Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Erling Haaland and the superstars who have dominated the U20 World Cup

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The 2023 youth tournament gets under way on Saturday, May 20, and it is a competition where some of the game's greats have made their mark

Before many of the game's legends became, well, legends, they were first hopefuls, prospects, starlets. And before many of them went on to lift some of the sport's most iconic trophies, they first lifted the Under-20 World Cup on their journey towards immortality.

Launched in 1977, the U20 World Cup, or the FIFA World Youth Championship as it was called until 2005, has served as a proving ground for several of the game's icons. Between them, Brazil and Argentina have lifted the trophy 11 times, and many of the players that defined generations for those two South American nations emerged in this tournament.

From Diego Maradona to Lionel Messi, Argentina have produced some of the world's best, while Brazilian stars Fernandinho and Oscar both scored some of the most memorable goals this tournament has to offer. But it's not just South American stars that have dominated this competition, though, as a certain Norwegian terminator first went mainstream with one of the most dominant performances this sport has seen at any level.

GOAL looks back at some of the biggest names and most memorable performances in U20 World Cup history:

  1. 1979 - Diego Maradona
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    1979 - Diego Maradona

    The 1979 tournament was the second iteration of the U20 World Cup, and it notably featured a breakout performance from one of the game's great icons. Before he became an Argentinian God, Diego Armando Maradona was a teenager at the then-FIFA World Youth Championship. His six goals, alongside eight from Ramon Diaz, led Argentina to the title, with both scoring in a 3-1 win over the Soviet Union in the final.

    While Diaz claimed the Golden Boot, Maradona claimed the Golden Ball, setting the stage for one of football's most unforgettable careers.

  2. 1987 - Davor Suker
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    1987 - Davor Suker

    Before becoming one of Croatia's best-ever players, Suker starred for Yugoslavia as they lifted the trophy in 1987. It took extra-time and a penalty shootout to take down West Germany, with the two sides each scoring goals after the 85th minute. In the end, though, Yugoslavia emerged victorious, with Suker finishing as the Golden Boot runner-up with six goals.

    It wasn't enough for him to make the Golden Ball podium, though, with Yugoslavia's Robert Prosinecky winning the award over team-mate Zvonimir Boban, who finished second.

  3. 1991 - Luis Figo and Rui Costa
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    1991 - Luis Figo and Rui Costa

    After winning the tournament in 1989, Portugal somehow brought an even more star-studded squad to the 1991 tournament on home soil. Future legends Figo and Rui Costa headlined the squad, which ended up in the final against Brazil in front of over 125,000 fans at Estadio da Luz.

    The match finished goalless, but both future midfield icons scored from the spot in the shootout win.

  4. 1997 - Lionel Scaloni
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    1997 - Lionel Scaloni

    The 1997 Argentina team laid the foundation for a generation. Scaloni, who ultimately achieved World Cup glory as the country's manager in 2022, was one of several familiar faces in the squad that lifted the U20 World Cup in 1997.

    Esteban Cambiasso, Pablo Aimar, Juan Roman Riquelme and Walter Samuel were all in the team that beat Uruguay 2-1 in the final. Each of those named ended up becoming superstars, while continuing to build their country's legacy at this tournament.

  5. 1999 - Xavi

    1999 - Xavi

    They didn't win the World Cup for another 11 years, but Spain's road to that triumph began in Nigeria. Before becoming one of the best midfielder's of all time, Xavi was Spain's maestro throughout their 1999 run, which culminated in a lopsided 4-0 win over Japan. Also in the Spain squad was Iker Casillas, though the future Real Madrid icon wasn't even Spain's first-choice goalkeeper for the final!

    Perhaps the biggest star at the tournament, though, played for Brazil, as Ronaldinho scored three goals in four matches before his side exited the tournament.

  6. 2001 - Javier Saviola
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    2001 - Javier Saviola

    Of all of the iconic Argentines to play at this tournament, none have accomplished what Saviola did on home soil in 2001. The forward scored 11 goals in the tournament, the most at any single edition of the U20 World Cup. He, of course, claimed the Golden Boot, beating out the likes of Adriano and Djibril Cisse to the trophy.

    The ex-Barcelona striker scored two hat-tricks during that run and was also on the scoresheet in the final, as Argentina battered Ghana 3-0 to lift their fourth title.

  7. 2003 - Fernandinho
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    2003 - Fernandinho

    He wasn't ever known for his goalscoring, but Fernandinho scored a big one in 2003. The future Manchester City captain scored the lone goal in the final in the UAE, leading Brazil to a 1-0 win over Andres Iniesta's Spain.

    Both went on to have outstanding careers, but it was Fernandinho who was the star on this day for a Brazil team that also included Dani Alves.

  8. 2005 - Lionel Messi
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    2005 - Lionel Messi

    It was a sign of things to come. Before Qatar 2022, there was Netherlands 2005, a tournament that served as the start of Messi's international legacy.

    The mercurial forward scored twice in the final, a 2-1 win over Nigeria, and it was a fitting end to what was a dominant performance from the then-Barcelona starlet. He scored six goals in total to sweep the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards, emerging as a superstar just as he was truly breaking out at Camp Nou.

    For years, this triumph and his Olympic Gold Medal three years later were Messi's only international trophies, but those days are long gone, as the seven-time Ballon d'Or recipient has cemented his legacy as one of the game's great winners on every level.

  9. 2007 - Sergio Aguero
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    2007 - Sergio Aguero

    He was somewhat overshadowed by Messi on that 2005 team, but there was no overshadowing Aguero two years later as Argentina defender their crown.

    After failing to score as a 17-year-old in his first appearances at the tournament, Aguero was unstoppable in his second go, netting six times. With Aguero leading the charge, Argentina came from behind to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in the final.

    Future World Cup winners Angel Di Maria and Alejandro 'Papu' Gomez were also in the squad, getting their first taste of glory with the national team.

  10. 2011 - Oscar
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    2011 - Oscar

    Brazil's title-winning side was loaded with stars, with Casemiro and Philippe Coutinho part of their triumph over Portugal in the final.

    However, it was Oscar that stole the show, becoming the first player to ever score a hat-trick in the final as he lifted Brazil to a 3-2 win.

    It ended up being quite the springboard for the midfielder, who used this performance and his time at the Olympics to seal his move to Chelsea.

  11. 2013 - Paul Pogba
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    2013 - Paul Pogba

    Pogba will be remembered for leading France to the 2018 World Cup title but, five years before lifting the trophy in Russia, the midfielder captained Les Bleus at the U20 World Cup in Turkey.

    Pogba was awarded with the Golden Ball for a series of outstanding performances, culminating in a 4-1 shootout win over Uruguay in the final after a tense goalless game.

    The team also featured the likes of Florian Thauvin, Alphonse Areola and Samuel Umtiti, all of whom were a part of the squad with Pogba five years later.

  12. 2017 - Fede Valverde
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    2017 - Fede Valverde

    The 2017 tournament ended with England lifting the trophy, but the best player in the tournament fell in the semi-finals. Valverde starred for Uruguay, who ended up losing the third-place game to Italy. It didn't diminish his performance, however, as the youngster emerged as one of the best young midfielders in the world.

    The season after, he broke through at Real Madrid, where has been a key player ever since.

  13. 2019 - Erling Haaland
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    2019 - Erling Haaland

    Ukraine won the 2019 title, beating South Korea in the final, but the star of the show was a player eliminated in the group stage.

    Haaland became a superstar in Poland that summer, putting in the most absurd performance in the tournament's history. The Norway star scored nine goals in a 12-0 win over Honduras, far and away the record for most goals in a game.

    The now-Manchester City star claimed the Golden Boot despite only netting in one game and not playing in the knockout stages, but it's safe to say he hasn't stopped scoring ever since.