Under-17 football World Cup: Early promise does not equal long-term success
For most players, the U-17 World Cup is their first brush with competition on the world stage
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At one end of the spectrum is Ben Woodburn. In November, at 17 years and 45 days, he became the youngest goal-scorer for Liverpool during a League Cup tie against Leeds United.
Just three days earlier, he had earned his debut with the Reds—the third youngest in the club’s history—after coming on as a substitute against Sunderland in the English Premier League.
At the other extreme is Mohammed Dawood. A few months before Woodburn made headlines, the 16-year-old striker was putting on a show of his own in Goa, though it didn’t draw as much attention. His six goals in the campaign gave Iraq reason to rejoice as they won their first AFC U-16 Championship—the only major silverware after the senior team’s Asia Cup triumph in 2007 and the AFC U-22 championship in 2013.
Woodburn was declared the Liverpool academy’s best player at the end of the 2016-17 season; Dawood walked away as the top scorer and Most Valuable Player of the competition. In March, the spotlight was on Woodburn again when he was included in the Wales squad that took on Ireland in a world cup qualifier. Around the same time, Dawood gave what was perhaps his first major interview to the media arm of Fifa.
While Woodburn is already in the thick of things as the next big thing at Liverpool and Wales, Dawood will hope to grab eyeballs when the Fifa Under-17 World Cup is held in India from 6-28 October.
Such is the muddled world of teenagers, even on the football pitch. While the likes of Woodburn have been absorbed into a system that is designed to groom children into world-class footballers, folks like Dawood chase the sport with minimal resources at their disposal and against all odds.
For the sake of argument, it’s fair to say that there can hardly be a comparison between football infrastructure in the UK and the strife-stricken environs of Iraq. Then again, to put it in perspective, Wales have not qualified for the U-17 Euro in the last five years or the three U-17 world cups during this period. Woodburn missed out on it, just like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo did before him.
Essentially, nothing can be taken for granted at this level. After all, for most players, the U-17 World Cup is their first brush with competition on the world stage. There are surprises aplenty, reputations go for a toss, and to err is simply to be a teenager.
An obvious place to start in order to analyse what the tournament has tossed up in the past is to look out for the most successful team. Those bragging rights belong to an unlikely candidate—defending champions Nigeria, who have won the competition five times, including the inaugural edition in 1985.
This was followed by another win in 1993, when Wilson Oruma, Nwankwo Kanu and Celestine Babayaro stepped into the limelight. The trio then won gold at the 1996 Olympics. In the following years, Kanu and Babayaro chased successful careers at Arsenal and Chelsea, respectively. Oruma led an obscure existence in the French league.
The third win came in 2007. The Africans topped a group featuring France, Japan and Haiti before knocking out Colombia, Argentina, Germany and Spain to lift the trophy. Macauley Chrisantus top-scored to take the Golden Boot, while Toni Kroos earned the Golden Ball for the promise on display, despite the Germans exiting at the semi-final stage.
On their return home, the Nigerian became a journeyman of sorts, struggling across multiple clubs in Europe. Kroos walked a different path and has today amassed medals from successful campaigns at the world cup and three Champions League seasons, in addition to domestic league titles in Germany (3) and Spain (1).
The last two wins were courtesy Kelechi Iheanacho in 2013 and Kelechi Nwakali in 2015, both of whom won the Golden Ball en route, and are seeking to make themselves household names in England.
The Nigerians also managed two runners-up titles at the Fifa U-20 World Cup (1989, 2005). But for all the glory enjoyed by the juniors, the Africans have failed to replicate this success at the senior level—there have been just five appearances at the world cup, their best finish being the Round of 16.
There is further irony in the fact that the Nigerians won’t be coming to India this year, since an age fraud scandal last year ruled them out of the competition.
Time and again, the Under-17 world cup tournament has produced players with potential, some of whom have used it as the perfect launch for their careers—others have withered into oblivion.
In 2003, Cesc Fàbregas carried Spain all the way to the final, before narrowly losing out to Brazil. The lone, winning goal in that summit clash was scored by defender Leonardo, who never quite made the cut on the senior side and continued to chase an itinerant club career. Fàbregas, on the other hand, became Arsenal’s youngest debutant and scorer during the same year, continued his progress with the junior Spain sides and graduated to help his country to two Euros and a world cup.
A few years after Fàbregas’ debut at Arsenal, another promising youngster, Carlos Vela, joined the club. He was 16, had helped Mexico to the 2005 U-17 World Cup and finished top scorer with five goals. But while Fàbregas rose up the ranks, Vela made just 29 appearances for Arsenal in seven years, with four loan spells before he established himself at Real Sociedad in Spain.
The story was similar for Florent Sinama-Pongolle, who was snapped up by Liverpool after his heroics landed France the 2001 U-17 World Cup. Though he got a Champions League and FA Cup title each, scoring a few important goals during the campaign, he finished with only four goals in 38 games at Anfield—a far cry from the nine goals in 2001 that brought him into prominence.
At the 1997 edition, Sergio Santamaria earned the Golden Ball, despite a third-placed finish for Spain at a tournament that also featured Ronaldinho and Xavi, among others. The duo went on to become icons at Barcelona, while Santamaria could only make a mark with the reserve squad at the club, followed by brief spells languishing in the lower divisions of Spain.
A few finalists such as Anderson and Bojan Krkić too sent talent scouts in a tizzy by putting on a similar show for Manchester United and Barcelona, respectively, announcing their arrival as the next big things.
They soon fizzled out, however, failing to make an impact for their national sides. Then again, there are enough success stories, such as that of Francesco Totti, who never went past the group stage at the U-17 World Cup in 1993, but is today a legend at Italy and Roma alike.
As with any other tournament, there will be a few favourites to lift the trophy come 28 October. Yet the field remains wide open, with enough room for cheers and upsets. For the likes of debutants India, New Caledonia and Niger, it will be an opportunity to rub shoulders with the biggies, like England, Germany and Brazil, at the highest level.
Only time will tell whether the likes of Dawood can join Woodburn in the money-spinning leagues of world football. Or if both will fade away, like a few of their predecessors did, in the years to come.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.