Superstars of tomorrow

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:37 AM ET

Before there was the hand of God, a World Cup championship, and later, his considerable fall from grace, one of soccer's greats was just a young boy playing the game he loved.

But when Diego Maradona led Argentina to the Under-20 World Cup title in 1979, it was his shout-out to a global audience, the first electric steps on his road to massive fame.

"I never had so much fun on a football pitch," Maradona told FIFA.com recently. "At that time, I defined it as the greatest happiness of my life."

Others were to follow, including, as just a small sample: from Brazil, Ronaldinho; from France, Thierry Henry; and from Portugal, Luis Figo.

Over the next three-plus weeks and through the 51 matches it will take to declare a champion at Canada 2007, dozens of stars for several World Cups of the future are sure to emerge.

Will it be young Alexandre Pato from Brazil, who at 17 is already joining his country's tradition of being known by one name, only as Pato?

Will it be a prodigy from defending champion Argentina, which in 2005 was led by Lionel Messi -- who is now considered one of the best players in the world?

Or how about American star Freddy Adu, who has been playing professionally since he was 14-years-old?

Fans in Toronto and Edmonton, two of the six host venues (Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria and Burnaby are the others) will get to see future Canadian stars emerge. Ontario natives Jaime Peters and David Edgar are two of the more established players on the home side, but how about Edmonton-born Tosaint Ricketts -- who had a hat trick in a recent friendly win over the U.S.?

The competition is one attraction. The chance to gaze into a crystal ball for the world's most popular game is another.

"The biggest attraction with this tournament when you look back, is the players whose international history has been launched in this event," Canadian coach Dale Mitchell said in an interview.

"Thierry Henry, Maradona, Ronaldinho -- that's just some of them. That's why the interest is at such a high level worldwide. People want to see the up-and-coming stars."

An avid sports fan, Mitchell knows he lives in a country where hockey rules and thus can deliver an analogy to put the pending hoopla in perspective to the great soccer unwashed.

"It's a lot like the world juniors, which were recently in my town (Vancouver)," Mitchell said.

"People love to watch and cheer for their team, but hockey fans want to see the stars of the future. The difference here is that instead of going to one or two other countries (like the world juniors), this tournament will be beamed to in excess of 100 countries. In terms of a sporting event at a youth level, nothing would compare with it."

As a portent to future accomplishment, it stands up pretty well. Of the 750 players on rosters in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, 160 had experience in the U-20 event.

The tournament, with its splash and profile, comes to a country which seems poised to finally embrace the game for its domestic product rather than just through fans married to old-world ties.

The success of its new MLS team has suddenly made Toronto a soccer hotbed and BMO Field should be quite a scene on Canada Day when the host country plays its first tournament game against Chile.

"Playing at home is the X-factor, the crowd can be the 12th man," said Mitchell, whose team moves to Edmonton for the remainder of group play.

"The first game in Toronto on Canada Day is sold out and that is something that could really spur us on as the tournament progresses."

While the Canadian team will be the focus of interest both in live gate and coast-to-coast television coverage on CBC, organizers have ensured that other soccer constituencies throughout the country can get involved.

Portugal, for example, will have Toronto as its home base, counting on the city's strong Portuguese community for ticket sales and to add to the festive atmosphere.

Similarly, Poland has been placed in Montreal where the ethnic support will help draw crowds to sprawling Olympic Stadium.

Then again, Group D is already loaded with Brazil, which draws a crowd wherever it goes, and the U.S.

The most compelling game from that group, however, will take place at Ottawa's Frank Clair Stadium on July 6 when the Brazilians face the U.S.

"Playing Brazil is the most exciting thing you could ask for," young U.S. star Adu said. "Personally, I can't wait for that game. Games like that are how you measure yourself."

The 16th edition of a tournament originally known as the World Youth Championship, has some of the world's traditional powers -- Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Spain to name a handful.

In an odd twist though, three of the four semi-finalist nations from the 2006 World Cup in Germany are not here -- champion Italy, runner-up France and third-place Germany. Also absent are two more Euro powers, England and the Netherlands.

From the opening kickoffs in Ottawa and Montreal on Saturday, big games abound. And like the main World Cup, one loss in group play can be disastrous.

That's all part of the beautiful game when played at the highest level, of course. And at such an impressionable age for the participants, there will be lessons learned -- win, lose or draw.

"It's a wonderful chance to get a feel for what international tournament soccer is all about," Mitchell said.

"Where all of these boys would like to go eventually is a World Cup.

"This gives them, fairly early in their career, an opportunity to see what it is like to really have to play against the very best countries in the world."


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