Football's future stars will meet in Argentina this weekend as the FIFA U-20 World Cup gets underway.
The latest heirs to footballing superstars like Lionel Messi and Neymar will show off their skills and competitive spirit in the return of a much-loved tournament that has been heavily disrupted by complications, such as the coronavirus pandemic and a political row over hosting rights.
Twenty-four national delegations were forced to change their plans and switch flights to Indonesia to Argentina at the last minute after FIFA decided to strip the Southeast Asian country of hosting duties amid controversy over political and religious issues.
Though the tournament will take place without the participation of Ukraine, the reigning champions, more than 500 players will be competing in the first youth men’s World Cup since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.
Benefiting from the change of venue, Argentina are now among the favourites to win the tournament, along with Brazil, Uruguay, England and France. Expert analysts are also not ruling out another surprise from Africa in a tournament that will sadly be marked by the absence of big names.
That, however, just provides more opportunities for new stars to emerge.
Pandemic and politics
The road to Argentina-2023 has been a tortuous one. When qualification was resolved and the line-up finalised, hosts Indonesia surprisingly objected to the participation of Israel.
The two nations have no diplomatic relations and with Indonesia supportive of the Palestinian cause and with a majority Muslim population, the organisers forced FIFA into a decision, prompting them to search for new hosts just seven weeks before the tournament was due to kick off.
Argentina, fresh from their World Cup win with its senior side in Qatar, stepped in to save the day.
Previous attempts to stage the tournament – and FIFA’s under-17s tournament – fell foul of the coronavirus pandemic. With no youth World Cup since 2020, junior stars have been deprived of the opportunity to show their skills on the global stage.
"Going back to these competitions helps players in that last stage of development," prior to their entering adult competition, said Jorge Serna, who until 2022 was Colombia's Under-17s coach.
Switch to Argentina
FIFA’s decision to punish Indonesia for the country’s discrimination and reward Argentina for their offer in the wake of the country’s Qatar 2022 triumph has delivered the tournament to a nation more in love with football than ever.
It’s a lucky break for the Albiceleste, who had failed to qualify for the tournament and will play thanks to their privileged position as hosts.
Nevertheless, fans in Argentina are excited by the prospect of lifting another world title, especially at home. The nation is the most successful is the history of the competition, having lifted the title six times, including wins with teams featuring Lionel Messi (2005) and Diego Maradona (1979).
"It's a good chance to do it in front of our fans, in front of our people, we know that has to be a driving force," U20 coach Javier Mascherano told TyC Sports.
Four stadiums across the country – in San Juan, Santiago del Estero, Mendoza and La Plata – will host matches during the U20 World Cup, with 52 matches set to be played. The final will be played at the Estadio Único de La Plata.
Favourites on unfavourable ground
South American champions Brazil are also hoping to challenge their arch-rivals for the title and enter the tournament on a five-game winning streak. This is the Seleção’s first time competing in the Under-20 World Cup since 2015, after they failed to qualify in 2017 and 2019. They will be fielding future starts such as Vasco da Gama's Andrey and Santos' Marcos Leonardo.
Uruguay will feature emerging stars such as Luciano Rodríguez (Liverpool of Uruguay) and Facundo González (Valencia), while Under-19 European Championship winners England will be looking to consolidate their strong performances at youth level with stars like Alex Scott (Bristol City) and Carney Chukwuemeka (Chelsea).
France's ever-promising youngsters will arrive in Argentina led by Malamine Efekele, the Monaco striker likened to Kylian Mbappé.
With one title in 2009 (Ghana) and three semi-finals since then, the African continent goes into the tournament with Nigeria and Senegal as its top performers. Asia’s main threat is South Korea, runners-up last time out.
Absentees and debuts
With the war with Russia ongoing, reigning champions Ukraine will not be flying their flag due to poor results that prevented them from qualifying. Neither will two-time champions Portugal (1989 and 1991) and Serbia (1987 and 2015), as well as Spain (999 winners) and Germany (1981).
The Dominican Republic will be making their debut at a football World Cup (all levels).
With domestic leagues in Europe in their final days, the U-20 World Cup has faced top clubs in a dilemma: whether to showcase their players in Argentina or to count on them for the end of the season.
With the approval of FIFA, which does not oblige teams to send their players for youth tournaments, Manchester United have prevented Argentina from calling up Alejandro Garnacho.
Uruguay's Alvaro Rodriguez (Real Madrid), England's Rico Lewis (Manchester City), France's Mohamed Ali-Cho (Real Sociedad), and Brazilians Vítor Roque (Athletico Paranaense) and Endrick, who plays for Real Madrid on loan at Palmeiras, will also miss out.