The Under 20 World Cup that Egypt will be hosting in September, and whose draw was conducted in ancient Luxor last week, is the next best thing to a World Cup. FIFA organizes just two age-category tournaments for males: U-17 and U-20. There s nothing after U-20 except the World Cup itself so we are as close as could possibly be to the real thing. Since we came up short in our attempts to stage the 2010 World Cup, and since we pulled out of hosting the event in 2022, it’s best to make the most of this mini-World Cup that we have landed.
That Egypt could win this World Cup in miniature is possible but not probable. There is not a single Egyptian player in the line-up who can be identified with certainty, but at least they are being led by a capable coach. Under Miroslav Soukup s management, the Czech Republic finished as runners-up in the previous edition of the global competition after losing to Argentina in the final.
The crowds will be with us but a massive fan base is not usually enough. Only two host countries have won the U-20 since its inception 32 years ago: Portugal (1991) and Argentina (2001) were the only ones able to claim the coveted prize on home turf.
The event provides us with a few pleasant memories. Egypt came in third in the U-20 World Cup in 2001, despite being blasted by Argentina 7-1 in the group stage. Go back a bit more and you ll remember Egypt s Taher Abou Zeid winning the silver boot for most goals scored (4) at the 1981 U-20 World Cup.
But walking down memory lane will not suffice. A new name could well be etched onto the trophy at the Oct. 16 final but it s difficult to envision the Pharaohs name in lights. Joined in Group A by Trinidad & Tobago, Paraguay and Italy, Egypt should make it to the second round but it will be uphill thereafter.
More likely serious contenders are found in the black African contingent, especially Nigeria and Ghana, both of whom finished as runners-up twice in the past. They will also be playing in what will be relatively familiar surroundings.
The reigning and six-time champions Argentina failed to qualify, making the tournament as wide open as ever. But Brazil is present. Having appeared at every tournament bar one, Brazil will inevitably be strong contenders, having won on four occasions.
Many of the 24 participating teams have the credentials to win it all but the fact is that in the 16 tournaments held so far, only European and South American teams have emerged as champions. Only seven countries have captured the trophy: Five from Europe, two from South America.
Because the players are still young, there will be a tendency by our Egyptian fans to not take the U-20 World Cup seriously. But if you re not a good player at age 18 or 19, when do you plan on becoming one? Probably never.
What is most significant about the U-20 is its unearthing of future stars. Such luminaries as Diego Maradona in the competition s fledgling era, through to the modern giants of the game, i.e. Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Kaka and Thierry Henry – all are graduates of the U-20 World Cup.
In the run-up to 2010, FIFA decided to celebrate Africa. That this year s major soccer championships are all being played on the continent — the U-20 in Egypt; the U-17 in Nigeria in November; June s Confederations Cup in South Africa, all culminating in next year s World Cup in South Africa — is testimony by FIFA that Africa has come into its own in the world of football.
Egypt held the U-17 World Cup in 1997. Now we have the U-20, not only the second oldest FIFA competition, but jointly second-largest together with the U-17.
Egypt, too, has been invited to the party.