Starting small, making it big

From 13 November, 16 teams will go head-to-head at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2016 in a bid to win the eighth edition of this hotly-contested tournament, but before proceedings get underway many experts are asking: What football gems will this competition unearth? Who will make their big breakthrough?

These questions are not surprising when you look back at the tournament’s past. In 2002, a player stepped onto the U-19 Women’s World Cup stage who would go on to shape the future of women’s football and be crowned FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year five times. Of course, we are talking about one of the sport’s biggest global stars: Marta. Aged just 16, the Brazilian guided A Seleção to fourth place at what was then known as the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship in Canada. She helped her side repeat this achievement at the 2004 competition in Thailand and was deservedly rewarded with the adidas Golden Ball for her efforts.

A new star in football’s sky 2002 marked the breakthrough of another major personality in women’s football when Canadian Christine Sinclair first demonstrated her immense talent to the world on home soil in a display that earned her both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot. Since then, Sinclair has featured at four FIFA Women's World Cups™ and three Olympic Games, helping Canada to win bronze at London 2012 and Rio 2016.

This prestigious youth tournament has also been a breeding ground for exceptional talent from the USA. Sydney Leroux took part in the 2004 U-19 competition in Thailand before causing a sensation at Chile 2008 and Germany 2010. Her performances helped her side reach the quarter-finals in 2004 and 2010, but in 2008 she guided Team USA all the way to the title – a success Alex Morgancan also count among her many career highlights, as it was in this year that the now 27-year-old first made a name for herself. In 2011, Morgan was one of the Stars & Stripes’ standout players at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany before contributing to her team’s success at the 2012 Olympic Games, when they overcame Canada 4-3 in the semi-final en route to gold medal glory, and at the Women's World Cup Canada 2015, when they defeated Japan 5-2 in the final to be crowned champions.

From little Nadeshiko to world champion The USA’s victory over Japan in that 2012 Olympic final came just one year after a bitter defeat to the same opponents in the Women’s World Cup Final. Mana Iwabuchi featured for the Nadeshiko at both tournaments, having already broken through with a string of impressive performances at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup New Zealand 2008. Two years later, coach Norio Sasaki called upon the talents of the 1.53-metre striker at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany.

At that competition in 2010, Germany secured the title and ushered in a new star in Alexandra Popp. The striker scored an incredible ten goals in six games during the campaign and was duly rewarded with a promotion to the senior national side. Dzsenifer Marozsan’s career began in a similar fashion after she made two successive final appearances at the 2010 and 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cups. She made her full senior debut in October 2010 and has been part of coach Silvia Neid’s plans ever since. Unfortunately, an injury to her right knee kept Marozsan out of her home World Cup in 2011. However, there was redemption for Marozsan as she recently helped guide her team to a gold medal at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.

World champs become world champs USA’s famous success on the biggest stage of all at Canada 2015 had its genesis, at least in part, at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan. On that occasion, the Stars and Stripes secured a tough 1-0 win over old rivals Germany to be crowned U-20 queens. And two members of that Japan 2012 side went on to play a pivotal role in Canada. Japan 2012 captain and central defender Julie Johnston, and midfielder Morgan Brian were front and centre as USA triumphed in front of a watching world in Vancouver last year. A third Japan 2012 squad member, Crystal Dunn – playing as a fullback at that time – has since featured prominently for the senior team as a pacy striker.

Germany were crowed two years ago at U-20 level in Canada and already some of those players are making their marks at the very highest level. None more so than wide midfielder Sara Dabritz, who has been included in the shortlist for the inaugural edition of The Best following her stellar showings in Rio earlier this year.

The FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup's status as a breeding ground for the superstars of tomorrow is not in doubt. All that is left now is to see which young players will make their name at Papua New Guinea 2016.