Under-20 World Cup

The Prodigies

July 6, 2013
By Mark Lomas
(Archive)

As in the world of Hollywood, precocious young footballers often stumble just when it seems the world is at their feet. Their slide is usually not as dramatic or debauched as the Macaulay Caulkins and Lindsay Lohans of this world, but the pressure and hype that comes from careering towards the top of one's game at such a tender age can be too much for some to take.

Lionel Messi Under-20 World Cup Argentina
GettyImagesLionel Messi won the Golden Ball at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup

While many hit their pinnacle as a prodigy, 'peaking too early' as the well-worn cliche goes, there are of course those who do go on to bigger and better things. The Christian Bales and Jodie Fosters of the acting world are mirrored in football by the likes of Pele, Maradona and in the current generation, Lionel Messi - those who took the leap from talented teen to global renown.

The Under-20 World Cup, formerly the FIFA World Youth Championships, is a teeming treasure trove of would-be stars. Since 1977, the competition has given youngsters a platform on which a number have thrived, earning plaudits and moves on the back of award-winning performances.

The golden statue that awaits the pick of the peers is the player of the tournament prize. For some of the 18 winners it has merely been the first of a rapidly swelling trophy cabinet, but for others it has been a poisoned chalice, precipitating a choking on the expectation that accompanies such adulation.

Here, ESPN examines the fortunes of a selection of FIFA Under-20 Golden Ball winners.

THE SUCCESS STORIES

DIEGO MARADONA (Argentina, 1979)

Diego Maradona Argentina Under-20 World Cup
GettyImagesDiego Maradona lifts the Under-20 World Cup aloft after inspiring Argentina's victory in 1979

The hedonistic lifestyle that Diego Armando Maradona enjoyed at his pomp would not be out of place among many stars of the silver screen, but the early reels of any biopic about Argentina's flawed genius would only be filled with football. Twenty five years before the world's eyes were on Japan for the FIFA World Cup, Japanese fans couldn't take their eyes off a player who would establish himself as one of the game's all-time greats. In the Land of the Rising Sun, Maradona ascended towards global football consciousness with the sort of virtuosity that would come to characterise his colourful career.

Having already made his debut for the senior national team at 16, much was expected of Argentina's No. 10, who was the leading light in a squad brimming with potential. He, and they, did not disappoint. Dovetailing delightfully with striker Ramon Diaz, who would claim eight goals and the tournament's Golden Shoe, Maradona picked apart defences at will. The pair were both on the scoresheet in four of Argentina's six games, including the final, as Soviet Union, the reigning champions, were put to the sword.

What Happened Next: Maradona almost single-handedly gave the Under-20 World Cup credibility after not only starring in Japan, but emerging as the face of Argentinian and world football in the 1980s and early 1990s. He claimed league titles with Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli but the coup de grace was winning the 1986 World Cup with his country; Maradona was named the best player at Mexico '86, becoming the only man to win the Golden Ball at both the Under-20 and senior World Cups.

ROBERT PROSINECKI (Yugoslavia, 1987)

Chile hosted South America's first Under-20 World Cup but it was a European side who stole the headlines. Yugoslavia's youngsters were a technically astute collective, a team packed with future stars including Davor Suker, Zvominir Boban and Predrag Mijatović among them. Standing on a pedestal unto himself, however, was Robert Prosinecki. With the ball his prized possession, Prosinecki refused to let it go for most of the tournament - bobbing, weaving and turning his way around opponents, every piece of skill gracefully delivered.

Robert Prosinecki Croatia
GettyImagesRobert Prosinecki went on to play for Barcelona and Real Madrid

Boban and Suker were the goal-getters but Prosinecki was the man whose magic wand of a right-foot provided them, memorably creating three out of four goals in the group stage victory over Chile. The 18-year-old, who had recently signed his first professional contract for Red Star Belgrade having not been deemed good enough by Dinamo Zagreb, saved his most important intervention for the quarter-final against Brazil, arrowing a last-gasp match-winning free-kick past Ronaldo (not that one). A controversial booking in the semi-final victory over East Germany meant Prosinecki was suspended for the final, but his place as the tournament's pre-eminent player had already been secured - narrowly ahead of Boban - and his team-mates beat West Germany to claim a shock triumph.

What Happened Next: The Yugoslav Wars saw the break-up of the country and what could have been one of Europe's great international sides. Playing for Croatia after the dissolution, Prosinecki helped the Vatreni to a bronze medal at the 1998 World Cup, scoring in the third-place play-off victory over Netherlands as part of a team that contained five of the '87 champions. At club level, Prosinceki never quite matched the heights of helping Red Star Belgrade become the first and only Yugoslavian club to lift the European Cup in 1991, enjoying mixed success at Real Madrid and Barcelona before becoming somewhat of a journeyman. The Prosinecki v Boban debate remains a divisive one to this day.

SERGIO AGUERO (Argentina, 2007)

Two years earlier compatriot Lionel Messi had taken away the collective breath of the crowds in the Netherlands but in Canada, Kun was king. (Well, more prince, given that he was courting Giannina Maradona, the daughter of Argentinian football royalty.) As the reigning champions' attacking fulcrum, Aguero played with all the verve and confidence of a teenager who had already been made Atletico Madrid's most expensive ever signing 12 months previous.

A fresh-faced Sergio Aguero accepts the accolades after the 2007 U-20 World Cup final
GettyImagesA fresh-faced Sergio Aguero accepts the accolades after the 2007 U-20 World Cup final

Three goals came in the group stage, with the pick of them a stunning free-kick to beat North Korea in the final game, before a double against Poland took Argentina into the quarter-finals. Aguero was, however, to save his most decisive contribution until the final, where he skippered the side and demonstrated a captain's maturity to convert an equaliser just two minutes after his side had gone behind to the Czech Republic. Mauro Zarate added a second and the trophy was retained, with Aguero taking home both the tournament's Golden Boot and Golden Ball prizes to follow in the footsteps of both Messi and Javier Saviola. Unsurprisingly, the comparisons that had previously centred on Carlos Tevez quickly evolved to Aguero's future father-in-law.

What Happened Next: Continuing to shine for Atletico Madrid, Aguero added a gold medal to his bulging collection in 2008 and established himself as first-choice for his country, playing at the 2010 World Cup under Maradona as his coach. The young striker quickly became one of the hottest properties in Europe and in 2011 Manchester City beat off competition from Real Madrid to sign him. Kun is now a terrace idol at City following the dramatic injury-time strike in May 2012 that delivered the club their first league title in half a century.

UNFULFILLED POTENTIAL

Emilio Peixe tackle Portugal
GettyImagesEmilio Peixe lacked the finesse and success of Portugal contemporaries Rui Costa and Luis Figo

EMILIO PEIXE (Portugal, 1991)

Playing in a side containing future Portugal greats Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto, it was no small achievement that Emilio Peixe was recognised ahead of those illustrious names as the best performer of the 'Golden Generation' in their Under-20 World Cup win on home soil in 1992. A gritty defensive midfielder, the Sporting starlet patrolled the park with aplomb and took no prisoners in the tackle.

Lacking the finesse of some of his team-mates, Peixe was nonetheless a key component of a Portugal team that became notoriously tough to break down. The hosts conceded just one goal in 600 minutes of football and Peixe's ability to deny the most glamorous of opponents was particularly evident in the final against a Brazil XI containing future internationals Roberto Carlos, Elber and Marquinhos. The tough-tackling midfielder helped keep Brazil at bay through normal time and extra-time, laying the foundations for a penalty shootout triumph.

What Happened Next: One of a select group of players to have represented Portugal's big three of Sporting, Porto and Benfica - his spells at the latter two were utterly forgettable. All 12 of his senior caps came before the age of 20 and while Figo and Rui Costa earned a place in Portugal's football hall of fame with star turns for club and country - albeit disappointingly falling short of silverware on the international stage - Peixe was condemned to a place on Benfica's wall of shame, with his disappointments documented on website 'Flops Do Benfica'. He is now, rather aptly given his success at that level, coaching Portugal's youth teams.

ISMAIL MATAR (United Arab Emirates, 2003)

At 20 years old, Ismail Matar was a little older than most of the Golden Ball recipients, but his winning of the prize was arguably the most surprising of them all and provided a watershed moment for football in the region. The deep pockets of the UAE's Emirati bankrolled the hosting of the Under-20 World Cup in a bid to further increase football's already growing popularity in the country. UAE were major underdogs going into the tournament and a 4-1 reverse to Slovakia in the opener did little to alter that view. However, inspired by Matar, who was head and shoulders above his contemporaries, UAE claimed a win and a draw in their next two games to reach the last-16.

Ismail Matar crying UAE
GettyImagesUAE attacker Ismail Matar never quite hit the heights that were expected of him

Against Australia, with the expectation of a nation upon him, Matar stepped up with an 89th-minute winner to send UAE into the quarter-finals and the home fans into delirium. They finally bowed out to Colombia in the next round but Matar had made his mark. The Al-Wahda forward, capable of playing on his own up top as a poacher or deeper as a roaming attacker was rewarded for his direct, pacy play - beating the likes of Carlos Tevez and Andres Iniesta to the top individual honour. More than that, Matar represented a new hope for football in the UAE - a player who could become the Gulf state's first to play in Europe and whose displays on home soil had alerted suitors such as Inter Milan. His club coach, Josef Hickersberger, said at the time: "I hope he will get the chance to play in Europe. I am 100% sure with his qualities that he can do well if he gets the chance to play outside this country."

What happened next: Although there was to be more international success - he was top scorer as UAE won the 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations and captained the Under-23 side at the 2012 London Olympics - Matar never made the move to Europe. The traditional aversion in Gulf football for local stars to move to foreign leagues was a prohibitive factor, though with the landscape now changing, Matar may witness talented youngsters like Omar Abdulrahman play in a top league. The 2003 Under-20 Golden Ball winner could have been a pioneer but will instead be left to wonder what might have been.

CAIO (Brazil, 1995)

Nowhere in the world does the football spotlight burn brighter than in Brazil, and it is unsurprising that the most successful nation in the sport has produced a plethora of wunderkinds. Unfortunately, though, the Under-20 Golden Ball title has become something of an albatross around the neck of its Brazilian winners, with all six - most recently goal-shy Henrique - seemingly shackled by the pressure of being labelled a prodigy.

 	Brazil Caio
GettyImagesBrazilian Caio failed to make the grade for club or country after his success in 1995

At the 1995 tournament in Qatar, it was Sao Paulo teenager Caio who burst on to the Selecao scene, turning in some particulary impressive displays in the knockout rounds; he bagged a brace in the 2-1 quarter-final victory over Japan before scoring in the 90th minute to eliminate Portugal in the semi-finals. Defeat to Argentina in the final did not quell the interest in Caio and he became one of Massimo Moratti's first signings as Inter Milan president. The striker arrived in a deal thought to be worth $5 million dollars, determined to kick on and avoid the fate suffered by former Brazilian Golden Ball winners Geovani, Paulo Silas, Bismarck and Adriano.

What happened next: Caio said ciao to Inter after just six Serie A games and zero goals, with that total emulated the following season with Napoli. He returned to Brazil to rediscover his form but it continued to elude him; Caio had scored 14 league goals in his breakout season at Sao Paulo but it took him nine years to score his next 14. After an unsuccessful 2004-05 season in the Bundesliga. 2 with Rot-Weiß Oberhausen, he enjoyed a semi-swansong with Botafogo before retiring at 31. Caio is now a commentator for Rede Globo.

Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winners:

1977 - Volodymyr Bessonov (USSR)
1979 - Diego Maradona (Argentina)
1981 - Romulus Gabor(Romania)
1983 - Geovani (Brazil)
1985 - Paulo Silas (Brazil)
1987 - Robert Prosinečki (Yugolsavia)
1989 - Bismarck (Brazil)
1991 - Emílio Peixe (Portugal)
1993 - Adriano (Brazil)
1995 - Caio (Brazil)
1997 - Nicolas Olivera (Uruguay)
1999 - Seydou Keita (Mali)
2001 - Javier Saviola (Argentina)
2003 - Ismail Matar(United Arab Emirates)
2005 - Lionel Messi (Argentina)
2007 - Sergio Aguero (Argentina)
2009 - Dominic Adiyiah (Ghana)
2011 - Henrique (Brazil)

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