FIFA U-17 World Cup or the FIFA U-17 World Championships as it was called earlier, has been dominated by countries from the African continent, especially Nigeria and Ghana who have seven titles between them. Not just that, the countries from Africa have finished as runners-up on six occasions.
However, the likes of Nigeria and Ghana, along with other African nations have failed to create the same level of dominance at the senior level. No African team has ever made it past the quarter-final in the World Cup, while only three teams have made it to the last eight stage.
The world's biggest international competition has been dominated by European and South American teams, while the African sides have fallen by the wayside despite producing talented players at the junior levels.
"In Europe or South America when the U-17 tournaments end, the players continue with their football education at clubs. So the players continue to grow, continue to transform. Unfortunately in Africa, I believe this has been the missing link," Nigerian football great Emmanuel Amunike told reporters on the sidelines of the unveiling ceremony of the FIFA U-17 World Cup trophy ahead of the 2017 edition in October.
"The moment the African players play in the U-17 tournaments we discover that they are good players. But we only dwell on their talent. We forget to continue to prepare these players, to enable them to grow. And help them become much better players in the future," he added.
Six African players have won the Golden Ball award for the best player of the U-17 World Cup, while seven times they have finished as top scorers. However, if one revisits the names of these achievers, there are few that would be familiar to most. These young African starlets who set the competition on fire, more often than not got lost on the big stage.
However with the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho — Golden Ball winner of the 2013 edition that his Nigerian side won — making it to the senior side, apart from securing a stint with Manchester City in the Premier League, the trend of African footballers fading away in obscurity after a burst of stardom at the junior level may be about to break.
"Since I took over (Nigeria U-17 team) we made sure to have a lot of sanity in the U-17 levels of youth football. I’m glad now because we are reaping the rewards of it. We have many young players from the 2013 and 2015 U-17 World Cup winning team in the senior national side and hopefully in the near future they will be able to give a very good account of themselves," stated the Nigerian great.
Amunike who helped the Nigerian U-17 team defend their World Cup title in 2015, revealed that coaching players of this age group needed a different approach.
"When you are dealing with U-17 players, they need someone to act as a friend for them. It is important that they see you as somebody who will help them and not as a coach. You try as much as possible to guide them. You must not forget that at this age, there are lot of distractions, so we must make sure they are ready to compete with the rest of the teams participating in the World Cup," Amunike said.
Defending champions Nigeria have failed to qualify for this year's competition, so last edition's runners-up Mali, tournament heavyweights Ghana and newcomers Guinea and Niger will look to keep the African flag flying in India.
'Big opportunity for India'
Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos, Fernando Morientes, Amunike and Marcel Desailly appeared very much on the same page when a Legends' side comprising them edged an Indian team 5-4 in an exhibition match at the Dr DY Patil stadium on Wednesday. Moments after the game, as these greats spoke about the tournament that is round the corner, none could deviate from highlighting the importance of the competition for Indian football.
"This is a huge opportunity for Indian footballers," Valderrama said.
"Someone asked how does a player go to Real Madrid? This is the best opportunity. All the big scouts, the big agents the whole world is going to be watching. So the teams must go out and enjoy the occasion, but also grab the opportunity. In football, you don’t get many chances so the players must take this opportunity. This is their time to shine and stand up." he added.
"The Indian team will have to understand that it’s a very big opportunity to shine and start something from India, from this continent where football is taking over. That's the tagline, and personally I like it very much," Desailly told reporters.
"With India hosting it (FIFA event) for the first time, I think it’s very encouraging for them. It’s a big opportunity for the youth to develop their game. We all hope and pray that one day we will be here to see not just the U-17 World Cup but also the senior Indian team play in World Cups," Amunike added.
India are placed in Group A with USA, Ghana and Colombia and play their first game against the USA on 6 October in New Delhi.
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 17:16 PM