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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.

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