WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - A world away from the turmoil of corruption and political infighting plaguing soccer, there will be a reminder this weekend of what is best about the game - the talent showcase of the Under-20 World Cup.
The tournament, which is into its 20th edition and kicks off Saturday in New Zealand, is a nursery of future stars, giving the world some early and revealing glimpses of their abilities.
Diego Maradona won the Golden Ball as Player of the Tournament in the Under-20 World Cup in 1979; Lionel Messi won the same honor in 2005 and Paul Pogba received the award at the most recent tournament in Turkey in 2013. Others, including Ronaldinho, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan also made the tournament a pathway to international prominence.
Among the hundreds of players who will participate in New Zealand, many are already earmarked as rising stars, but standing out amid similarly credentialed players will provide the clearest endorsement yet of their talents.
Argentina, which arrives at the tournament as favorites after winning the South American qualifying championships for the first time in 12 years, will attempt to win the U20 World Cup for the seventh time with the help of a number of high-profile players.
Striker Giovanni Simeone, who was the leading scorer in the qualifying tournament with nine goals, is the son of Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. The Atletico connection is strong, as Argentina will be captain by Angel Correa, and the dribbling playmaker is among the front-runners for the Golden Ball.
Brazil, which was fourth in the South American qualifiers, made Corinthians forward Malcolm a late replacement in their qualifying campaign and he went on to feature in six matches and grab the attention of Barcelona, Chelsea and Juventus.
Ghana’s Clifford Aboagye won the Bronze Ball in the 2013 tournament and returns for his second under-20 World Cup as a more mature and complete player, now playing in Spain for Granada. Aboagye’s young teammate Godfred Donsah is already a highly sought-after young talent.
Center-back Niklas Stark was captain of the Germany team that won last year’s European Under-19 Championships and is already well established with Nuremburg in the Bundesliga.
These are only a few of the players who could engage the public’s attention over the next few weeks, but others are almost certain to emerge.
In the absence of 2013 champion France, which failed to qualify, a new champion will be crowned from a field of 24 teams. They include South American powerhouses Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay; African contenders Nigeria and Ghana; Germany, Austria and Portugal; the United States and Mexico - and the tournament will feature debuts for Myanmar and Fiji.
After Argentina’s six titles - the most-recent in 2007 - Brazil has won the tournament five times, most recently in 2011. Portugal has won it twice, but not since 1991. Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Yugoslavia, Ghana and France have all won a title.
New Zealand will host the tournament for the first time. Matches will be played at seven venues across New Zealand, most small by international standards, and at the onset of a winter which is typically windy, wet, bleak and cold - testing the resilience of players so far from home.
Organizers hope those stadiums will be full, but soccer remains a relatively minor sport in New Zealand - it has only one fully professional team, which plays in Australia’s domestic league - and the tournament clashes with the final stages of the elite Super Rugby series.
Organizing committee chairman Dave Beeche has tried to fire interest, saying “many of these players already have big price tags on their heads in the biggest clubs in Europe. Kiwis really shouldn’t miss the chance to see the next Messi crowned in our stadiums.”
The event will be played in the shadows of the turmoil gripping the sport on the other side of the globe, with leading FIFA figures among those arrested by Swiss police to face extradition to the U.S. on charges of corruption.
FIFA vice president Jeffrey Webb, who chaired the FIFA organizing committee for the Under-20 tournament and visited New Zealand in February for the draw, was among the seven arrested in Switzerland on Wednesday.
Football New Zealand chief executive Andy Martin said local organizers “continue to monitor the situation closely so that we can react appropriately” but “do not anticipate that these events will impact on the tournament.”
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