Sergio Aguero was lost for words.
Damp with perspiration, having moments earlier guided his country to victory, and now besieged by a cluster of ravenous reporters who were sticking microphones in his face, the young Argentine was crying and was too overwhelmed with emotion to speak. Finally, Aguero composed himself, and mustered a few simple words that packed a poignant punch: "This is for Argentina. This is for my country."
An emerging star with Atletico Madrid at the time, Aguero announced himself to the international soccer world at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup staged in Canada. Aguero finished as the competition’s top scorer with six goals (including the equalizer in the final versus the Czech Republic), and won the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s most valuable player.
The soccer equivalent of the world junior hockey championship, the U-20 World Cup has served as a launching pad for some of the game’s biggest stars—Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi and a host of others used the competition to cut their teeth in international play before going on to bigger and better things.
In the case of Aguero, that meant establishing himself as one of the best players in the Barclays Premier League, guiding Manchester City to a dramatic title win in 2012, and becoming a key figure for Argentina’s national senior side.
But Aguero was just one of many youngsters who first shot to fame in Canada that summer. The class of 2007 is deep—a number of players in that tournament have become some of the game’s biggest stars and are set to play prominent roles in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
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Luis Suarez (Uruguay): Teammate Edinson Cavani received the majority of attention, but Suarez acquitted himself quite well in Canada, scoring two goals and helping Uruguay reach the Round of 16. Since then, he’s become one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the world for both Liverpool and Uruguay, and was voted the Premier League Player of the Year for the 2013-14 season.
Arturo Vidal (Chile): The Chileans had a talented team (Alexis Sanchez, Gary Medel and Mauricio Isla). Vidal, though, served as the midfield general, netting two goals—including the winner over Portugal in the Round of 16—as Chile finished in third place. The current Juventus star is widely regarded as one of the best all-around midfielders in the world.
Juan Mata (Spain): Gerrard Pique was Spain’s best player in Canada, but Mata was a major contributor to the Spanish cause, bagging two goals: the winner over Zambia, and against the Czechs in the quarterfinals. Currently at Manchester United, the silky smooth midfield operator was part of Spain’s 2010 World Cup winning side and scored in La Roja’s victory over Italy in the Euro 2012 final.
David Luiz (Brazil): Like a lot of his Brazilian teammates, Luis failed to impress in Canada—he started the first two games but was quickly benched and looked on as Brazil bowed out in disgrace in the Round of 16. The defender with the “Sideshow Bob” hairdo has rebounded from that disappointment, helping Brazil win the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and becoming a keg figure for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea before making the move to PSG.
Angel Di Maria (Argentina): Di Maria was a sparkplug for Argentina in Canada, pulling the creative strings in midfield and finding the back of the net three times as the albicelestes repeated as world champions. A year later he won an Olympic gold medal and later made the move from Benfica to Real Madrid where he’s been one of los blancos’ most important players.
Michael Bradley (United States): Freddy Adu lived up to his pre-tournament hype as the "next big thing" by combining with Jozy Altidore for seven goals. Bradley, though, was one of the States’ unsung heroes in Canada with his poised performances in midfield. While Adu became a bust and Altidore has struggled at Sunderland this season, Bradley found success in Germany and Italy before signing with Toronto FC, and is considered crucial to the Americans’ chances for success this summer in Brazil.
Fabio Coentrao (Portugal): Coentrao was part of disappointing Portuguese side that stumbled through the group stage—suffering a loss to Gambia—before falling to Chile in the Round of 16. Today, he’s a cultured left fullback for Real Madrid and Portugal, winning plaudits for his attacking play and immaculate distribution skills.
Asmir Begovic (Bosnia): Canada lost all three of its games and failed to score a goal, but Begovic was one of the few Canadians who could hold his head high with his sensational goalkeeper performances. One of the top goalkeepers in the Premier League with Stoke City, he switched his international allegiance to Bosnia in 2009 and was a major factor in the Dragons qualifying for the World Cup for the first time this summer.