a country that excels in the dark arts of catenaccio defending Italy does produce a lot of sublime midfielders and forward. So many, in fact, that it is tough to stand out. That, however, is exactly what Del Piero did during a career that saw him progress from the U-17 World Cup in 1991 to becoming a Juventus legend and ultimately a World Cup winner in 2006. Full of guile and grace, Del Piero lit up every stage he played on.
NEYMAR: The Brazilian played in the 2009 U-17 World Cup and it is fair to say had a disappointing tournament, scoring just once as Brazil limped out at the group stage. It is also fair to say that life has been a lot kinder to him since. He became the lynchpin of a successful Santos side, transferred to Barcelona where he formed perhaps the deadliest forward line ever seen, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, before joining Paris Saint-Germain this summer for a jaw-dropping fee of $263 million to become the world’s most expensive player. Not bad going.
Liverpool's Andrew Robertson ready for Roma Champions League test
- Young Scottish star was very impressive during Liverpool's 5-1 aggregate destruction of Man City in last-eight clash.
- Robertson refuses to take Roma lightly after their shock victory over Barcelona in the last round.
LIVERPOOL: With a desire stoked in the stands of Parkhead, Andrew Robertson is now fired up to fulfil a childhood dream.
While following the fortunes of Celtic, the defender’s first Champions League final memory was when Zinedine Zidane volleyed Real Madrid to success in 2002 as the contest was staged in Robertson’s home city of Glasgow. He was just eight years old.
While Robertson was deemed too small to play for his boyhood idols, released at 15 with a future uncertain, he has grown to prove his worth on Europe’s biggest club stage with Liverpool.
Now, with a semifinal encounter against AS Roma after beating Premier League champions Manchester City in the last eight, he wants to emulate those Reds heroes who lifted the trophy five times before.
“I was a big Celtic fan growing up and my heroes were Henrik Larsson and Co,” Robertson told Arab News ahead of tonight’s first-leg clash at Anfield.
“But these heroes who have won the European Cup and Champions League for Liverpool, you have to look up to them — and we want to emulate them and hopefully get a winner’s medal too.
“The club’s won it five times and the history of the club has always been this, the Champions League, where the fans create a special atmosphere and the club challenges for the trophy. It would be unbelievable to be a part of that history.
“This is the highlight for me so far and an incredible feeling, but it just makes you hungry for more. I don’t want it to end.
“As a kid, you sit back and watch how great it would be to play in this competition, let alone in the final.
“I always used to go to Celtic and we didn’t progress very far in the Champions League, but the occasions at Parkhead were always unbelievable.
“The fans at Celtic are incredible, world renowned, but Anfield was unbelievable against Man City and we have another chance for them to create that same atmosphere and hopefully we can put in another great performance.” Having beaten Pep Guardiola’s City so convincingly, 5-1 over two gripping games, Liverpool will start favorites against Roma.
That is despite the Italians upsetting Barcelona in the previous round with an epic 3-0 win in the second leg after a 4-1 loss at the Nou Camp.
But Robertson will take nothing for granted against a Roma side who last reached the final in 1984 where they were beaten by Liverpool in a penalty shootout at their Stadio Olimpico home.
“Barca are an unbelievable team,” added the Scotland left-back, 24. “But let’s not kid ourselves. For Roma to score three goals against Barcelona, that’s special.
“They’ve been unbelievable this season too in the Champions League and deserve to be in the semifinals. It will definitely not be an easy game.
“But once you get to the semis, the fear of who you are playing has gone because you know how good the teams are.
“It’s like you look forward to the possibility of playing in the final, that’s what drives you forward. We will have fire in our bellies because we are so close to getting there.”
Jurgen Klopp’s men will no doubt be looking to Mohamed Salah to conjure more magic against the club he left in the summer for £36.9 million ($51.5 million). But Robertson insisted Liverpool are no one-man team and the Egyptian, crowned PFA Player of the Year on Sunday night after scoring 41 goals in an unforgettable campaign, epitomizes a team united and ambitious in their quest for glory. “He’s just unbelievable,” said Robertson of the frontman.
“In the first half (of the second leg) against Man City we struggled to get him in the game and he wasn’t quite at it. But the second half he was different class and pops up with a goal to help us win it. That’s what he does.
“His goals have been incredible and long may that continue. He’s a great guy, so humble, and for someone who has done so much this season he’s so down to Earth.
“That’s credit to our squad because we don’t let anyone get ahead of themselves.
“Mo is no different, he’s a lovely person and stands for what we are as a team.”
HEART OF GOLD
Five years ago Andrew Robertson was playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football with Queen’s Park and earning extra money by selling concert tickets in the corporate offices at Hampden Park.
Last summer he suffered relegation from the Premier League with Hull City before Liverpool signed him for £10 million ($13.9 million).
In a career fraught with setbacks and hardships, he has been grateful, supporting foodbanks that help those in need.
“It’s all about giving something back to the less fortunate,” said Robertson.
“I’m in a fortunate position where I do a job I love and get paid well and it’s nice to give something back, especially in my hometown. I’ll always do that.
“It’s been a great journey for me in my career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. But I don’t forget where I came from. Maybe it is rare, but a lot more people are doing it now and I hope even more will.”