13 August 2018 – A few months ago the South African U17 women’s national team qualified for the FIFA World Cup starting 13 November 2018. Lovingly referred to as ‘Bantwana’, Simphiwe Dludlu’s team will compete amongst the world’s elite footballers in the same age-group and attempt to do the nation proud at the showpiece event.

However, just how important is qualifying for junior tournaments such as this and how exactly can it benefit the players concerned as well as football loving countries around the world?

The initial major talking point that arises for me personally is the development aspect. This makes sense as the young players involved in U17 and U20 world tournaments such as the world cup, are naturally being groomed to one day play for their senior national teams. Bantwana players will logically strive to next play for the U20 team followed by Banyana Banyana, which will be a natural progression.

This is also how footballing nations can benefit from these tournaments. Use them to unearth the next stars for the senior national team.

Such tournaments gear players towards this goal by providing the necessary experience required at international level, exposure to various types of environments and pressure situations. Basics of the game (both technically and tactically) are honed and developed in these fixtures and players get to learn about their own games and more about themselves as people as well.

Tony Kroos is a great example of the development of a young player at this level. In 2007 he was instrumental in Germany’s success at the U17 event.

“At that level you’re in a kind of a vacuum: you’re still a youth player but at the same time you’re only a few steps away from being a pro. It’s a challenge and you think to yourself that if you work hard you can play in the first team next season.Obviously an U17 World Cup is a very special stage where you play against the best players in the world in that age category and your every move is observed by coaches, players, media and pundits. So it provides you with a kind of motivation to reach a higher level”, stated Kroos.

The next aspect that comes to mind is opportunity that it provides to the youth on display, such as Kroos, who eventually ended up a world cup and multiple Champions League winner. Performing well on such a big stage can have some serious positive ramifications for these young players.

Many top clubs around the world send their best scouts to these tournaments in search of young talent. Junior world cups are the perfect platform for players to showcase their skills and attract some attention from big clubs.

A golden boot winner or player of the tournament is bound to be snapped up by agents and offered some sort of deal in Europe. Phil Foden, a jewel of the Manchester City Academy, claimed the Golden Ball trophy at the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup in India and has already been earmarked for Pep Guardiola’s first team in the not-so-distant future.

A Bantwana player doing well could get noticed by an American scout, a country where women’s soccer is taken very seriously and are always on the look-out for fresh talent with Janine Van Wyk, Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Mothlalo all doing well at Houston Dash in the US.

Another key advantage of participating in such events is the financial repercussions that it could have on young players. Performing well could result in a huge contract and hence take you toward financial stability and freedom overnight.

Football agents will be queuing up to represent any young star who will be in demand by a world superpower. Contracts aside, sponsorships and endorsement deals also come into play here.

An U17 Bantwana player who has been struggling financially can make a name for herself, step into the limelight and become financially secure.

This also links up to the socio-economic factor in which players from poor populations can now have the opportunity to change their lives around and eventually even help their own communities to progress via their own success.

Ultimately, these junior tournaments are vital for the overall success of young players as well as a country’s football development plans. Qualifying for a junior world cup is just as important or as good as qualifying for the senior equivalent. Any world cup is the pinnacle of one’s career and many may not even get to qualify or participate in the senior event, for any number of reasons.

I urge all nations around the globe to take these junior events seriously if they wish to progress in the cut-throat world of the beautiful game.

By: Dhirshan Gobind