In August 2003, Freddy Adu had the world in a tizzy at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup. Dubbed the next Pele, a lot had been spoken before the tournament of the American’s potential. He was just 13 then. 

He started the campaign with a hat-trick against South Korea and scored against Sierra Leone, though the US were knocked out in the quarter-final by eventual champions Brazil. 

In November that year, the prodigy was offered his first professional contract by DC United in Major League Soccer. He had to wait until he was 14 before he could sign on the dotted line. He even went on to play at three editions of the Fifa U-20 World Cup.

It’s an entirely different story that Adu lost his way in the years to come, failing to live up to expectations that had marked him out as the next big thing in world football. But the fact remains that the 2017 Fifa U-17 World Cup in India, starting 6 October, holds great potential for the teenagers who will be a part of it.

For the longest time, Indian clubs were averse to trying out youngsters. It explains why the All India Football Federation (Aiff) was forced to field the Indian Arrows in 2010—a team made up of the future of Indian football, who until then were warming benches at various clubs. In fact, once the tournament ends this year, there is a similar plan to field a team in the I-League comprising boys from various youth teams, including the U-17 World Cup side.

But would a club risk signing these young players? In turn, would it spell a marketable proposition for player agents operating in the Indian market? “No one knows where a 16-year-old boy will land up. The number of 16-year-olds that have achieved great things at that age, and then failed to show that spark later is huge," says Nikhil Sharma, chief executive officer, Anglian Management Group, who handles players like Milan Singh, Sana Singh and Jovel Martins.

“The most important aspect in football is mentality. That has yet to be developed fully in a 16-year-old. We’ll look at what the player wants to achieve and whether it matches our ideology. If he is looking for a glitzy contract, maybe not. But definitely, if he and his family wish to focus on his development as a player over the next four-five years," he adds.

There is also a shift in the mentality of the clubs—forced, or otherwise. As Mint had reported earlier this year (“I-League’s quest for relevance", 7 July), of the 70 under-22 players in the I-League last season, 46 belonged to Minerva, DSK Shivajians and Shillong Lajong. During the Indian Super League draft in July too, each club had to pick a minimum of two domestic players under the age of 23.

“Aiff has already done a great job in marketing these (U-17) players. These are the 18 best players in the country in their age group. Every club will try to get their signature (on contract). Clubs are interested in young talent more than ever before. This makes players at that age marketable. Besides, they will have the greatest platform to showcase their talent," says Sonu Lamba, director at FourFlags, which represents Sunil Chhetri, Balwant Singh, Udanta Singh, C.K. Vineeth, Robin Singh, Rino Anto and Eugeneson Lyngdoh.

The exposure tour for the U-17 boys took them to train and play friendlies in Europe, Mexico and the US, among other places. Then, there is the U-17 World Cup itself where they are pitted against experienced sides such as the US, Colombia and Ghana in their group.

“This opportunity to play abroad is rare," says Vaibhav Pawar, director at Supersub Management that handles players like Collin Abranches and Sanjiban Ghosh. “The experience they gain makes these players extremely marketable. Some can certainly make it to the I-League/ISL clubs—more so, since they will run in parallel this year. If not, they can definitely be a part of the developmental sides, turning out in the U-19 I-League and the local league, which will help them grow further."

Before the AFC Cup qualifiers in March, India coach Stephen Constantine included players such as Jerry Lalrinzuala (19), Nishu Kumar, Daniel Lalhlimpuia (both 20) and Udanta Singh (21) as part of his squad. All four came off promising seasons at their respective clubs.

“Every player is as good as his last season—it’s the same risk in signing any player. I always try to sign players with good character and not just pure talent. You’re never going to get all of your signings right. But you have to take your chances," Lamba says.

Those involved in Adu’s career are all too familiar with the above statement. Only time will tell what fortunes await India’s U-17 players.

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