Spectators can count on seeing two or three or more future elite players at every Fifa Under 17 World Cup. The tricky part is deducing who they will be.
Nothing inevitable about success after Under 17 World Cup, says Landon Donovan
Most of the young men who gathered for the 1999 Fifa Under 17 World Cup, in New Zealand, were well known to professional football teams. A large majority already were on the books of a club, and some were playing in the youth academies of the world’s biggest sides.
The 1999 Spain team included five Barcelona players and four from Real Madrid. Germany’s team included six Bayern Munich players, and Borussia Dortmund owned two more. Vasco da Gama and Corinthians each had three Brazilians. Leeds United held the rights to two Australians.
Landon Donovan, a slight, quick forward from the US, arrived down under with considerably less fanfare than many of his age-group peers.
He had signed recently with Bayer Leverkusen, the German club, but had spent almost no time with them, and considering America’s modest reputation as a footballing nation, in 1999, it is not unfair to say he was nearly unknown.
In an instance of a young player not only living up to his billing, but exceeding it, the little-recognised Donovan was named best player of the New Zealand tournament, in which the US reached the semi-finals before losing to Australia in a shoot-out. In the subsequent 14 years he has steadily burnished his reputation.
He now is widely recognised as the greatest American footballer born in the US. He holds, by a wide distance, the US record for international goals, 57 in 157 appearances, and is co-holder of the record for most goals scored in America’s top flight, Major League Soccer (MLS), with 134.
Now 31, he has not forgotten the three weeks he spent in New Zealand, in 1999, and recalls it as a time of rapid professional growth – almost inevitable, given his history primarily with a youth club in southern California and at his high school, in the city of Redlands.
“I think the whole U17 experience, including the World Cup, made me a better player,” Donovan said in an email. “Being in a professional environment at that age was unusual for an American at that time and I think we all benefitted from it greatly.”
Unlike many other young players, who expect inevitable progress from U17 stardom to first-team prominence, Donovan’s expectations were muted.
“It wasn’t inevitable to me,” he said. “There are many cases of young, talented players that don’t make it as pros.
“I think the biggest hurdle for young players who experience success is continuing to work hard and stay hungry. The human psyche and ego can lead us to believe we’ve ‘made it’, and that can be very dangerous.”
Donovan’s ascent was rapid.
He was 18 when he scored his first international goal, against Mexico. A year later, he scored in a 2-1 MLS Cup victory, and in 2002 he was in the first XI for all five games the US played in its push to the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals, scoring two goals, including the clinching strike in the last-16 victory over Mexico.
Donovan, at age 17, had unusual speed and stamina, and rarely wasted an opportunity to score, qualities which stayed with him as he climbed the football pyramid.
He said it is difficult, however, to identify which young men at an U17 World Cup, like that which will start in the UAE on Thursday, will have long and profitable professional careers.
“I think it’s too hard to tell at that age,” he said. “Physical tools can generally distinguish the better players from the average players at that age.
“However, the ability to succeed as a pro requires so much more than that. Work ethic, the mental part of the game, learning how to fit into a system, learning how to defend or attack better, depending on your position, et cetera.”
He said it is nearly impossible to overrate the importance of the U17 tournament to the young men who play in it.
“For us, it was the most important games of our lives, mainly … because we hadn’t played games that mattered that much.”
Most of the 300-plus players who arrived in New Zealand in 1999 surely expected lucrative professional careers, but only a handful became familiar names, Among them: Adriano, the striker from Brazil, who won the scudetto four times with Inter Milan; Michael Essien, the Ghana midfielder who was with Chelsea for two Premier League championships and four FA Cup victories; Thomas Hitzlsperger, the German midfielder and Bundesliga champion with Stuttgart; and the Spain defender Fernando Navarro, who never really clicked at Barcelona but has more than 250 Primera Liga games with Mallorca and Sevilla.
Of those four, only Essien has any chance of playing at Brazil 2014.
Donovan, however, will be there for his fourth turn at the planet’s biggest sports event; the US clinched their berth in a 2-0 victory over Mexico. Donovan scored, as he has in various World Cups going back to New Zealand 1999.