Talented teenagers make passage to India as football bids to find its feet on the subcontinent

Updated 05 October 2017

Talented teenagers make passage to India as football bids to find its feet on the subcontinent

NEW DELHI: A stroll through the dirty, disorganized dustbowl that is downtown Delhi does not seem to offer many answers to the question of whether anybody actually cares that India, this famously cricket-crazed country, is about to host its first major international football tournament. Posters and publicity material for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, which starts today, is sparse and when asked most people provide only blank stares or uneasy smiles.
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.

Maria Sharapova looks back to her best as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal show no signs of slowing down

Updated 18 January 2019

Maria Sharapova looks back to her best as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal show no signs of slowing down

  • Sharapova dumps out defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.
  • Rafa and Roger brush aside young guns in straight sets victories.

LONDON: It is coming up to the end of the first week of the Australian Open, so we thought we would take a look and see how some of the big names fared on day five of the year’s first Grand Slam.


Maria Sharapova warned she is in the sort of form to win the Australian Open after she dumped Carolina Wozniacki out with an impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win. It was the Russian’s best win since her return from a drugs ban and she looked like a winner-in-waiting.
“I thought the level was quite high. I knew I’d get a tough match — she (Wozniacki) is the defending champion,” the five-time Slam champion said.
“I haven’t played many matches in the last year against top players so it was really rewarding to win that last set. These are the kinds of matches I train for.”


Ageless Roger Federer marked his 100th Rod Laver Arena match Friday by storming past Taylor Fritz, then looked forward to a “high quality” last-16 clash against another young gun, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion continued his quest for a record seventh Australian Open title with a 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 third-round demolition of 21-year-old American Fritz in just 88 minutes of flawless tennis.
Next up is 14th seed Tsitsipas. And the 37-year-old Federer is looking forward to taking on the fiery young Greek, who is 17 years his junior.
Federer played him in the recent mixed teams Hopman Cup, winning a closely contested singles 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/4), and said he was impressed.
“I think he played really well there. I actually did too. I thought it was really high quality tennis,” Federer said.
“This is obviously a different type of match, it being best of five, it being a fourth round of a Slam.”


Rafael Nadal declared “everything is a step forward” after brutally brushing aside Alex de Minaur at the Australian Open Friday in just the Spaniard’s third match since the US Open.
The world No. 2 was in ominous form as he continued his quest for an 18th Grand Slam by punishing the Australian teenager in a third-round tennis masterclass 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
“In general terms, everything is a step forward. So that’s positive news for me,” said the man who won the Aussie Open in 2009.
“I’m very happy for the victory against someone who had won seven matches in a row, winning a tournament.”
On his fitness Nadal added: “Probably 10 years ago it would have been difficult not playing much tennis in the build-up but now I have been in this situation many times with the injuries I have had.
“I have to deal with the ups and downs of my body but I try to enjoy any moment on the court.”


The former US Open champions was made to work for his place in the last 16 as he struggled to beat Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-3. Verdasco showed glimpses of the form that once made him a top-10 player and had a match point, one he frittered away with a double fault.
I was just slightly luckier in those crucial moments,” the sixth-seeded Cilic said.
“(It is) unbelievable. Emotions were up and down,” Cilic said.
“When I was down two sets to none, it was a big hill to climb.”
It’s the seventh time in Cilic’s career that he has emerged to win a match after dropping the opening two sets.


Second seed Kerber received a gift ride into the Australian Open fourth round for her 31st birthday when she overpowered local wildcard Kimberly Birrell 6-1, 6-0.
The Wimbledon champion swept world No. 240 Birrell aside in just 58 minutes to set up a last-16 clash with unseeded American Danielle Collins.
Kerber, a winner at Melbourne Park in 2016, said she was used to celebrating her birthday on the road at the season-opening Grand Slam.
“I think it’s the 12th time in a row,” she said. “I’m getting older but I have the best time here and I’ll never forget my birthdays here in Australia.”
Kerber reached the semifinals last year but lost to Simona Halep in a tight three-setter.