We take a look back at some of the players who gave the world the first glimpse of their talent at the U-17 World Cup and then went on to make a serious impression for their senior national side.

The FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 is just a heartbeat away. Traditionally, the tournament has been a stage to unearth some of the future stars of world football and with the squads of the 24 teams brimming with talent, this edition is set to be no different. With that in mind Khel Now brings you five stars who first announced themselves on this stage in youth football, but later went on to make it big for club and country.

I – Alessandro Del Piero (1991 U-17 World Cup team and 2006 World Cup winner with Italy)

Del Piero played a key role in Italy’s 2006 World Cup success

Juventus have formed the backbone of the Italian national side for decades. Being one of the most widely supported clubs and one of the most hated clubs in Italy, the Old Lady of Turin have had a galaxy of stars adorn the famous black and white. However, many fans across the globe who followed Juve would swear that the club’s soul was best captured by Alessandro Del Piero. The lethal striker who called it a day in Juve colours in 2012 made his mark at the U-17 level with Italy when the tournament was hosted in his homeland after it had been moved from Ecuador. The then 16-year old, plying his trade with Padova, scored 1 of the 2 goals that the Italians registered in the tournament as they crashed out in the group stages. 

There was to be no repeat of that in the 2006 World Cup as the Juventus striker was part of a strong contingent that defied the odds to land the title in Berlin. Coach Marcello Lippi realised the value of Del Piero, despite him never landing a starting role. The coolly taken second goal in the nerve-wracking semi-final against Germany at Dortmund would be a memory that would always be etched in the mind of every Azzurri fan. The striker went on to play for Sydney FC in Australia and even racked up 10 appearances for ISL side Delhi Dynamos in 2014. 

II – Iker Casillas (1997 U-17 WC, and winner of the 2008 and 2012 Euros and 2010 World Cup with Spain)

Casillas lifted the FIFA World Cup for Spain in 2010

If Del Piero was the symbol of Juventus, there was no doubt that Iker Casillas was the soul of Real Madrid. A Madrista from day 1, San Iker as he was more affectionately known, Casillas was part of a strong Spain U-17 side in the 1997 edition where they reached the semi-finals of the tournament, losing 2-1 to Ghana. La Roja ended the tournament in 3rd place, but the team had unearthed a gem in Casillas. 

He would be a permanent fixture in goal for both club and country for nearly a decade and a half impressing fans and players alike with his agility, leadership ability and intelligent reading of the game. After years of underwhelming performances in the Euros and the World Cup, Spain finally came onto their own during Euro 2008 when under wily coach Luis Aragones, Spain lifted the trophy in Vienna with Casillas the forefront of that revolution. The domination did not end for another 4 years as Spain clinched the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and triumphed at Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine. Despite leaving Real Madrid in acrimonious circumstances, there can only ever be one Iker Casillas for the Madrista.

III – Xavi Hernandez (1997 U-17 WC, and winner of the 2008 and 2012 Euros and 2010 World Cup with Spain)

Xavi was a key reason for Spain’s World Cup success in 2010

If Casillas was the forefront of the Spanish football revolution post-2007, then Xavi was undoubtedly the heart of it. The diminutive midfielder, once regarded as someone who could not handle the physical side of the game, was reborn under Luis Aragones and subsequently Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque, was the player that kept the team ticking. Xavi was part of the U-17 WC squad that finished 3rd at the 1997 edition of the tournament. He would go on to be a serial winner for both club and country as his Barcelona side dominated European football with 3 Champions League titles to go with the host of La Liga titles as well. 

It was his near-telepathic understanding with Andres Iniesta that powered Spain to 3 titles in 8 years. Such was his influence on the team that he continued to play a vital part right until his exit from Barcelona in 2015. Till today, despite Ivan Rakitic‘s presence in the squad, Barcelona can never fully replace Xavi’s eye for a pass and his leadership abilities in the squad.


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IV – Toni Kroos (2007 U-17 WC and winner 2014 World Cup with Germany)

Kroos asserted himself as one of the world’s best midfielders in Brazil 2014

Spain had their pass master in the form of Xavi. The Germans who were on the receiving end of Spain’s domination in the Euro 2008 finals and in the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup unveiled a gem of their own in the form of Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich academy graduate captained his team during the 2007 U-17 WC in South Korea. The 17-year old led from the front as he clinched the Golden Ball with 5 goals in 7 games for the Mannschaft as they ended the tournament in 3rd place. 

Starting off as a No.10, Kroos’ role was tweaked under Joachim Loew and Pep Guardiola who felt Kroos’ passing range was more suited in a deeper role. His transformation was complete when he made the much-vaunted move to Real Madrid to become one of the key cogs in the Spanish side’s domination of Europe. After crashing out of Euro 2012 in the semifinals, Germany showed the result of nearly a decade of hard work on their academics and youth system when they lifted the World Cup in 2014 beating Argentina at the Estadio Maracana with Kroos being one of the key members of Loew’s squad. The midfielder has 3 Champions League titles in his kitty with only a Euro title needing to be won.

V – Ronaldinho (1997 U-17 WC winner and winner 2002 FIFA World Cup)

Ronaldinho was majestic in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win

If Spain dominated the world stage post-2007, you can be sure that Brazil held that coveted title in the late 90’s. With young stars ready to make the jump to an already star-studded senior side, the future was bright for Brazil. One of the leading lights in this quest was Ronaldinho. The Gremio forward had already impressed millions with his performance on the futsal stage and was expected to be the star of the U-17 WC campaign. As he has on so many occasions, Ronaldinho delivered as he scored 2 goals in his side’s victorious campaign in Egypt.

The 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan was marred with controversies over sub-par officiating and theories that the tournament was rigged to ensure that one of the host countries would do well in the tournament. However, the performance that the Brazilians dished out was a treat for the eye. With an attacking trident of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, the Seleccao beat a slightly fortunate German side in the final at Yokohama.

Ronaldinho’s contribution to the cause was a goal in the group stages against China and a wonder goal against England in the quarter-finals where he scored from a 40-yard free kick completely wrong-footing England keeper David Seaman. The forward would go on to win the Ballon d’Or in addition to a Champions League title with Barcelona. 

There are arguably many more players who have achieved a similar stature at the U-17 WC and the senior World Cup as well. It remains to be seen which of the young talent at show, this year in India will have a similar impact in the years to come.