SEOUL: The FIFA Under-20 World Cup kicks off in South Korea on Saturday and looks wide open after the 2015 champions Serbia and beaten finalists Brazil both failed to qualify.
Some of the world’s top young footballing talent will be on display with more than 500 players in 24 teams taking part, but the bookmakers are split on who to make favourites.
Bet365 make 2013 winners and 2016 under-19 European champions France 6/1 favourites, followed by Germany at 7/1 and Uruguay and Argentina, both at 9/1. But Bwin have Germany 4/1, with Argentina 5/1 and France 7/1 and Italy 9/1.
France’s Bleuets will be without Monaco prodigy Kylian Mbappe, who misses out at the insistence of his club and senior French coach Didier Deschamps, whose team have three matches to play early next month.
Saturday’s opening game sees Venezuela – whose squad includes four full internationals including the 12-cap Malaga forward Adalberto Penaranda – take on Germany in a Group B encounter in Daejeon.
It is followed in Jeonju by one of the most eagerly-anticipated World Cup rivalries when England take on six-time winners Argentina.
The two old rivals were drawn together in Group A by Argentina’s legendary former captain Diego Maradona – whose infamous “Hand of God” goal set England on the way to elimination in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final – and countryman Pablo Aimar.
The two countries’ long history of senior World Cup clashes have included England’s David Beckham being vilified for his infamous red card in France 1998 and the completion of his redemption as captain when he scored the winner against Argentina in Sapporo, Japan, four years later.
This England squad features right-back Kyle Walker-Peters, who has just signed a new contract with Premier League runners-up Tottenham Hotspur who think highly of his potential, and striker Dominic Solanke, who will be out of contract with Chelsea this summer.
Solanke, who is thought to be on the wishlists of clubs such as Liverpool, RB Leipzig and Celtic, enjoyed a succesful loan spell at Vitesse Arnhem last season where he bagged seven goals in 21 appearances in the Dutch top flight.
Hosts South Korea are also in Group A, along with Guinea, and coach Shin Tae-Yong has hopes of at least making the quarter-finals.
His main weapon is the “Korean Messi” Lee Seung-Woo who plays for Barcelona and who the hosts hope can emulate 2005 Golden Ball winner (most valuable player)and namesake Lionel.
The under-20 tournament is held every two years and can boast a rich history with many of its top performers going on to global superstardom.
Among them have been Argentina trio Messi, Sergio Aguero (2007) and Maradona (1979), who is one of only 10 players to be part of under-20 and senior World Cup winning sides.
Messi and Manchester City’s Aguero also won the “Golden Shoe” awarded to the tournament top scorer while Aguero is the only player to have won the U20 World Cup twice, in 2005 and 2007.
The world’s most expensive player, France’s Paul Pogba of Manchester United, won the Golden Ball in 2013 when the tournament was held in Turkey.
The former prolific England forward Michael Owen was another who has graced the tournament in the past (scoring three goals in 1997) and said that the under-20s “gave me a great grounding.”
“You learn so much at tournaments like these.”
Aside from the major footballing powers among the 24 teams, Vanuatu and Vietnam are making their first appearances.
The final takes place be in Suwon on June 11. -- AFP