The European U21 Championships have come to their conclusion with the Spanish reclaiming their title and suddenly football enthusiasts look to the future. With the return of senior football still a while away and the Confederations Cup not providing regular football where else can your keen football watcher get his regular supply of 11vs11 action. The answer lies in the U20 World Cup which is due to start on Friday in Turkey and here are some stars to watch out for.
This group sees the most enticing clash in the tournament as European heavyweights France and Spain lock horns. They are joined by the USA and Ghana in what should prove to be an interesting group.
The French have no end of talent on show and Arsenal fans will be keen to catch a glimpse of their new boy Yaya Sanogo. The powerful forward will sign for the North London side when the window opens in July and rivals Manchester United will have a former player in action in the form of Paul Pogba. Midfield partner Geoffrey Kondogbia is being chased by Europa League holders Chelsea but at the back the French are particularly strong too. PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola hasn’t had too many opportunities to impress with his club but he is highly regarded by those at the club and is one for the future. In front of him will see two of the most exciting young centre backs in Lyon’s Samuel Umtiti and Kurt Zouma of AS Saint-Etienne. The two have been making waves in France this season and Tottenham fans are unlikely to forget the former’s stunning goal at White Hart Lane in the Europa League this season. Also keen an eye out for Florian Thauvin who, although he recently signed for Lille, could be on the move this summer. The attacker has wonderful control and starred on loan at former club Bastia this season.
It would be fair to say that the US haven’t really set the world alight in previous editions of this tournament barring the 2003 edition where Eddie Johnson (remember him Fulham fans?) was the tournament’s top scorer. Southampton fans may be aware of their first choice keeper Cody Cropper who, despite not playing with his club has been impressive in his appearances with the U20 side. Then there is LA Galaxy prodigy Jose Villarreal who has already racked up a number of appearances for the MLS side despite being just 19 years old. Sometimes employed on the wing by the US Villarreal will look to cause problems for even the most experienced full-backs. Elsewhere attacking midfielder turned winger Hector “Benji” Joya will be a threat for the US and he is starting to establish himself in Mexico with Santos Laguna, watch out for his shooting when he cuts inside.
At this level Ghana really are Africa’s success story, the Black Stars are the only African side to have won the tournament and they have reached the semi-finals twice. They come into this tournament on the back of a second placed finish in the African U20 championship and one to look out for is striker Ebenezer Assifuah who scored in all three group games at that tournament. Striker Richmond Boakye is on the books of Juventus and scored 11 goals whilst out on loan with Sassuolo this year. In goal Eric Antwi made two penalty stops in Ghana’s semi-final win over Mali and his performances will be key to their hopes. In front of him captain Lawrence Lartey will need to keep his team calm and focused as they prepare to tangle with some of the best young players in the world.
The last time Spain won this tournament the year was 1999 and the team contained the likes Iker Casillas and Xavi but now it is time for a new generation. Given they are the holders of the senior World Cup and the European Championships at senior, U-21 and U-19 level it is easy to see why many rate Spain as favourites for this tournament. At the centre of all the hype is 18 year Atlético Madrid midfielder Óliver. He made eight appearances for his club’s senior team this year and the creative midfielder is the hub of this Spanish side. Up front El Classico duo Jese and Gerard Deulofeu will be a nightmare for defenders alongside Valencia striker Paco Alcacer. Liverpool fans will want to keep an eye on Suso as well who is developing solidly if not spectacularly at Anfield
2011’s runners-up Portugal will do battle with Africa’s other heavyweight, Nigeria for top spot in this group probably. Don’t rule South Korea though who are a dangerous side, Cuba complete this group.
Both their run to the final and the match itself in 2011 reinstalled the belief that there is new hope for Portuguese football. Whilst most of their players are based in Portugal there are a number of those being chased by European clubs and a couple in particular by Premier League sides. One of these is Sporting Lisbon defender Tiago IIori who is believed to be close to signing for Liverpool. Born in England with a Portuguese/Nigerian parentage IIori is a student of the “ball-playing centre-back” school and is very pleasing on the eye. Club mate Bruma has been earning rave reviews and has been tipped to join the illustrious alumni of Sporting midfielders that includes Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma (okay maybe the last one wasn’t too illustrious). The 18 year old shares a birthday with Wayne Rooney and could be joining him at Manchester United if reports are to be believed. The winger is also being tracked by Chelsea and his pace will make him a real handful in this tournament.
As the first Caribbean nation to enter the senior World Cup back in 1938 Cuba haven’t really ever made a real imprint on the footballing world. This will be their first tournament at this level and following recent announcements of a Caribbean U15 tournament all eyes will be on the Caribbean’s sole representatives. Up front is where their real talent lies with Aricheell Hernandez and Maykel Reyes the real danger men. The latter in particular has been a real shining light for Cuba. He was excellent in qualifying and he featured in last year’s Olympics despite being way under the age limit.
In 2005 Nigeria made it all the way to the final before being beaten by Argentina’s golden generation. Unsurprisingly Argentina’s golden boy Lionel Messi took the Golden Ball (best player) for the tournament but Nigeria had the next two best players. They were John Obi Mikel and Taye Taiwo and it is good to see their careers have gone as well as Messi’s has. The current leading light hoping to better these two’s careers is Aminu Umar who was the top scorer in the U20 African championships. The striker is now being tracked by a number of Swiss sides and is key to Nigeria’s chances. Striking partner Olarenwaju Kayode is another who could be on the move this summer having had trials at Charlton in Christmas and Dinamo Minsk in the spring.
By far and away Asia’s strongest youth side South Korea have racked up an impressive 12 continental youth titles. Just as Japan have shocked the world with some good performances in the Confederations Cup I am tipping South Korea to surprise a few people in this group. Their team has fantastic spirit and they are very good both technically and tactically. Goalkeeper and captain Lee Changkeun is the real star of the side having conceded just four as the South Koreans regained their Asian title and up front Kim Hyun is a real danger.
El Salvador make their U20 World Cup debut in this group and they’ll be lucky to avoid the big boys as this group does lack tournament experience. Colombia have one third place finish to their name while Australia can boast a couple of fourth place finishes in the 1990s. A tight group this one.
Probably the favourites for the group given they come into this tournament off a victory in the South American U20 Championships although there is a fear that the Colombians could suffer from something similar to Barcelona and “Messidependencia “. The player in question is Juan Quintero, a truly gifted playmaker and one who could be joining one of Europe’s big clubs this summer. He has remarkable balance and agility and his passing accuracy is superb already. He is just 20 years old but is already being touted as the next James Rodriguez. He had been linked with a move to Manchester United but the move seems to have cooled and it looks like he might be returning to Italy. In goal Manchester City fans may remember Cristian Bonilla who claimed he was close to signing with the Premier League side a couple of seasons ago. The move never materialised but that hasn’t stopped the keeper improving and he is one of the finest young keepers in South America. In front of him Jherson Vergara Amu is very highly thought of and has in fact just signed for Italian giants AC Milan. His size and stature mean he is a very physical player but like most South Americans he is pretty good on the ball as well.
Not much is known about the debutants but they did impress in the CONCAF U20 Championships which is their qualifying tournament and they do have a couple of potential stars. Jose Angel Pena is one of them, a useful forward who does possess a dangerous long shot when he winds up his left foot. Playing alongside him upfront is Jairo Hernandez although the 19 year old will probably play just behind in attacking midfield. At just 5”8 he isn’t the tallest but that makes his close control good and him difficult to dispossess. Elsewhere keeper Rolando Morales also impressed at the recent continental championships most notably in the third place play-off against Cuba where he kept a clean sheet.
The hosts will carry the expectations any nation can expect when they are hosting a FIFA tournament and one young man in particular might feel the weight of expectation. Wonderkid is a phrase that is abused far too often now days but in Salih Ucan Fenerbahce and Turkey have something very close. The 19 year old has shown such composure playing in the blue and yellow stripes since signing from Bucaspor and he is quickly becoming one of the hottest talents in world football. Primarily utilised as a playmaker his passing is already fantastic for someone his age and unsurprisingly it is rumoured he is being chased by the likes of PSG and Manchester City. Another to watch out for is leading forward and captain Artun Akçakın. The striker plays for Genclerbirligi in the Turkish Super Lig and although he hasn’t actually scored in the league for them he has proven himself on loan as one to watch. He has also netted in the Turkish Cup and has a remarkable record at youth international level and what makes him really dangerous is his versatility. He is quick, excellent with both feet and a real danger in the air.
Qualifying for this tournament through the Asia U19 championships was not as easy as the Australians might have thought and they came close to not making it. Nevertheless they are here and there are a number of players on the books of Premier League clubs even if they aren’t first team regulars yet. Perhaps the most famous of them is Newcastle United’s Curtis Good who has spoken of his determination to fight for a place up north this year. The centre-back, who is the captain of the Australians, impressed on loan at Bradford this year and played in the Capital One Cup final. He is a terrific leader, has a good left foot and is good in the air and will be key to the Socceroos chances. Fulham winger Ryan Williams is yet to make an impression in South London but there are high hopes for the youngster this year. Striker Corey Gameiro spent four years at Craven Cottage before he was released this year but his pace will make him a danger to defenders. Gameiro was one of the star performers as Australia turned on the style in their crucial clash with Jordan in the Asia U19 Championships as he bagged a hat trick to secure his team’s qualification.