Under-20 World Cup kicks off amid Turkish protests

Posted by Christopher Atkins

Anti-goverment protests continue in U20 WC host nation TurkeyGettyImagesAnti-goverment protests continue in U20 WC host nation Turkey

When Sepp Blatter flew out of Brazil on Wednesday, it must have been with an overwhelming sense of relief. The FIFA president has endured a difficult few days since the start of the Confederations Cup, with protests around Brazil adding to the already considerable pressure the host is under to ensure the tournament's success. While the disputes may not have been directed at football's governing body, a series of ill-advised statements asking protesters not to use the tournament to further their cause landed them in the middle of it.

"I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard," Blatter told Brazil's TV Globo on Wednesday. It may well be a phrase that he comes to use once more in the weeks to come. Blatter escaped the cauldron of Brazil, only to fly to Turkey, a country enduring the latest wave of civil unrest, for the opening of FIFA's Under-20 World Cup.

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And despite the proclamations of Blatter and his colleagues, there is no doubting that events off the field are of far greater global significance than the tournament itself. However, like in Brazil, the tournament will be able to progress largely unhindered by the frantic scenes merely a mile or two down the road. It will be another absurd juxtaposition to cause the FIFA hierarchy many sleepless nights, but we will no doubt have a tournament to savour on the pitch.

Amid such scenes, the buildup to the event justifiably has been based largely on the divides that have recently reared their heads across Turkey, and the potential consequences of the sustained recent period of protest. That focus will undoubtedly continue throughout the event, but it is only fair to those athletes and nations involved to give the tournament's on-pitch action a share of the limelight. In qualifying, they have earned the right to a platform for their talents and are in no way responsible for decisions about the competition's hosting.

Among the tournament's 24 sides are the familiar faces of England, France and Spain, through to less renowned footballing nations such as Iraq, El Salvador and Uzbekistan. But that is the joy of youth competition. Across one age group, it is easier for aspiring nations to compete with traditional powerhouses, with many choosing to specifically focus on the development of an individual group of talented players for a sustained period of time. Add the excitement and pressure of the tournament, which many players are experiencing for the first time, and the potential for surprise is clear.

Should any of the tournament's established heavyweights begin to get overconfident about their chances of success, then they could do worse than to take a glance at South America's candidates for the title. While it must be stressed that Colombia and Chile, in particular, have produced a wonderful generation of players, the absence of both Brazil and Argentina will come as a surprise. Neither side made it through the opening stage of the South American Youth Championship in January, and both were at times thoroughly outplayed. Yet it is the two South American giants who have shared eight of the past 10 World Cup crowns at this age level.

There will be interest, of course, in the individual talents that the tournament may throw up -- there always is. But as Brazil in particular discovered, football at all levels is heading far more in the direction of the collective triumphing over the individual. This tournament already threatens to be a continuation of that trend, with several of the leading sides in qualification playing a modern, possession-based style of football. The European scouts still will be out in abundance, but this will be a tournament based largely upon the excellence of team units.

Friday's tournament opener will bring renewed examination over the suitability of Turkey's hosting of the tournament at present, but also the start of what should be a spectacular display of football. In the past two weeks, the European Under-21 Championship has served as a marvelous warm-up event, but this is the competition seen as the pinnacle of youth football for all those outside of UEFA's jurisdiction. The hope will be that the tournament can live up to the standards set by what has been an excellent summer of football thus far.

Barcelona and Spain youngster Gerard Deulofeu
GettyImagesBarcelona and Spain youngster Gerard Deulofeu

The favourites: Spain - It wouldn't be an international tournament these days without Spanish favourites for the title, and the Under-20 World Cup doesn't disappoint. Despite being successful at the Under-21 level earlier this week, they are able to pull together a squad of immense quality for this tournament. Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu, Real Madrid's Jese and Liverpool's Suso are three to watch.

The outside bets: Colombia - Having emerged victorious from the South American Youth Championship in January, Colombia will be the continent's most likely side to achieve success. Several of the nation's highly talented squad already have secured moves to Europe, with Pescara's Juan Fernando Quintero the team's creative hub. Los Cafeteros are a side built upon defensive solidity, with pace and creativity in attack.

The dark horses: Chile - The undisputed stars of the early stages of January's qualification tournament were Chile, whose high-intensity style came as a shock to the system to many of their rivals. Suspensions cost them dearly in Argentina, but if they can reduce the number of cards they pick up, they could be a major threat. An attacking trio of Manchester United's Angelo Henriquez, Sevilla's Bryan Rabello and Universidad Catolica's Nicolas Castillo should guarantee goals.

Keep an eye on: Ghana - African sides have a recent history of performing relatively well in youth competition, and the Black Satellites threaten to be this year's leading AFC nation. A difficult group-stage draw sees them line up with both France and Spain in their section, but there is no reason why they should fear them. Midfielder Moses Odjer and striker Ebenezer Assifuah are the domestic-based stars looking for a move, while Serie A-based duo Richmond Boakye and Alfred Duncan will be the experienced leaders of the group. If they are to succeed, though, it may well be with a starring role from Anderlecht flyer Frank Acheampong, one of the country's most promising youngsters of recent years.

For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout's Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter — @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can also be found at TheElastico.com.

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