The FIFA U-17 World Cup is the first opportunity to have a look at some of the potentially biggest stars of tomorrow. Andrew Thompson has a look at the 10 players that we need to keep an eye on in Chile.
International football may not be what it once was in days gone by, with many moaning about breaks in the club schedule given international qualifying campaigns and friendlies. While the World Cup, the Euro and Copa America are fantastic but short spectacles, the excitement around the broader footballing scene has firmly found itself places in its new home at the feet of club football, especially in Europe.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the U17 World Cup (which begins tomorrow) is being hosted not just in South American, but in Chile, one of the rising powers in the game. The summer of 2014 in Brazil may have ended in social disaster, but at the very least it still showed the passion that hundreds of millions world wide have for the beautiful game, many of them hailing from nations who are traditionally not a footballing powerhouse. This notion is reflected in many of the teams that have qualified for Chile 2015, with the likes of Guinea, Mali, Honduras, Costa Rica, Russia, South Africa, New Zealand and Syria all being represented – it is a true testament that youth football is as vibrant as ever, and not just in the usual power bases.
Without further delay, I bring to you ten players you’d do well to keep your eye on at the 2015 U-17 World Cup. After all, there’s nothing like being able to take a glimpse into the future, is there? (Note: players list by alphabetized nation, not in a “top ten” format)
Tomás Conechny (17, Forward, San Lorenzo/Argentina)
A perennial force at youth levels and with one of the most established youth set ups in world football, many will have their eyes trained on Argentina this summer to win a tournament hosted in their part of the world (something they failed to do in 2014). But much of their success in Chile will fall on the shoulders of 17-year old Tomás Conechny. The young striker has already shown form at youth level for the Azulgrana, and he has taken that form to the U-17’s where he is currently their top goal scorer. For a nation that prides itself on a long history of gifted attacking players, Conechny has every chance to put himself on pace to continue the trend.
Ismail Azzaoui (17, Attacking Midfielder, Wolfsburg/Belgium)
While Germany are leading the way in terms of youth development in Europe and arguably on a global scale, those famous crafters of chocolate and purveyors of delicious beer are forging a brilliant reputation of doing the same. The full national team is now ranked number one by FIFA and one of the favorites in the Euro this coming summer, but Ismail Azzaoui could very well be at the World Cup for the full side in 2018. Now plying his trade in the Bundesliga for Wolfsburg in the wake of Kevin De Bruyne’s departure, the technically gifted winger is making waves at youth level for Die Wölfe and could very well make the same strides Eden Hazard did – Belgium are creating something special for the long haul, and I suspect that Azzaoui will be a part of it.
Lincoln (16, Attacking Midfielder, Gremio/Brazil)
Brazil – the land that has given us Carnaval, amazing steak, the Samba, and yes, the beautiful game. There are talented players across the globe year on year, but no other nation has more recognizable players who have shook the sport to its very core. From Pele, Garrincha, Leonidas da Silva, Romario, Ronaldo and so many others, Brazil remains at the top when it comes to providing game changing and world beating players. Lincoln, the 16 year old wunderkind from Gremio (the club that gave us Ronaldinho), could be primed to set the world alight this summer. Bags of pace, strength on the ball and a brilliant left foot are just a small part of his bag of tricks, and with high praise coming from Luiz Felipe Scolari and rumored interest from Manchester United, this could be a year of dreams for the U-17 captain. His mission, should he choose to accept it? Lift the trophy and put himself on a collision course with a European move sooner rather than later.
Davor Lovren (17, Forward, Dinamo Zagreb/Croatia)
When you share the same first name as your nations most heralded striker in its footballing history, there is bound to be some pressure weighing you down, but don’t let that put a sour taste in your mouth when it comes to Davor Lovren. The young forward is a real whippersnapper – very technically sound, very direct and quick both on and off the ball. He has shown in the UEFA Youth Cup for a Dinamo side who continue to produce gifted youngsters, and he could very well end up being one of the tournaments standout performers. Along side Borna Sosa, Nikola Moro and Josip Brekalo, Croatia have a real chance at a deep run in Chile but it will be Dejan Lovren’s younger brother (yes, you heard correctly) that could steal the family name and never relinquish it should he make good on all his promise.
Bilal Boutobba (17, Midfielder, Marseille/France)
Current European U-17 champion France have quite a few truly talented players who will lace up in South America, but Bilal Boutobba surely is the standout amongst them all. Last summer, the L’OM player dazzled at the tournament with one goal and five assists in six appearances, providing proof that his first full appearance for his club came before he turned 17 (becoming the youngest player to ever play for Marseille) was by no means a fluke. A right-sided player who loves to tuck in on his left foot (much like the aforementioned Pereira) could, like Lovren, be one of the real showstoppers when it’s all said and done. France has a rich recent history of talented French-born Algerian players making great strides, and Boutobba will certainly be no different.
Felix Passlack (17, Attacking Midfielder, Borussia Dortmund/Germany)
When the sage-like Raphael Honigstein has nothing but praise for someone so young, you’re clearly doing something right. The Dortmund youngster is one of the most adaptable and versatile players at the tournament, being able to feature at right-back, on either wing and also in the number 10 hole. According to Honigstein, the sentiments behind Passlack in Germany are that he is being tipped as a right-back for the full national team in due time, and he has already been named one of the best players in Germany in his age bracket. He’s shone for Dortmund’s U-19’s as well, and with a knack for leadership that impresses as much as his technical ability and his footballing brain, it’s no wonder he has been touted by many as ‘the new Mario Götze’. No one does it better than Germany right now, and Passlack not only could be the player of the tournament, but a superstar in a future not so distant.
Sidiki Maiga (16, Forward, AS Real Bamako/Mali)
Africa truly is, somehow, still an underrated treasure trove of footballing talent. Brilliant players like George Weah, Jay-Jay Okocha, Samuel Eto’o Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure have reached the highest possible summits of European club football, yet an African side has never truly made a name for itself on the biggest stage possible – the upstart nation of Mali is trying to change all that. Coming off a third place finish at the U-20 World Cup and lifting the U-17 African Championship trophy before that, Mali is fast becoming a youth football powerhouse on the continent. Filled with many unknown players from teams most have never heard of, Sidiki Maiga is a name that will surely be mentioned in the coming years. He played a pivotal role in their continental success, and boasts a footballing dossier that is highlighted by traditional traits of pace, power and ability on the ball that make him more difficult to handle – if that is any indication to go by, we have seen what those traits can do when we look at current African players such as Andre Ayew, Gervinho and Riyad Mahrez. Mali could very well be a darkhorse, and Maiga will surely have a large say in the matter.
Artem Galadzhan (17, Forward, Lokomotiv Moscow/Russia)
A tall, physical striker with an eye for goal, Artem Galadzhan could be what Russia truly needs moving forward. In their recent history, Russia has produced some gifted technical players in the molds of Andrei Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov and Alan Dzagoev, but perhaps Galadzhan fits the profile of what we traditionally think of when we think of Russia – size and strength. Current full national team striker Artyom Dzyuba is a prime example of what those two attributes can give you, especially leading the line, and even though Galadzhan is only 17, he’s already showing a very good blend of power, technical ability and a knack for reading the game and always popping up in the right places. Russia are unlikely to make a deep run in Chile, but Galadzhan could make a bit of a name for himself none the less.
Christian Pulisic (17, Forward, Borussia Dortmund/United States)
Eric Wynalda, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan are the three names you immediately think of when you consider which American forwards blazed a trail for the future. Wynalda spent time in Germany (at FC Saarbrücken and VfL Bochum), McBride at VfL Wolfsburg before becoming a cult hero at Fulham and Donovan (though he had two failed stints at Bayern Münich and Bayer Leverkusen) is probably the greatest player in American history. All three made waves, all three spent time in Germany – in the case of Christian Pulisic, he could very well be the next in the line of succession. Spotted by Dortmund scouts while at the US U-17 Residency Program, Pulisic continues to make a name for himself as a very intelligent forward that comes with a bit of flair. A good showing from him could give the US another youngster to add to their growing pool to build the future around.
Lee Seung-woo (17, Forward, Barcelona/South Korea)
A South Korean youth at La Masia surely is one thing to be incredibly excited about, but when you’ve been given the nickname of the ‘Korean Messi’, there is bound to be an almost insurmountable amount of hype on your very young shoulders. There is no reason to deny the youngsters ability, as Barca do not spunk up cash for youngsters unless they feel they have the goods, but it would not be the first time a young player failed to cut the mustard under the pressure. He’s quick on and off the ball and he’s got ability that South Korea probably has not yet seen in its history (if he keeps progressing) – an upstart in his own right, he could very well make waves down the line the same as Ahn Jung-hwan and Seol Ki-hyeon did in 2002.
Written by Andrew Thompson