Back in 1977, all the talk was of the following year's FIFA World Cup™ in Argentina. However, this was also the year that saw the inauguration of new competition which has since mushroomed into the most important global tournament in youth football: the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
What began as an experimental construct with just 28 matches has grown into a major 52-game event. The early editions attracted modest crowds of curious locals, but the tournament is now a firm fixture in the diaries of scouts and national coaches alike. The 20th FIFA U-20 World Cup is about to begin in New Zealand, and will again provide a first taste of a major global stage for the stars of the future. We look back in time and pick out some of the players who went on to greatness from the springboard of this celebrated youth tournament.
It indeed began life as the FIFA World Youth Championship with the inaugural 1977 event in Tunisia. The first winners were Soviet Union, with midfield general Vladimir Bessonov playing the starring role. The first winner of the adidas Golden Ball went on to enjoy an illustrious international career, which brought him Olympic gold in 1980 and three appearances at the FIFA World Cup, in 1982, 1986 and 1990.
The tale of Bessonov suggested the new tournament had real potential to uncover future stars, and the 1979 edition in Japan proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. A certain Diego Maradona captivated the footballing world with a first glimpse of his astonishing potential as he and an outstanding Argentina side claimed the honours.
The South Americans proved unable to defend their crown in Australia two years later, although the 1981 Albiceleste did include a striker who would go on to score the decisive goal in a FIFA World Cup Final just five years later, Jorge Burruchaga. Uruguay legend Enzo Francescoli also shot to prominence in Australia, and the Golden Ball went to Romulus Gabor, a pivot and stalwart of a very good Romania team in the following years. In Mexico two years later, Brazilian prodigy Geovani broke new ground, leaving in his wake the likes of Marco van Basten and Bebeto to become the first player awarded both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot.
Robert Prosineckithen emerged as the best player of the 1987 edition. The elegant playmaker was by no means the only major talent to emerge from this particular global showdown though, as his fellow Yugoslavs Zvonimir Boban, Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker pushed him all the way.
The label 'Golden Generation' was liberally bandied about at the 1991 edition in Portugal, where the host nation defended the crown. However, the brightest star was not Luis Figo, Rui Costa or Joao Pinto, but a player by the name of Peixe, whose later career was surprisingly unspectacular compared to his famous contemporaries.
Over the next few years, future headline-makers such as Adriano, Hidetoshi Nakata, Fernando Morientes and Paulo Wanchope graced the world's most important youth tournament, before a veritable glut of future stars emerged from the 1997 event. World champions Argentina featured Juan Roman Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso, although the adidas Golden Ball was taken home by Nicholas Olivero. The Uruguayan rarely hit the heights in the senior game, but other starlets that year went on to fame and glory, including Thierry Henry, Michael Owen, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka.
By this stage, it had become apparent that the nascent superstars unearthed by the FIFA U-20 World Cup would not necessarily walk away with the individual awards. The trend was confirmed at the 1999 tournament in Nigeria, which featured Ronaldinho, Roque Santa Cruz, Peter Crouch, Xavi and Diego Forlan. In such exalted company, many commentators at the time were surprised that the Golden Ball would eventually go to Seydou Keita, but he went on to win the UEFA Champions League twice with Barcelona.
Javier Saviola, winner of both major individual awards at the 2001 tournament in Argentina, would himself go on to play his part in the Catalan success story, and also join an elite group of players to feature not only for Barça but also their arch-rivals Real Madrid. The contenders Saviola beat off in his quest for glory included a young man by the name of Kaka, who would be named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2007.
When the tournament visited the United Arab Emirates in 2003, it was the start of magnificent careers for Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano, although the main attraction that year was a relative unknown named Ismaeil Matar. The attacking midfielder has now made more than 100 appearances for UAE.
In all, six players have succeeded in winning both the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Geovani and Saviola blazed the trail, to be followed by Sergio Aguero in 2007, Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah in 2009, and Henrique in 2011. The list is completed by no less a figure than three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who claimed the personal double in 2005. The gifted forward has, of course, already earned himself a place in the lexicon of football's greats.
As New Zealand 2015 kicks off, Messi will of course be preparing for 6 June's UEFA Champions League final. Up against him in Berlin will be another former Golden Ball winner at the U-20 World Cup: Paul Pogba. The Juventus midfielder was the outstanding player as France took home the title at Turkey 2013, and was ably assisted by the likes of Kurt Zouma, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Lucas Digne. This edition was also graced by rising stars such as Juan Bernat, Paco Alcacer and Harry Kane.
But who is destined to follow in the footsteps of these famous names in 2015? Part of the attraction is that we cannot possibly know in advance, but we can say with great certainty that the passionate Kiwi fans will be offered an early glimpse of the stars of the future.