- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - The under-20 World Cup kicks off Saturday in New Zealand and will likely feature some of the stars of the future. Here’s some things to know:


Welcome to the Land of the Long White Cloud: The 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup is the 20th edition of tournament which was first played in 1977. New Zealand is hosting the tournament for the first time, though this is the third occasion the event has been awarded to Oceania: Australia hosted the 1981 and 1993 editions. The 24 competing teams are divided into six pools which will play at seven venues around New Zealand. The host cities are Dunedin - the farthest south - and Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island and Wellington, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Auckland and Whangarei - the farthest north - on the North Island. The final will be held at Auckland’s 25,000-seat North Harbour Stadium on June 20. A new champion will be crowned at that venue as France, the 2013 winner, failed to qualify.


FIFA and law enforcement agencies are confident they have measures in place to prevent World Cup matches and participating players being targeted by match-fixers. Director of security Ralf Mutschke said a comprehensive strategy had been put in place to ensure all matches are closely monitored by security personnel. Security will be tight around team hotels and players will be closely guarded at stadiums. Match fixing is a criminal offense in New Zealand and police and government agencies co-operate to identify illegal behavior. Julie Norris, head of Interpol’s Integrity in Sport, Capacity Building and Training Program, said New Zealand was among the world leaders in the fight against sports corruption. “The level of cooperation and coordination and information sharing and intelligence sharing is certainly, in my experience, unprecedented,” Norris said.


Argentina captain Angel Correa was recently named Player of the Tournament as Argentina won the South American qualifying championship for the Under-20 World Cup for the first time in 12 years. The achievement was made more impressive by the fact Correa had recently faced a health crisis that put his career in jeopardy. After winning the 2014 Copa Libertadores with San Lorenzo, Correa joined Atletico Madrid at the start of what seems likely to be an illustrious career. But a routine medical check detected a blocked ventricle in his heart and Correa had to travel to New York for an operation to remove the obstruction. The treatment was successful and, after being given medical clearance, he returned just in time to join Argentina’s qualifying campaign. “It’s great to be back playing again and to be feeling good too,” Correa told Argentina’s La Nación newspaper.


Few teams have traveled further to compete at the World Cup than Mali, but New Zealand is familiar ground to coach Fanyeri Diarra. Diarra was also coach of the Mali team which competed at the under-17 World Cup in New Zealand in 1999. “We didn’t manage to make the second round on that occasion,” Diarra said. “The draw wasn’t kind to us, though. We found ourselves in a very tough group with Germany and the two eventual finalists: Brazil and Australia. Even so, we managed to hold our own, drawing two games and losing to Australia which cost us a place in the next round. We gave a good account of ourselves and we hope to do the same thing this year, while trying to go as far as we can.”


It is one of the game’s oddities that Nigeria has won the under-17 World Cup four times - more than any other country - but has never won the under-20 tournment, twice losing in the final and once finishing third. Striker Taiwo Awoniyi, who played in all seven games when Nigeria won the under-17 world title in 2013, has a theory to explain the deficiency. “We need continuity in the various national teams,” he said. “If there is continuity, as is the case with us now, from U-17s to U-20s, we can change all that. We are very hopeful that we will be able to change it this year.” Awoniyi says Nigeria’s greatest strength was the harmony on and off the pitch. “It is the unity among the players. We are a big, happy family.”

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