by Jerrad Peters
The 2011 U-20 World Cup will mark the high point for many players who participated in world football’s premiere youth competition this month. While many of them will enjoy professional careers in the sport, only the names of a precious few will remain on the lips of fans and pundits in the years to come. It’s a sobering truth that accompanies every underage tournament.
Even now, having had three weeks to watch and analyze these young players, projecting how their development will continue going forward is, at best, an inexact science. That said, there are always a handful of blue-chippers who can safely be tipped for greatness.
That centre-half who never seemed to be caught out of position; those defensive midfielders who were always found on the right end of a tackle; the playmaker who just kept getting better and better as the competition progressed. They’re the ones who, already, are men against boys.
Nuno Reis: The Portugal captain isn’t a big man for a central defender, but what the 20-year-old lacks in stature he more than makes up for in positional sense and leadership.
With Nuno Reis marshalling the back-line, Portugal didn’t concede a goal at the 2011 U-20 World Cup until the final—a stretch of clean sheets that included the shutting out of heavyweights Argentina and France. And in the penalty shoot-out against the Argentines in the quarterfinals, he volunteered to take a spot-kick (which he converted) and taunted the South American support with a one-finger salute after his side had progressed.
A product of Sporting Lisbon’s vaunted youth academy, don’t be surprised if Nuno Reis is fast-tracked into the senior Portugal squad in the next few months.
Danilo: He only scored once in Colombia and was rarely mentioned by the match commentators, but that he was nominated for the Golden Ball is proof enough of his contributions to an underdog Portugal side that somehow advanced all the way to the U-20 World Cup final.
Danilo, a defensive midfielder who spent last season on loan to Aris from Parma, was the best player for Portugal over the course of the tournament, the conscience of a setup designed to soak up pressure and launch the odd counter-attack. In the middle third, he was dominant. Alongside Pele in the centre of Ilidio Vale’s 4-2-3-1 formation, he frustrated opponent after opponent with his tackling, position and pace and, as the tournament progressed, got better and better at sending his teammates on the counter with well-timed passes.
In many ways he’s quite similar to Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, minus the theatrics.
Gueida Fofana: France were one of the more entertaining sides to watch at the U-20 World Cup, and his presence just in front of the back four had a lot to do with it. He gave the forward players a creative license.
Also nominated for the Golden Ball, Gueida Fofana often looked embarrassingly out of place in an underage tournament. The 20-year-old Le Havre midfielder was a menace to opposing playmakers, and when he wasn’t mopping up in front of a rather shaky defense he demonstrated his pace and sense of timing by embarking on a bombing run upfield. His versatility never more apparent than in France’s quarterfinal match against Nigeria, where he scored the eventual game-winner in extra time.
Having already played two full seasons in Ligue 2, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the offers pour in for Fofana over the next few days, if not in January.
Oscar: That he didn’t win the Golden Ball was scandalous, although that’s the risk FIFA took by releasing the award shortlist ahead of the final. Had they waited—which only makes sense—Oscar would have walked away with the MVP honours.
The 19-year-old was the hero of a compelling final, his hat-trick firing Brazil to a fifth U-20 World Cup championship. Not that he turned up for just the one game. Given a free role by head coach Ney Franco, Oscar was effective from the get-go, supplying Brazil’s forwards with accurate passes one moment and coming to the aid of defensive midfielders Fernando and Casemiro the next.
He also improved as the tournament went on, and by the time the disappointing Philippe Coutinho had been withdrawn for the fourth consecutive match was far and away his side’s most important player. It’s that sort of progressive evolution that has marked Oscar’s young career. After coming up at third division side Uniao Agricola Barbarense in Sao Paulo, he joined Campeonato Serie A heavyweight Sao Paulo Football Club in 2008 and just last year made a move to Internacional.
He has already scored an impressive five goals in just eight appearances for the Porto Alegre giants this season and added three in six appearances in the 2011 Copa Libertadores. Given this trajectory, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him called into the senior Brazil side in the next few months.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer