The FIFA Under 20 World Cup has been, for a very long time now, the perfect springboard for those players about to break into superstardom but who still needed the last five minutes of boiling time before taking on more serious endeavors with their national teams.
Players like Messi, Maradona, Figo, Casillas, Boban, Mijatovic, SantaCruz or Robinho would have never been as recognized as they ultimately were had it not been for their performances in this tournament — one of the youth tournaments that more clearly separates the players that have what it takes to make it at the senior level from those who don’t.
This summer, in Turkey, some of the best young talents in the world will meet and battle for the title Brazil currently holds. Two years ago, the Cariocas beat Portugal in the final of the tournament which took place in Colombia.
This time around, and for the first time in history, neither Argentina nor Brazil will partake in the championship, as they weren’t able to get through the qualifier. This is quite significant, as both teams have the most number of tournaments in this age group, with “La Albiceleste” winning it six times and the “Verde Amarela” five, including their 2011 victory in Colombia.
Now Spain, Uruguay and France are lined up in the pole position for the title, with the Spaniards looking to maintain the great victory-average they’ve shown in the last few years in every category; “La Celeste” trying to find the right players for the generational relay in the Senior squad; and “Les Bleus” hoping to regain — from scratch — the reputation they made for themselves in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Here is a list of the stars to keep an eye out for during the Under 20 World Cup:
Juan Fernando Quintero (Colombia, Pescara): This classy midfielder had some great appearances with his home club of Atletico Nacional, in Medellin, Colombia, before joining Italian team Pescara. There, he took on the role of Marco Verratti, who had signed for PSG the previous summer. He has since become a very important piece of the squad, although he officially said “Goodbye and thank you” on his twitter account after the final match of the season.
It seems Genoa has overtaken Udinese and Inter Milan in the race to sign the youngster, who was the MVP of the last South American Youth Championship, played in early 2013, which he helped Colombia bring home.
Geoffrey Kondogbia (France, Sevilla): This French midfielder has been one the best surprises in the Spanish Primera this past year. He got to Sevilla as a total unknown, one of those signature-transfers that Sevilla’s soccer director likes to pen — much like Dani Alves or Baptista, in their day — and has broken into a full-grown quality player.
He’s been chosen as one of the best players of the season, and rumors of a transfer to Inter Milan or Real Madrid are resounding everywhere lately. He has joined the French Under 20 as a logical step en route to the senior squad, where Deschamps plans to make him join Pogba and Sissoko to form one of the most powerful midfields in the world.
Gerard Deulofeu (Spain, FC Barcelona B): Perhaps the biggest talent in Barcelona B’s squad, he battled right until the end for the best goal-scorer title of the division, against Almeria’s Charles and Real Madrid’s Jese. Deulofeu is seen as the natural replacement for Lio Messi, but given their ages, there’s a great chance they will both end up playing together for a long time at Camp Nou.
He arrives to the Under 20 after winning the Under 19 Euro both in 2011 and 2012, and being chosen the best player of the tournament last year. There, he joined Jese and Oliver (Atletico Madrid) to bring home the trophy. The plan for this year’s Under 20 is exactly the same.
“Jese” (Spain, Real Madrid Castilla): Jese will start the Under 20 tournament with Spain after hearing two great news: He has been confirmed as a first squad player for Real Madrid next year, and his contract has been increased by more than 50%, so he will make 1.2 million euros starting July 1. This should keep the player at peace and focused on the main objective: winning the World Cup Under 20 for Spain.
Jese has finished the season as the best goal-scorer in the history of Real Madrid Castilla in the second division with 22 goals — one more than team legend Emilio Butragueño back in 1983. He will now have to show the world, while in Turkey, that his appointment to play in the senior squad next year is not a mistake and that he can keep developing into the player everyone knows he will be.
Guillermo Varela (Uruguay, Manchester United): Another player who has heard great news before starting his participation in the World Cup. Varela has joined Manchester United’s senior squad, and next year he will battle Rafael for the starting right-fullback spot at Old Trafford. The Uruguayan was chosen the best fullback of the South American Youth Championship held in Argentina in early 2013, and he helped “La Celeste” reach the third spot, behind Colombia and Paraguay.
Now, Varela wants to push his limits — and Uruguay’s — and hope to bring them to the next level in the Under 20 division, before packing up his bags and emptying his locker room at Centenario Stadium before taking a one-way flight to Manchester.