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FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup 2012

Marta, Popp and Leroux pave the way

Former stars of the FIFA U-20-Women's-World Cups

Any idea what Lionel Messi, Alexandra Popp, Diego Maradona, Marta, Robert Prosinecki and Christine Sinclair have in common? They are all past winners of one or more individual awards at previous FIFA U-20 World Cups, for men and women respectively.

The sixth edition of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup opens in Japan on Sunday and runs through to the final on 8 September, with 16 nations doing battle for the trophy. Away from the team honours, there will once again be a round of individual awards including the adidas Golden Ball for the best player, and the adidas Golden Boot for the tournament's top scorer.

The latest winners of the prestigious honours will be decided among the 336 players in Japan, home to the current holders of the FIFA Women's World Cup™ and the 2012 Women's Olympic Football Tournament silver medallists. In the build-up to the tournament, now delves into the archives for news and facts regarding previous Golden Ball and Golden Boot winners.

A future star emerges“This tournament was my big international breakthrough,” Germany's Alexandra Popp recently told, as she reviewed the previous edition of the tournament in front of her home crowds in 2010. “It all happened very suddenly and quickly. I gained a huge amount of confidence due to the tournament, and I was a totally different player afterwards. There was a further reward or recognition of sorts in my being promoted to the senior team.

"Somehow, my career took off like a rocket thanks to the U-20 World Cup," continued the striker, who took home not only the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup trophy, but also the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Boot. Popp fired an impressive total of ten goals in six matches, scoring at least once in every one of her country's fixtures.

The double individual triumph is by no means unusual. Back in 2002, when the tournament was still staged as a U-19 event, Canadian forward Christine Sinclair also came away with both trophies. Since then, the 29-year-old has featured at three FIFA Women's World Cups and two Olympic Football Tournaments, winning bronze in London just a few days ago.

Two years after Sinclair's emergence, a player took to the U-19 stage who would later grow into a true superstar of global women's football. Brazil figurehead Marta first appeared in the world finals as a 16-year-old in 2002, and was again a member of the Seleção two years later. The Brazilians would finish fourth in 2004, but the player who would go on to be a five-time FIFA World Player of the Year from 2006 to 2010 came away from the 2004 finals with the adidas Golden Ball.

“In terms of technique and fighting spirit, the young midfielder stood out from the rest and thrilled the spectators with her dynamism and quality," read the award citation at the time. "She fought like few players before her, and never gave away possession or missed a tackle for the full 90 minutes. She is skilful, has vision, a nose for goal and a strong character. What more can you ask of an 18-year-old?"

Leroux’s magnificent recordHowever, the top scorer at that tournament was Canada's Brittany Timko, who would later contest three FIFA Women's World Cups and two Olympic Football Tournaments, collecting bronze together with Sinclair at the London games in 2012.

It was a case of mixed emotions for Ma Xiaoxu of China PR when she accepted both golden awards in 2006, the first tournament played as a U-20 event. The Chinese captain was the outstanding figure at the showpiece in Russia, but even she was powerless to prevent a hefty 5-0 defeat to Korea DPR in a one-sided final.

“The Golden Boot and the award as best player are very attractive trophies. I'm delighted to win both trophies, but I'm obviously disappointed we've lost so heavily," Ma reflected. There was further consolation to come as she was named Asian Player of the Year for 2006, and became the first-ever Chinese star to appear in the Swedish league, where she plied her trade for Umea IK.

Naturally, talent alone is no guarantee of future success, but in the case of Sydney Leroux a bright future never looked in doubt. The daughter of a Canadian mother and US father, she became the tournament's youngest-ever player when she represented Canada at the 2004 finals in Thailand aged just 14 years and six months. Immediately spotted as a future great, she then captained the USA in 2008 and 2010.

Her first and third tournaments ended at the quarter-final stage, but she and her team-mates won the trophy in 2008, with Leroux sealing the personal double of the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. “I've never felt like this before in my life. After the final, we all just wept tears of joy," Leroux declared afterwards. Still only 22, she now has an Olympic gold medal to add to their collection after the US girls' triumph in London.

The adidas Golden Glove was awarded in this tournament series for the first time in 2008. US keeper Alyssa Naeher, currently on the books with reigning German champions Potsdam, conceded just once in five matches to claim the new individual award.

While it was Popp that was named the outstanding player in 2010, before going on to become a regular for the Germany senior team, it was USA goalkeeper Bianca Henninger who went home with the Golden Glove.

As we see on looking back at the heroines of previous FIFA U-20 Women's World Cups, the emerging talents in Japan could well go on to become the stars of tomorrow. We watch with interest and excitement as the players aim for the awards in gold, in the form of a ball, a boot and a glove.

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