The FIFA U-20 World Cup starts on Friday in Turkey. With the United States National Team facing tough games in Group A, here's what you need to know about the tournament.
Why Are We Here?
As FIFA president Sepp Blatter pointed out in a press statement earlier this week, the U-20 World Cup is FIFA's second-oldest tournament. That's worth stressing, with what we now call the World Cup starting as the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1977. From the beginning, the age limitation was 20, with the U-17 World Cup starting as the U-16 Championship in 1985. There is no Under-23 World Cup, but the age limitations placed on men's National Teams participating in the Olympics turns that into a de facto U-23 world championship. Those age limitations started with the 1992 Olympics. The World Youth Championship became the U-20 World Cup for the 2007 tournament. From the beginning, FIFA stages the tournament every other year.
And Who Plays?
Like all World Cups, teams qualify through Confederation tournaments. There's still no consensus on the age group designations, with Europe and Asia using Under-19 and the rest of the world going with Under-20 tournaments. The number of participating teams is different than the regular World Cup, with 23 teams qualifying but the field not weighted heavily in favor of Europe and South America. Europe still gets the most places, qualifying six teams from the UEFA U-19 Championship along with hosts Turkey. South America qualifies four, the same number as Asia, Africa, and CONCACAF. Oceania sends one team. In qualifying, the South American Youth Championship was the story with Brazil and Argentina both failing to advance from the group stage. That was doubly embarrassing for Argentina who hosted the tournament.
How Difficult Is The U-20 World Cup?
Very. This isn't a tournament that regularly allows outliers to lift a world championship trophy. The one exception in recent years was Ghana beating Brazil on penalties in 2009, but otherwise teams from Europe and most notably South America dominate the tournament. Argentina has six titles, winning back-to-back in 2005 and 07. Brazil is the champion, but won't be defending the 2011 title. That's an opportunity, but it's worth noting that the last time a UEFA team won it was Spain in 1999.
So What About The United States?
The US U-20's qualified for the World Cup after finishing second at the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship. The draw for the World Cup wasn't kind to the Americans, placing them in Group A alongside France, Ghana, and UEFA champions Spain. The USA opens against Spain on June 21 (2pm ET - ESPN2).
And The Rest Of CONCACAF?
Mexico lost to the Soviet Union on penalties in the final of the first Youth Championship in 1977 for CONCACAF's only appearance in the final. The United States finished fourth in 1989 and costa Rica finished fourth in 2009. Mexico finished third in 2011. The USA's draw in 2013 certainly doesn't help. FIFA uses a weighted system that in theory favors the Confederation champions, but the equal number of teams from four of the six Confederations complicates the draw. Only Europe can have two teams in the same group, and that happened with Group A and Group F. Group A put the USA in with Spain and France while Group F is New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Uruguay, and Croatia as an example of the differing levels of group stage difficulty. CONCACAF champions Mexico is in Group D with Greece, Paraguay, and Mali. Cuba is in Group B alongside South Korea, Nigeria, and Portugal. El Salvador plays out of Group C with Turkey, Colombia, and Australia. With the two group winners and four third-place teams advancing to the knockout round, there's a very good chance that CONCACAF gets at least one representative at the Round of 16.
What About The Host?
Historically, the U-20 Championship is a tryout of sorts for countries looking to show they can host FIFA tournaments. Turkey won against Uzbekistan and the U.A.E. for the 2013 edition. New Zealand hosts in 2015, edging out Peru, Tunisia, and Wales. Turkey is using six venues spread around the country. The largest and the site of the third-place game and final is Istanbul's Ali Sami Yen Arena at 52,652. The United States plays against Spain and France at the Ali Sami Yen Arena, moving to Kayseri's Kadir Has Stadium for the final group A game. That's nine hours away from Istanbul. As a team, Turkey didn't qualify for UEFA's Under-19 Championship. Recent civil unrest in Turkey centers around a proposed commercial development in Istanbul and has nothing to do with the soccer tournament.