x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Coming out party at U17 World Cup in Finland was well worth the ride

Some of today's stars were introduced at the 2003 event, other prospects did not meet expectations while some Sierra Leone players stayed in Finland for good, writes Ian Hawkey.

Ederson, Brazil’s captain at the 2003 Under 17 World Cup, is now playing at Lazio. Paolo Bruno / Getty Images
Ederson, Brazil’s captain at the 2003 Under 17 World Cup, is now playing at Lazio. Paolo Bruno / Getty Images

In the average teenager’s mind, the future unfolds according to simple rules.

Effort and reward are two poles of one logical line: today’s prodigy becomes tomorrow’s phenomenon.

So it will be a rare young international footballer who arrives in the UAE for this month’s Fifa Under 17 World Cup and is not thinking of, visualising even, his return to the Arabian Gulf some nine years later, age 24 or 25, for the 2022 senior World Cup in Qatar.

Logically, players in their mid-teens now should be peaking as sportsmen in time for 2022.

Scouting systems, medical and nutritional conditioning and psychological preparation are so much more sophisticated than they used to be, so a good proportion of those identified as exceptionally gifted at age 16 ought to go on and be equipped to thrive as elite footballers in their mid-20s.

Yet to cast an eye back a decade, to the 10th iteration organised by Fifa, in Finland in 2003, is to appreciate how fragile that logic can be.

Brazil won the U17 title that year, beating Spain in the Helsinki final.

Here is a happy coincidence: earlier this summer, almost exactly 10 years later, Brazil and Spain contested the Confederations Cup final, the most important international event of 2013. The outcome, in terms of gold and silver, was the same as it was in Finland, too.

But check through the personnel and a very distinct picture emerges. When Marcos Paqueta, now of Al Shabab in the Arabian Gulf League, picked his Brazil squad as coach of the 2003 U17s, he would, as a Brazilian, have thought long and hard about who to put in the No 10 jersey.

It is a magical shirt, the canary-yellow 10, once the possession of Pele, later of Zico, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

The lucky boy to get the junior No 10 shirt in 2003 would be Ederson Honorato Campos.

Readers struggling to immediately put a face to the name are forgiven. Though Ederson has had a largely satisfying career, he will never be spoken of in the same way as are a Ronaldinho or a Neymar – both stars at other U17 World Cups.

Successful in the French League with Lyon, Ederson now plays for Lazio, in Italy’s Serie A, though his first year there was plagued by injuries.

Perhaps Ederson as an adult just never quite got the right breaks. He is an elegant player, capable of fabulous shots from distance. He is very unlikely, though, to be at next summer’s World Cup.

In fact, there will probably be none of the world U17 champions from Finland there.

So concentrated is the talent pool in Brazil that many are filtered out of the very top stream between the ages of 16 and 20.

Barely detectable flaws sometimes become obvious once an athlete’s body develops.

If you win the U17 World Cup and stay reasonably fit, you will probably make a good living from football, but it is treacherous to try to predict at what level that will be. Ask Adailson Pereira Coelho, aka “Abuda”, Brazil’s top scorer at Finland, whose two strikes in the semi-final against Colombia put his country into the final.

His career highs after that would be few. His debut in the Bundesliga, eight minutes as a substitute for Wolfsburg at the age of 19, was also his last appearance in Germany. His spell at Germinal Beerschot in Belgium lasted two games. Three seasons ago, he was briefly at Dibba Al Fujairah, in the second tier of UAE club football.

But Finland 2003 did reveal some genuine prospects, and it was eventful. With the tournament only seven minutes old, three goals already had been scored in the pair of opening fixtures.

Throughout the event, there would only be one goalless draw – a group match between Mexico and Colombia – and the attacking play, generally, was of a higher calibre than the defending.

A certain immaturity and impulsiveness, a characteristic of junior-level sport, can yield rich entertainment.

It did not do that, though, if you were a patriotic Finn, excited to be hosting a prestigious Fifa competition and turning up alongside 10,000 countrymen to watch Finland strive for the win they needed to reach the quarter-finals.

Colombia, captained by Freddy Guarin – now of Inter Milan – put nine goals past them that day, Finland replying just once.

Perhaps pressure affected the young Finns. These tournaments put athletes under the kind of scrutiny they have never before experienced.

Some thrive. Freddy Adu of the United States, the player who the limelight trailed most in the lead-up, because he was only 14 and already had a Nike endorsement contract, responded with a hat-trick in his first match as the US beat South Korea 6-1.

A featherweight kid called David Silva also notched a hat-trick, for Spain, also against the Koreans. It is fair to report that Silva, now of Manchester City, has gone to greater things in adulthood than the touted Adu.

Off the field, meanwhile, one group of youngsters wrestled with a very grown-up decision. Sierra Leone, whose best performance had them beating Spain 3-2 until a 96th-minute equaliser, finished bottom of their group.

When they gathered to fly home, half the squad were missing. The West African nation was in the grip of violent civil conflict, with militias forcing children into the battlefield. Several of the runaway footballers applied to the Finnish government for political asylum.

Some then settled there to live, and found professional success either in the local league or, in some cases, with European clubs they joined from Finnish teams.

For them, Finland 2003 had an unexpected legacy. For its champions, there was an anticipated one: another trophy for the Brazilian stockpile, albeit achieved by kids not destined for future superstardom. For Spain, the disappointment of the silver medal would be compensated by the genuinely bright future their progress to the final signified.

A decade later, Cesc Fabregas and Silva had won two senior European Championships and the country’s first World Cup.

Ten years on, where is the Class of 2003?

Freddy Adu Feted as the future global superstar, the Ghana-born American, scored a hat-trick in the United States’ opener. His senior career never quite took off. Now playing for Bahia, in Brazil.

Cesc Fabregas The Spain midfielder was the tournament’s top scorer and had just left Barcelona for Arsenal. Eight years and a senior World Cup gold medal later, he rejoined Barca.

Joao Guilherme The Brazil captain who lifted the Under 17 World Cup. A low-key career since, no senior caps, and after six seasons with Maritimo in Portugal, now plays for Apoel in Cyprus.

Finland More than 10,000 fans attended the hosts’ final group game, knowing a win would put them through to the quarter-finals. They lost 9-1 to Colombia.

Mohamed ‘Medo’ Kamara One of a group of Sierra Leoneans who, rather than return to their war-torn country, sought political asylum in Finland. Seven years later, Medo was the Finnish League’s Player of the Year.

Yemen Surprise qualifiers, Yemen provided plenty of late drama. They were beating Portugal 3-2 13 minutes from time, before losing 4-3, and a stoppage-time goal earned a point against Cameroon.

Marcos Paqueta Coach of the champions, Brazil, and of his native country’s successful U20 world champions of the same year. Now in his second spell as coach of UAE’s Al Shabab.