FIFA U-20 World Cup: football greats who got their start in the tournament

From Messi to Haaland, this is where the stories of many legends began

The FIFA U-20 World Cup has long been a platform for young football prospects to showcase their talent on the international stage, launch their careers and announce themselves to the world. As we watch the stars of tomorrow showcase their skills, let’s delve into the journeys of some of the best players to ever break out from this tournament.

Diego Maradona (Argentina, 1979)

Long before Messi’s rise, another Argentine prodigy made headlines at the 1979 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan: Diego Maradona. After barely missing out on being a part of Argentina’s team for the 1978 World Cup, Maradona was set on showing everybody what they had missed.

Maradona, known affectionately as El Pelusa, showcased his incredible skills, speed, and agility, leaving opponents in his wake. Maradona’s performances caught the attention of football fans all over the world, as Argentina won the first of its record six titles as U-20 World Cup champions. 

He later went on to mesmerize the world with his unforgettable play with the Men’s national team in the 1986 World Cup, including two iconic goals against England (known as the ‘Hand of God’ and the ‘Goal of the Century’)  and an assist to Jorge Burruchaga for his go-ahead goal against West Germany in the final.

Ronaldinho (Brazil, 1999)

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Ronaldinho (Ronaldo de Assis Moreira) is known, among other things, as perhaps the man who first understood the scale of Messi’s talent. “The best in the world? I’m not even the best at Barcelona”, he once replied when asked about his greatness. Dinho is another player who had his breakthrough performance at the youth level. 

The flamboyant Brazilian made his mark during the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where his audacious tricks, technical prowess, and infectious smile enchanted fans and pundits alike. Having already made waves in the 1997 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Ronaldinho was instrumental for Brazil, scoring three goals, including two against Croatia in the round of 16, that helped carry his team to the quarterfinals. 

Just two months later he was part of the Brazilian men’s national team that won the 1999 Copa América. He would go on to have an illustrious career that includes two LaLiga titles, a Copa Libertadores and UEFA Champions League, a Ballon d’Or (the award given to world football’s best player) and, of course, a World Cup title in 2002.

Lionel Messi (Argentina, 2005)

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Arguably the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi burst on the scene during the 2005 FIFA Under 20 World Cup in the Netherlands. He was a bit of an unknown for Albiceleste fans, as he had moved to Barcelona aged 13 without ever playing in the top division of Argentina’s football league. However, Messi’s mesmerizing dribbling skills, exceptional vision, and natural talent quickly left spectators in awe. 

At only 18, he led Argentina to the championship, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer and winning the Golden Ball award. Messi’s heroics laid the foundation for an illustrious career, filled with numerous individual accolades and countless team triumphs — including the 2022 World Cup

Sergio Agüero (Argentina, 2007)

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Having already announced himself on the world stage during the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Sergio Agüero managed to escape Messi’s shadow just two years later. The forward displayed his exceptional speed, lethal finishing touch, and impeccable technique throughout the tournament, which Argentina won. 

Agüero played a crucial role in the team’s success, scoring big goals and winning both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards, given to the best player and the top scorer. Already a European football star with Atlético Madrid, his brilliant career after he joined Manchester City, where he became one of the Premier League’s most prolific goal-scorers.

Paul Pogba (France, 2013)

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The French midfield maestro exhibited his immense talent during the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey. With his physicality, elegance, and ability to dictate play, Pogba guided France to victory, winning the Golden Ball given to the tournament’s best player. At a time when he was struggling for playing opportunities at Manchester United, his commanding performances in the youth tournament attracted the attention of Europe’s top clubs.

He subsequently secured a move to Juventus, where he continued to flourish. Pogba’s achievements include multiple league titles, domestic cups, and a FIFA World Cup triumph with the French National Team in 2018.

Erling Haaland (Norway, 2019)

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Long before he was shredding Premier League scoring records for fun, Norwegian striker Erling Haaland was doing it in the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland. A Molde FK player in the Norwegian league at the time, he destroyed the competition scoring an impressive nine goals in a single game, Norway’s 12-0 thrashing of Honduras. 

That earned him the Golden Boot award with the third-highest goal tally ever, behind only Javier Saviola’s twelve goals in 2001 and Adaílton’s ten in 1997. Even though it wasn’t enough for Norway to get past the Group Stage, Haaland moved to Austrian side RB Salzburg, where he continued cementing his place as one of Europe’s most impressive goal-scorers, before moving on first to Borussia Dortmund and then Manchester City.


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