The excitement mounts
From 30 June to 22 July the planet’s leading under-20 national teams will battle it out for the world crown in Canada. As always, the South American sides are among the favorites. And it is already clear that the tournament, which is being staged in six cities, is going to be a massive hit with the fans.
Arturo Vidal is in no doubt. “We’re going to the World Cup to win it,” the Chile under-20 international announced recently. According to the pundits, the Chilean squad that will compete in Canada is one of the strongest in years. Nevertheless, coach Jose Suntalay’s team does not rank among the favorites, who include holders Argentina, their archrivals Brazil, the two representatives of the Iberian peninsular, Spain and Portugal, and Nigeria.
Vidal’s optimism may stem from the individual success he enjoyed last season, when he scored six goals in the South American qualifying competition in Paraguay. This tally is all the more remarkable when you consider that the Colo Colo professional is a defensive player who can operate both at the back and in the holding role in central midfielder, the position he occupies in the Chilean youth team. Next season Vidal will ply his trade not only for another club but also on a different continent, German outfit Bayer Leverkusen having signed him for around USD 7 million.
Yet Vidal is just one of several very promising players. At the FIFA U-20 World Championship in the Netherlands two years ago, Sergio Aguero (Argentina) and Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel came to the fore alongside the all-conquering Lionel Messi. Both have since signed for clubs in the world’s top two leagues, Aguero for Atletico Madrid in Spain, Mikel for Chelsea in England.
The tournament will again attract a host of scouts from the leading clubs, even though many top players are spotted and watched at a younger age these days. There will certainly be plenty of talent on show. Take Congo’s Fabrice Nguessi Ondama, for example. The winger was a member of the side that won the African Youth Championship in 2007, a triumph he crowned by ending the tournament as its leading scorer. “I’m approaching it as if it were nothing special,” he proclaimed, though he was quick to admit that he was fully aware of the high standards of play that are expected in Canada. Nevertheless, the young African is just as confident as Vidal. “I believe we will win,” he said.
Mexico are another force to be reckoned with, the majority of the team having already won the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Peru in 2005. Giovanni dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Cesar Villaluz are the key players to look out for. Dos Santos is being groomed as the designated successor to Ronaldinho at Barcelona. Vela, recently on loan at Spanish second-division side Salamanca, is aiming to make the breakthrough at Arsenal in the very near future. And Villaluz is already a first-team regular for leading Mexican club Cruz Azul. “We still have lofty goals. Since winning the U-17 title in Peru, we have started a new chapter and a new campaign. Slowly but surely we will achieve our goals,” said Mexico coach Jesus Ramirez on qualifying for Canada 2007.
Besides the three Mexican linchpins, a number of Brazilians also have the potential to follow in Messi’s footsteps. Their captain, Lucas of Gremio Porto Alegre, was voted Player of the Year last season by the magazine “Placar”. And striker Alexandre pato demonstrated his class in last year’s FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, where he was one of the driving forces behind eventual winners Internacional.
At the time of going to press, it was still not clear which players Argentina coach Hugo Tocalli would have at his disposal in Canada. Both Aguero and Messi are still young enough to play in the under U-20 side, tough it is doubtful they will be selected.
If history is anything to go by, Portugal and Spain are likely to be Europe’s leading contenders, especially with Spain having won the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2006 without incurring a single defeat. Two Real Madrid players – midfielder Juan Manuel Mata and striker Alberto Bueno – could well be the outstanding individuals.
Impressive ticket sales
Whatever happens on the pitch, we already know one of the winners – the local organizing committee (LOC) – who had sold more than 600,000 tickets by the end of April. The FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 is thus well on the way to becoming the biggest single-sport event ever staged in Canada. “The Canadian fans are showing how important football is in this country,” said a delighted Peter Montopoli, the director of the LOC.