Under-20 World Cup loses some luster with star names missing
The biggest names are missing. The tournament is being played in the middle of league soccer seasons around the world. The World Cup in South Africa is just months away.
In all, there are some good reasons to be less than excited about this year's FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
Nevertheless, the youth tournament will kick off in Egypt later this week (Sept. 24-Oct. 16) with 24 teams as anxious as ever to take the title. For fans around the world, just the chance that their national team could be crowned a World Cup champion makes it worthwhile to stand up and take notice of this competition, which despite the knocks against it, still boasts a number of intriguing storylines:
1. Club versus country, take two
In a repeat of the debacle leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics tournament in Beijing, bitter club versus country battles have once again unfurled across Europe over the release of first-team players for an event not scheduled on the FIFA calendar. Despite FIFA's posturing, clubs seem to have mostly won this round and will keep their high-profile players in Europe.
That means the biggest stars at this age level will be nowhere near Egypt as top European leagues begin to heat up. The most recent subtraction from World Cup play was FC Barcelona star Bojan Krkic, who reported to the Spanish U-20 camp last week only to be ruled out of the tournament somewhat suspiciously with a lingering thigh injury. The majority of Germany's top players from its European champion U-19 squad will stay with their club teams as well.
With some of the top teams at far less than full strength, can there really be any point in playing the U-20 World Cup? The answer is still a resounding yes.
2. The search for new national talent
Although some countries believe in calling in every U-20 eligible player to make their team as competitive as possible, others see the tournament as a proving ground for still-under-the-radar talent. Brazil, for example, easily could field a team of more proven Europe-based players but has named an exclusively domestic side.
The United States is following that example, as age-eligible but established players Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore were never seriously considered for the American squad. Identifying young players to stock the full national team player pool in the future -- if not immediately, then during the next World Cup cycle -- will be one of the Americans' main goals.
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U.S. versus Germany
Mubarak Stadium; Suez, Egypt
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"It's part of an ongoing conversation that we have with [national team manager] Bob Bradley," said under-20 American coach Thomas Rongen. "We want to push the players and put them in an environment that they can get better, and get them to the next level."
The process has worked for the U.S. in the past, with players such as Benny Feilhaber, Sal Zizzo and Marvell Wynne emerging from relative obscurity at recent U-20 World Cups.
3. The tournament's big stars get big contracts
Players at the U-20 World Cup have the chance to be seen by not only national team managers but also scouts from some of the world's biggest clubs. That makes the tournament a great stage for new stars to emerge, especially those from smaller soccer nations.
"Thomas [Rongen] was saying the tournament could basically turn you into a millionaire overnight," said FC Dallas defender Anthony Wallace, who will miss the competition with a knee injury. "This is the biggest stage next to the actual World Cup, so there are a lot of eyes watching."
In past years, Adu, Altidore, Bobby Convey and Danny Szetela, among others, have made the jump overseas after the U-20 World Cup. A number among the current American ranks are still in college, making them free agents all the more attractive to European clubs. Others, such as defender Sheanon Williams and attacker Dilly Duka, have left school but passed up MLS and are hoping to use this tournament as a springboard to Europe.
MLS teams have gotten into the act recently as well, with the New England Revolution signing Gambians Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally after the event two years ago.
4. How will FIFA's new nationality-switching rule play out on this stage?
The recently altered FIFA rule allowing players to change national allegiance later in their career will be an issue at a youth tournament for the first time. In the past, most of the U-20 players would have been very close to their 21st birthday, after which, under the old rule, switching allegiance would not have been allowed for a youth national team player.
Now, no player is cap-tied until he sees the field in a full FIFA senior international "A" match. With World Cup qualifiers winding down around the world, those "A" matches are still years away for most countries that don't qualify for the World Cup, leaving a long window to fight over dual-national prospects, dozens of whom will be on display in Egypt.
In what looks like an entirely feasible nightmare for FIFA, outstanding performances by dual-nationals could give rise to international recruiting battles as well as less endowed World Cup-bound nations possibly attempting to supplement their rosters by scouting other countries' youth teams in Egypt.
5. Will the U-20 tournament survive in its current form?
FIFA is already beginning to ask itself whether the U-20 tournament is worth continuing, as it faces so many issues. In the wake of the player-availability problems surrounding the 2008 Olympic Games, suggestions have floated about replacing the U-23 Olympic competition with an alternative U-20 tournament.
But don't look for the U-20 to go away completely any time soon. Youth tournaments yield FIFA more revenue plus a chance to spread the international game to countries and markets too small to dream of hosting or even participating in a full-fledged World Cup or Olympic Games.
So with another World Cup title, for what it's worth, on the line, here's how the groups break down:
Group A: Egypt, Italy, Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago
Italy is the group favorite after reaching the final of last year's European U-19 championship undefeated before falling to Germany. As usual, the Italians will rely on a solid defense but are hampered by the absence of starting forward Stefano Okaka Chuka, an Italian of Nigerian descent who remains with his club team, A.S. Roma.
Challenging the Italians is South American runner-up Paraguay, which boasts a talented but inexperienced squad, much of which already plays club soccer outside the country.
Egypt has gone to great lengths to prepare for its tournament, calling into tryouts youth players from clubs throughout Europe but in the end sticking with a purely domestic squad. The Pharaohs have home-field advantage and national pride on the line, and will open play at a new stadium in Alexandria with room for more than 80,000 spectators.
The hosts' opening-match opponent, Trinidad & Tobago, has a number of NCAA collegians among its ranks, including Qian Grosvenor, a speedy forward at the University of South Florida. The Soca Warriors hope to at least score their first goal in their second U-20 World Cup.
Group B: Nigeria, Spain, Tahiti, Venezuela
This group features Nigeria and Spain, the two finalists from the 2007 U-17 World Cup. Although Spain is missing its star, Krkic, and edged into the World Cup with a fifth-place finish at the European qualifying tournament, it is still among the favorites in Egypt. Spain is backstopped by Atletico Madrid first-choice 'keeper Sergio Asenjo, and Arsenal reserve midfielder Fran Merida will lead the Spanish attack in Krkic's absence.
Some of Nigeria's key players are injured, and only four of the 21 who emerged victorious at the U-17 competition two years ago are returning. Hamburg forward Macauley Chrisantus, the tournament's top scorer in South Korea, is lost to injury, leaving midfielder Rabiu Ibrahim of Sporting Lisbon to take the reins of the attack.
Venezuela hopes to continue in a spoiler role after taking a spot in Egypt from six-time U-20 champion Argentina, while Tahiti will be little more than a curiosity in its first FIFA tournament.
Group C: Cameroon, Germany, South Korea, United States
Considered by most to be the Group of Death, the Americans' quartet may in fact be softer than expected because of Germany's reduced strength. The Germans are missing a host of big names, foremost among them Marko Marin, a former teammate of American Michael Bradley at Borussia Monchengladbach before being transferred to Werder Bremen during the summer. Toni Kroos, who won the golden ball as best player at the 2007 U-17 tournament, was not released by Bayer Leverkusen, where he is on loan from Bayern Munich.
The U.S. hopes to take advantage in the first game and surprise the Germans with an athletic defense and timely attacks. Goalkeeper Brian Perk didn't surrender a goal in the four games he played in CONCACAF qualifying. FC Dallas forwards Brek Shea and Peri Marosevic will need to convert the chances provided by a talented midfield that includes Dilly Duka and Norwegian-American Mikkel Diskerud.
Eleven-time Asian champion South Korea fields a mixture of young professionals and university players. Look for the Asians to be organized, led by defensive midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, who already has two caps with the full national team. The Koreans may be suspect on defense, though, with a back line composed entirely of amateurs from Korean colleges.
African runner-up Cameroon boasts a number of talented youth players on the books of large European teams, with players practicing their craft in 10 different countries across Africa and Europe. Charley Roussel Fomen is an attack-minded left back for French giants L'Olympique de Marseille, while the potency of a midfield led by Genoa's Louis Essengue Eloumou makes the Lions a good bet to advance out of an evenly weighted group.
Group D: England, Ghana, Uruguay, Uzbekistan
On paper, England may look like the favorite in Group D, but its squad of Premier League reserves will be tested heavily by African champion Ghana, which has realistic ambitions of raising the trophy on African turf.
The talented Ghanaians are led by Marseille midfielder Andre Ayew and are skilled enough to have had no room in their squad for talented Benfica winger Ishmael Yartey. They also were forced to drop Atletico Madrid forward Sadick Adams after FIFA imposed a transfer-related ban on the player.
Missing from England's team are age-eligible players Dan Gosling of Everton and Daniel Welbeck of Manchester United, who see action with their respective clubs' first teams. On a team stocked with players on the books at Premier League clubs, Chelsea's Michael Woods will conduct the midfield, while forward Sam Baldock sees regular time at League One's MK Dons, for which he scored 12 goals last year.
Traditional South American power Uruguay is always solid at this level as well. It's loaded with talent this time around, although attacker Jonathan Urretaviscaya of Benfica stands out. That leaves upstart Uzbekistan, with an almost entirely domestic-based squad, with the longest shot to advance from this tough group.
Group E: Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Czech Republic
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In what seems the legitimate Group of Death, CONCACAF champion Costa Rica finds itself matched with Brazil. The Ticos are dangerous in the attack, led by Saprissa's Josue Martinez, who scored twice against the U.S. in a 3-0 final win at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.
Brazil, which found its form in running away with first place at CONMEBOL qualifying earlier this year, boasts a crop of relatively unknown future stars, a number of whom likely will be ferried off to Europe immediately after the tournament. Midfielders Giuliano of Internacional and Douglas Costa of Gremio figure to be among the top performers.
Even the fight for third place will be tightly contested in a group that includes 2007 U-20 runner-up Czech Republic and Australia, which beat the U.S. with three late goals in a friendly earlier this year in Argentina. Australian captain James Holland of AK Alkmaar has been capped by the senior team and leads a number of young Socceroos who play overseas.
Group F: Honduras, Hungary, South Africa, United Arab Emirates
If Costa Rica got the short end of the stick in the draw, fellow Central American squad Honduras should be celebrating its place in what appears to be by far the softest group. The Catrachos, who have never reached the knockout stage in five U-20 tries, have a golden opportunity this time. The Hondurans are led by striker Roger Rojas, who scored four times in qualifying and has completed a preliminary deal to move to Premier League side Wigan Athletic.
The group is rounded out by equally low-profile teams Hungary, South Africa and the UAE, which all will look to make their own mark in Egypt.
With teams advancing from unpredictable groups of different strengths and depths, history proves that anything can happen in the knockout round of an Under-20 World Cup. That means getting out of the group is the primary objective for the contenders and a big step toward being able to call themselves World Cup champions.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at email@example.com.