Headed by Maradona, Messi and more recently Paul Pogba; the list of players to have graced the FIFA U20 World Cup reads like a who’s who of international football and now for just the second time in two decades one of the planet’s biggest tournaments returns to Asia.
Whilst the success rate of the U-17 World Cup in producing bona-fide global superstars is less assured, the U-20 event has been nothing short of a factory of future talent down the years and if you want a glimpse of the future stars of the game, then the next couple of weeks in South Korea are going to be essential viewing.
Sergio Aguero, Javier Saviola, Robert Prosinecki, Dani Alves, John Obi Mikel, Seydou Keita, Pablo Aimar, Djibril Cisse and Giovani dos Santos are just some of the others to have emerged from the biennial competition and there are a collection of stars-in-waiting set to walk into the spotlight when the 21st edition kicks off in Jeonju this weekend with a mouth-watering clash between Argentina and England.
Fox Sports Asia picks out some of those expected to shine in the upcoming tournament.
FWD: Ronaldo CISNEROS (Mexico/Santos Laguna):
Just as they were the stars in qualification so too are a trio of young players at Mexican powerhouse, Santos Laguna, expected to form the main threat for an imposing looking Mexican side in Korea.
With Eduardo Aguirre on the left wing and Uriel Antuna on the right, it’s their service that will prove crucial for a man who could well be in the running for Golden Boot honours and that’s another Santos player in forward Ronaldo Cisneros.
Named after the Brazilian rather than the Portuguese Ronaldo, the 20-year-old bagged six goals in qualification and looms as one of the breakout striking talents at the tournament.
MF: Rodridgo BENTANCUR (Uruguay/Boca Juniors):
An elegant playmaker capable of operating in a deeper or central role but is expected to play wide on the right of Uruguay’s 4-4-2 and has already signed with Italian giants Juventus where he will move this coming summer.
DF: Issa DIOP (France/Toulouse):
Already a seasoned campaigner who has just completed his second full season in France’s top-flight with his hometown club, Diop is amongst the most cultured defenders at a tournament where most of the headline talent is in attacking roles.
An imposing physical central defender, the 20-year-old has outstanding tactical awareness, anticipation and timing in both cutting off passing lanes and winning one-on-one tackles and is blessed with electric pace to help him cover ground and complete those challenges.
Already linked with a host of top European clubs and part of a star-studded French side in Korea, Diop could be a vital presence for a nation that should push deep into the tournament.
MF: Christopher NKUNKU (France/PSG):
The 19-year-old midfielder of Congolese descent is regarded as one of the best talents to have come through the youth ranks at the French powerhouse in recent years. A slick passer of the ball he’s already played in the UEFA Champions League and Ligue 1 and will likely line up as one of the advanced midfield options in France’s 4-1-4-1 where he’ll be charged with setting the tempo for one of the tournament favourites.
MF: Rolando MANDRAGORA (Italy/Juventus):
The silky central midfielder impressed on loan at Pescara last year and is highly thought of at one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Juventus, where he could play an increasingly important role in years to come. For now, he’s likely to sit at the base of midfield in Italy’s 4-3-3 and use his laser-like left foot to unpick opposing defences and dictate the tempo of play where he tends to operate more as a traditional ‘number eight’ than a pure ‘number six.’
FWD: LEE Seung-woo (Korea/Barcelona):
Long hailed as one of the great talents in waiting in Korean football the pressure will be immense on the young forward to carry the host nation deep into the tournament. A standout talent for the Korean Under-17 side he’s also been one of the stars for Barcelona’s Juvenil A side that competes in the prestigious UEFA Youth League.
Playing alongside another Korean in defender Jang Gyeol-hee, the 19-year-old played in every single match as Barca made it all the way to the quarters. He will most likely be stationed on the left wing in Korea’s 4-3-3 and he’ll be expected to not just create but also finish.
FWD: Lautaro MARTINEZ (Argentina/Racing):
Argentina has a fantastic record for producing and unveiling top flight forward talent at this tournament and the latest in that long line is the livewire Martinez.
Having cracked the senior side at Racing at 18, he’s been a regular scorer for club and country since then and has a delightful first touch, excellent dribbling skills and an array of ways to finish – some deft touches, some power drives and as part of a two-man frontline for Argentina in their 3-5-2 he should be a prolific outlet for one of the tournament favourites.
FWD: Patson DAKA (Zambia/Salzburg):
One of the most exciting striking talents to have emerged from Africa in the past couple of seasons, the 18-year-old made an immediate impression on his arrival in Austria this year, scoring twice, including the winner to eliminate Barcelona in the semifinal and then the opener against Benfica in the final as Salzburg stunned Europe to win the UEFA Youth League last month.
A powerful, dynamic, central striker he was both top scorer and player of the tournament as Zambia won the CAF Under-20 Cup of Nations this year and looks to have a massive future in European football as well as being the key for the Junior Chipolopolo in Korea.