Quite rightly the lower age teams under the FIFA banner are getting greater publicity as the media coverage of world football expands beyond all recognition from just a few short years ago. Just the merest check on some of the stars who have been launched towards global stardom by the Under 20 World Cup is enough to salivate at the prospect of what lies ahead in Poland, including more than a few who went on to add THE World Cup `winners tag` to their Under 20 title.
Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba and Harry Kane are just a handful of stars who thrust themselves into the spotlight.
The draw has come up with some tasty groups that will entertain and excite come May.
Poland and Colombia should be favourites to head the group, the Poles especially with home advantage. Most of the competing teams will comprise players little known outside their own borders but many of the teams have a sprinkling of players playing in some of Europe`s top leagues. Poland midfielders Marcel Zylla and Adrian Stanilewicz ply their trade in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. Colombia are very strong defensively so unsurprisingly one of their star men is goalkeeper Kevin Mier. Senegal have just one player who plays overseas, centre forward Aliou Badji made such an impact in Sweden with Djurgardens he earned a move to Austria with Rapid Vienna. Although his goals per game ratio at club level is a moderate 1 in three at international level he is Senegal`s leading marksman with 13 goals in 21 appearances. Tahiti are likely to finish bottom but in midfielder Terai Bremond they do have a player worth watching as the 17 year old plays in France with Toulouse.
Like Mali, Ecuador are in Poland as a consequence of their first continental title and in claiming that title Leonardo Campana was leading scorer in Chile with 6 goals, while goalkeeper Moises Ramirez also excelled to earn a move to La Liga with Real Sociedad. Italy must be favourites having claimed third place back in 2017. The Azzurri have a strong spine of Serie A players such as Moise Kean of Juventus, Luca Ercolani, Manchester United and Roma pair Nicolo Zanioli and Luca Pellegrini. Italy and Mexico must be the teams to progress. Mexico are in this World Cup as Concacef winners and they hold the record of 13 triumphs at various levels in that arena. Their best player is Real Betis winger Diego Lainez who became the youngest ever export from the Mexican league when he moved to Spain in January 2019 for $14 million. He promptly became the youngest Mexican player to score in the Europa League when he netted an injury time equalizer against Rennes on Valentines Day to earn a 3-3 draw.
Japan are not as strong at this level as they are at senior level. The best performance in this competition was way back in 1999 when they were runners up. The best performance since then was to reach the Round of 16 in 2017.
Uruguay must be considered among the favourites for the tournament especially if attacking midfielder Nicolas Schiappacasse, Athletico Madrid, can reproduce the form he showed in Chile where he scored four of Uruguay`s 10 goals. He was ably supported in South America by fellow midfielder Nicolas Acevedo. Full back Maximiliano was also in top form. Uruguay finished fourth in this competition in 2017 despite remaining unbeaten in their seven matches.
Norway are likely to finish behind Uruguay and this is only their 3rd Under 20 World Cup and their first since 1993 when they exited at the group stage. Ironically the group stage is where they finished at Under 19 level just last year so at least progress is being made. Two of their players to keep an eye on ply their trade in England, defenders John Kitolano, Wolves and Leo Ostigard of Brighton and Hove Albion.
Most of the Honduran players are home based but forward Douglas Martinez is with New York Red Bulls, While other minnows New Zealand have 18 year old goalkeeper learning his trade in Holland with Willem II. Henry Cameron was at Blackpool but suffered a serious knee injury that saw him miss all the 2015-16 season. After Blackpool he had a spell with Limerick before joining Team Wellington.
As recent as 2014 Qatar began their improvement on the world stage of football when they won the AFC Under 19 Championship and with the senior success at the recent Asian Cup the World Cup hosts in 2022 will be keen to build on their momentum. Virtually all their players are home based but midfielder Akram Afif, who scored the winning goal in 2014 is considered the finest Qatar player though his career has seen a series of loan spells since joining Villareal in 2016.
Nnamdi Ofoborh is probably the best known Nigerian player, mainly because, unlike the bulk of his nationals team mates, he has quite a lot of overseas experience having progressed from Spurs and Millwall to Bournemouth where he has been a regular with their Academy side. The midfielder was recently included in the first team training camp in Spain.
Ukraine, like many of the teams in the Under 20 World Cup, also has the bulk of its squad comprising home based players but one exception is Maryan Shved, a 17 year old winger is on loan with his first club, Karpaty Lviv from Celtic. He was loaned back to Lviv once his move to Scotland was rubber stamped.
USA are, with Ukraine, favourites to progress and in addition to the bulk of the squad being MLS they do have a trio adding to the number of US players in the Bundesliga. Nick Taitague is a 20 year old forward with Schalke 04, Nebiyou, also a forward is with Cologne and Chris Richards is an 18 year old defender with Bayern Munich. Richards is destined for great things and it’s a measure of just how good he is that Bayern do much better when he is in the side. Has already played in the UCL and produced impressive performances against both Manchester City and Juventus.
Mali have already made history by winning their first Continental championship when they prevailed at the recent Under 20 Africa Cup of Nations. They may well be an outside bet to progress from a group where France and Saudi Arabia are favourites.
Saudi Arabia won last year`s AFC Under 19 Champion ship, after being runners-up two years earlier while France has a squad, all home based, which has vast experience as most of them are in the 20-21 age bracket.
Panama although this will be their seventh appearance at the Under 20 finals they are unlikely to progress given the strength of the other teams.
Argentina are the Golden Boys and the nation has a terrific track record at this level. The six-times champions will be contesting their 16th Under 20 finals. Players who excelled in Chile and who will be ones to watch in Poland were; Goalkeeper Moises Ramirez who had an excellent tournament in South America and midfielders Anibal Moreno and Gonzalo Marioni. Argentina will be expected to go all the way to the Final.
Portugal have reached the quarter finals on the last two occasions they played in this tournament but haven`t won it since 1991. Their outstanding player is 21 year old Diogo Goncalves who is on loan at Championship Nottingham Forest from Benfica with a view to making the move permanent at the end of the current season.
The furthest Korea have gone in this competition is the quarter final, the last time being 2013, but they did show their pedigree by finishing runners-up in the AFC Under 19 Championship in 2018.
South Africa do not have a very good record at this level but in the Africa equivalent they have progressed from finishing fourth in 2017 to third this year. I bet they can`t wait for 2021. A couple of their players to note are Liam Jordan, a forward with Sporting in Portugal, has two goals in his four caps so spot on a goal every other game which strikers always aspire to. Luther Singh is a 21 year old midfielder who has an even better international scoring ratio of 5 goals in 5 games for his country. A perfect midfielder he had an impressive scoring rate for Braga B with 14 goals in 52 appearances before joining Chaves on loan.
Written by Brian Beard