"That was the most fun I had on a football pitch. Apart from my daughters, nothing has given me as much pleasure."
The words belong to Diego Maradona but they do not, as one might expect, refer to the FIFA World Cup that defined his career. Instead, the Argentina icon was referring to a tournament played seven years before Mexico 1986, when the FIFA U-20 World Cup - then known as the World Youth Championship - provided his first taste of *Albiceleste *ecstasy.
Japan 1979 was just the second edition of a tournament that has endured and blossomed, with Paul Pogba - who described the U-20s as "an experience for once in a lifetime" - having taken on Maradona's inspirational role at the most recent instalment. And with the 2015 event in New Zealand now just a few days away, this youth showpiece continues to serve a valuable dual purpose.
For the football public, who have seen Maradona and Pogba emerge either side of the likes of Van Basten, Iniesta and Messi, it continues to introduce the stars of tomorrow. For those emerging youngsters, meanwhile, it has the equally significant role of introducing the demands of an elite international event.
Michael Owen, one of only three Englishmen to win the Ballon d’Or and the Three Lions' joint-record scorer in competitive matches, is one of many who sings its praises. “You learn so much at tournaments like these,” Owen told FIFA.com. “It’s all about getting used to playing in a national squad, in different countries, in different temperatures and time zones, on different surfaces against different styles of play."
Owen starred at Malaysia 1997 just a year before taking the senior World Cup by storm at France 1998. The smoothness of the transition was, he insists, no accident. "[The U-20s] gave me a great grounding," he said. "By the time I got to France, I felt totally prepared for it. It didn’t faze me at all and, without boasting, I think that was pretty evident. I took to it all like a duck to water.”
Successful and grateful graduates continue to emerge, with Brazil 2014 having been illuminated by, among others Pogba, Oscar, James Rodriguez and, of course, Messi himself. Oscar and Rodriguez had been among the stars of the 2011 U-20 World Cup in Colombia and, for the Brazilian - scorer of a historic hat-trick in the final - the lessons learned were of immense value.
One of the most beautiful experiences of my life, without question.
“That experience in Colombia was crucial,” he said. "Although it’s an U-20 tournament, the tension involved is similar to, or even greater than, what you get in many professional matches, and the same can be said of the technical level. I know that my good performances there provided me with a gateway to the senior side. But on top of that, I learned a lot."
This same theme - of education and preparation - is apparent in seemingly every interview with the U-20 World Cup's former stars. Javier Saviola, who helped fire Argentina's to glory on home soil in 2001, lauded the tournament as "unique" and "a real springboard", while Radamel Falcao - a veteran of the 2005 edition - spoke of "a very enriching experience, both as a footballer and a person". And appreciation appears to endure regardless of subsequent, seemingly greater achievements, with Michel Salgado - winner of 53 Spain caps and two UEFA Champions League titles with Real Madrid - effusive on the subject of his U-20 adventure.
"I look back on it with a lot of affection," said Salgado, who starred alongside the likes of Raul, Fernando Morientes and Joseba Etxeberria at Qatar 1995. "I think tournaments like this are really important for players. They’re your first taste of international competition at the highest level and you’re at that stage in your career when you’re halfway between being a lad who’s getting his first chance and the professional you want to become. It’s a wonderful time in your development. It’s just a shame I can’t go back! I miss those times."
Salgado's concluding remark chimes with the wistful recollections of fellow U-20 graduates, and links back to Maradona's initial, glowing tribute. Among these starlets-turned-stars, it is apparent that this tournament's educational value represents only part of the story. The emotional legacy is every bit as valuable.
"One of the most beautiful experiences of my life, without question" was how Saviola, for example, reflected on Argentina 2001. And Andre Ayew, captain of the tournament's first African champions in 2009, was prepared to go one step further. "It is," the Ghana star told FIFA.com, "quite simply the greatest moment of my career."
Like Maradona before them and Pogba since, Ayew and Saviola left their mark on the tournament while having an indelible impression made on them. The U-20 World Cup's Class of 2015 can only hope to follow their example.