Premonitions about teenage prodigies in football can throw up wildly varying degrees of accuracy. While some golden boys indeed go on to live up to the hype thrust upon them at a young age, others lose their way and see their careers peter out to banality and false hope. One look at the Golden Ball winners at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup since its inauguration in 1977 exemplifies how some become legends of the game while others fail to ever again scale such heights.
Twenty-two men have won the top individual prize at FIFA’s flagship underage tournament, and we take a look at each one to look back at the feats which won them the honour, along with what happened afterwards to assess whether their Golden Ball success was a springboard to the top of the sport.
In this part, we feature the first 11 winners, spanning the 20-year period from 1977 to 1997.
Volodymyr Bessonov (USSR, 1977)
The right-back from Ukraine was the first Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball recipient, helping his team to become the inaugural winners of the competition in Tunisia. He netted three times on their route to glory, including both goals in the final against Mexico, in which the Soviets won 9-8 on penalties.
Bessonov spent the bulk of his club career at Dynamo Kyev, winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup with them in 1986. He also had a lengthy international career, winning 79 caps for USSR, the last of which came in the 1990 World Cup when he was sent off in a 2-0 defeat to an Argentina side containing his successor as Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner…
Diego Maradona (Argentina, 1979)
If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to reveal too much as to what became of this iconic footballer’s career after the Under-20 World Cup, so let’s focus firstly on his exploits in Japan as a teenager.
Having narrowly missed the cut for Argentina’s senior World Cup squad the previous year, Maradona demonstrated a sign of things to come at the underage finals, scoring six goals en route to glory against USSR in the final as he and Ramón Díaz lit up the tournament.
His exploits at senior level for his country sealed his place in legend, although his career was also tainted by failed drugs tests and one notable moment of on-field subterfuge. His death last year at the age of 60 understandably evoked mass scenes of public grief in Argentina. In generations to come, our descendants will still be discussing the legend that is Diego Maradona.
Romulus Gabor (Romania, 1981)
The Romanian striker was the first Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner who did not play for the tournament winners, although he did help the Carpathian country to finish third at the finals in Australia. He scored two winning goals at the tournament, a penalty against Italy in the group stage and the only goal against England in the bronze medal play-off.
While winning 35 senior caps for his country and playing at the 1984 European Championships, Gabor’s club career was rather undistinguished, spent entirely between Romania and Hungary and taking in the likes of Corvinul Hunedoara, Diosgyori and Unirea Alba Iulia.
Geovani Silva (Brazil, 1983)
Two decades before a player of a similar name represented Barcelona, Benfica, Manchester City and, erm, Hull, this Geovani fired Brazil to glory at the Under-20 World Cup in Mexico, also adding the Golden Boot for good measure with his six goals, including decisive strikes against the Netherlands and the USSR in the group stage and the winner against Argentina in the final.
He played in an illustrious Vasco da Gama team for much of the 1980s alongside the likes of Romário and spent most of his career in Latin America, aside from a three-year sojourn in Europe which took in Bologna and Karlsruhe. Although he played 23 times for Brazil at senior level, he never made the cut for their World Cup squads. He went on to hold important positions in regional Brazilian government after his career in football.
Paulo Silas (Brazil, 1985)
The midfielder stood out as Brazil retained their Under-20 title in the Soviet Union. He netted in the 6-0 quarter-final rout of Colombia as his side conceded just once in their six-game route to glory, a late consolation goal for the Republic of Ireland in their first match.
Silas’ club career was that of the archetypal journeyman, playing for 12 clubs across six countries in three continents, most notably a spell with San Lorenzo in Argentina in the mid-1990s. He played in two senior World Cups for Brazil and has led a similarly nomadic coaching career, taking charge of 14 different clubs over 12 years, including three separate spells at Avaí.
Robert Prosinečki (Yugoslavia, 1987)
Brazil were dethroned by Yugoslavia at the 1987 finals in Chile, with Prosinečki shining brightest as a team also containing Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatović went on to triumph. The Golden Ball winner scored the last-gasp winner against Brazil in the quarter-finals, his side eventually defeating West Germany on penalties to lift the trophy.
The midfielder had the distinction of playing for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as representing two countries at senior World Cups – Yugoslavia in 1990 and Croatia eight years later. He was a European Cup winner with Red Star Belgrade in 1991 and, a decade later, had a brief yet fondly-remembered spell at Portsmouth. For good measure, he followed up his Under-20 Golden Ball with the Best Young Player prize at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Bismarck (Brazil, 1989)
The Brazilian with the German-sounding name scored three times for his side as they claimed the bronze medal at the 1989 Under-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia, all of which came in the group stage as the South Americans were ousted by eventual winners Portugal in the semi-finals.
The midfielder won just 13 senior caps but was in Brazil’s senior World Cup squad the following year. His club career was split between his homeland and Japan, becoming one of the foremost players in the J-League during the 1990s with Verdy Kawasaki and Kashima Antlers. He did not go into coaching upon hanging up his boots.
Emílio Peixe (Portugal, 1991)
Portugal retained their title on home soil with a much-celebrated team featuring the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and João Pinto, yet it was Peixe who was deemed their best player at the finals. The midfielder didn’t score at the tournament, but to have stood out among a line-up of such quality spotlighted him as a burgeoning talent.
The most noteworthy feat of his club career was to represent all three of Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, while all 12 of his senior Portugal caps were won before he turned 21. His was a classic case of a career that peaked in its embryonic stages before levelling off considerably.
Adriano (Brazil, 1993)
Not the Adriano who would become so lethal for Inter Milan during the mid-2000s but rather a forward of the same name who had already won the Golden Boot at the Under-17 World Cup before claiming the Golden Ball at the Under-20 finals in Australia. He top-scored with three goals at the tournament alongside seven other players, including teammate Gian, who was Brazil’s hero in the final against Ghana.
Similar to Paulo Silas (see 1985), Adriano was a well-travelled footballer, to say the least. He took in 17 clubs in as many years, his CV as disparate as Guarani, Neuchâtel Xamax, São Paulo, Urawa Reds and Pogoń Szczecin. He was never capped at senior level, unable to transfer his youthful promise onto the biggest stage, unlike his 1993 teammates Dida and Mario Jardel.
Caio (Brazil, 1995)
Brazil may have lost the 1995 final to rivals Argentina but at least the striker returned from Qatar with the Golden Ball prize. His five-goal haul was beaten only by Spain’s Joseba Etxeberria and included the two goals which took them past Japan in the quarter-finals, as well as the stoppage time winner against Portugal in the subsequent match.
He was only capped four times at senior level but still netted three times for an international strike ratio of 0.75 per game. He played for several of Brazil’s top clubs as well as Inter Milan and Napoli, for a time becoming the world’s most expensive teenager when he joined the San Siro outfit for £6.6m after the Under-20 World Cup. Alas, he played just six times for the Nerazzurri.
Nicolás Oliveira (Uruguay, 1997)
Just as two years earlier, the Golden Ball went to a player from the beaten finalists, with Argentina again emerging triumphant. In a tournament featuring Michael Owen, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Aimar and Damien Duff, it was the Uruguayan’s star who was deemed to have shone brightest in Malaysia.
The first half of Oliveira’s career was spent predominantly in Spain with teams such as Valencia and Sevilla, before bouncing around Mexico in the latter 2000s. He was a member of Uruguay’s squad at the 2002 World Cup but did not get a game behind the likes of Álvaro Recoba, Diego Forlán and Richard Morales.
Part 2 of the series, detailing the subsequent Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winners, will follow next week.