by Jordan Adams - 04/17/2006
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For one month this summer, the 2006 World Cup will be the playpen for the world's best soccer players aged 21 and under. Beginning June 9 we will witness a changing of the guard in the world's most popular sport.
While experience and veteran leadership are arguably be the most important assets for a team come match time, a fiery group of phenoms will bring new life to the sport and give added reasons to bear witness to the greatest sporting event in the world.
Since the World Cup is held once every four years, these young talents have been on the come up throughout the year, capturing the recognition with their club teams and showing off their dazzling abilities for fans across the globe.
Ryan Babel (Netherlands) -- 19
The youthful exuberance of this teenager has been known for quite some time. Babel has been with the Amsterdam side since the age of 11. His progress was followed carefully by Ajax coach Ronald Koeman and he awarded Babel his debut just two months after graduating from his team's youth ranks in February 2004.
His combination of speed and elusiveness make him a marked man for any defense, club or international. Capable of playing both central or striker position, he is a hassle to control. Positive strides with Ajax earned this 19-year-old his debut for his Netherlands team on March 26 of 2005. Also spending time as a key contributor in last summer's FIFA World Youth Championship has Babel primed for a role in Germany this summer.
Lionel Messi (Argentina) -- 18
At just 18 years of age, this Argentine sparked his country's U-20 squad at FIFA's World Youth Championship in 2005 to a fifth title. He made such an impression on onlookers that he came home with both the adidas Golden Shoe award as top scorer and the adidas Golden Ball as best player.
Dubbed one of the best young players in the world, the left-footed Messi has remarkable skills. His vision for his teammates and his natural feel for the game indicate potential for improvement that others simply cannot match.
Moving with his family from Argentina to Spain at the age of 13, he was invited to trials at Camp Nou where his impressive showing inked him a deal with club power FC Barcelona. His debut in the Spanish top flight came at the age of 16, and then at just 17, he became the youngest league scorer in Barcelona's history.
Asked how the young talent is handling the constant spotlight, "I'm trying to deal with it as calmly as I can, although all I really want to do is to get out on the pitch and play football." His success has earned a spot in the hearts of his beloved countrymen and his chance will come to represent his nation this summer.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) -- 21
Most soccer fans would say that when they hear the name Ronaldo, the decorated Brazilian vet comes to mind. He has dominated as the leader of soccer's most recent power. However, the 2006 World Cup could prove to be the coming out party for the Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo.
Currently playing for the infamous Manchester United, this 21-year-old prodigy headed to England when David Beckham bolted for Real Madrid. His club broke the world record transfer fee for a teenager when they brought in Ronaldo at 18 in 2003 for 12.24 million pounds.
Ronaldo guided his nation through the qualifying round and toward Germany. Although shadowed by Beckham's time in England and his Brazilian namesake, this up-and-coming Portuguese national will look to create his own wave of success and outshine the other illustrious young players waiting to break out in Germany.
Wayne Rooney (England) - 21
This hopeful England national team captain has made remarkable strides during his time spent along side Cristiano Ronaldo with Manchester United. At 21 and full of excitement, Rooney has fought off critics and is now a key man in England's chances for FIFA gold.
Rooney surpassed England's record as the youngest player when he debuted against Australia at only 17 years and 111 days; a record that had stood for 124 years! Seven months later he then became England's youngest player to score a goal.
The following summer it was at the European Championship in Portugal where he really broke out, scoring four goals in England's triumphs over Switzerland and Croatia, reaching the quarterfinals. This was a key turning point in the then 18-year old being welcomed to the soccer world.
England's head coach Sven Eriksson has given the stamp of approval for Rooney to lead this country into Germany and contend as one of the favorites for soccer's most coveted prize.
Philippe Senderos (Switzerland) -- 21
Currently stationed in England for club team Arsenal, this young defender has already achieved several impressive accomplishments. He notably has captained Switzerland's U-15 squad when only 13 years of age, and took the U-17's to a title at the 2002 UEFA European Championships in Denmark, the first ever title for the Swiss at any level.
First playing on a competitive level at the age of five, he developed rapidly and made his debut for the Swiss top division at 16.
After progressing with his country, the signing with club team Arsenal was the next step in his young, promising football career. Injuries prevented Senderos from getting much play at the start of his Premiership stint, but an injury to fellow defender Sol Campbell led to his first opportunity with the team.
Often mentioned as the future team captain for Arsenal, the high level of competition he faces in England has left no doubt in his starting lineup position for Switzerland's team. The huge stage that is the 2006 World Cup is just what Senderos needs to break into the limelight as one of the world's most promising young footballers.
This brilliant quintet of players tops the list, but here are some other notable talents to keep an eye on this June:
Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) - 20-year old goalkeeper capable of starting if called upon.
Lukas Podolski (Germany) - Striker soon to join Germany senior team's front line.
Sergio Ramos (Spain) - Ready for action in 2006, if placed in the WC lineup.
Pablo Zabaleta (Argentina) - This born leader draw comparisons to legend Zanetti.
Emmanuel Mathias (Togo) - Speedy defender is one of Africa's most prized youths.