Young stars gear up for World Cup

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> A group of young players will be eager to shine at soccer's highest level when the World Cup begins.

Updated: February 25, 2007 11:40 IST
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A group of young players will be eager to shine at soccer's highest level when the World Cup begins, and Argentina's Lionel Messi and Spain's Cesc Fabregas will be leading the way. Both will be trying to emulate the feats of Pele in 1958 and Michael Owen 40 years later. With them will be a host of lesser-known youngsters with equally lofty ambitions. One top player who may not get a chance is England's Wayne Rooney, who broke a bone in his right foot on Saturday and is expected to be sidelined for at least six weeks. Rooney, who was recently voted England's young player of the year for the second straight season, is hoping to be ready for the latter stages if England gets through the group phase. Pele was 17 when he scored twice in Brazil's World Cup final win over Sweden in 1958 - making him the youngest player to win soccer's top prize. Owen was a year older when he scored the goal of the tournament for England in 1998. One likely star is Messi. If the FC Barcelona forward is healthy, he is sure to make the trip to Germany alongside attacking talents that include Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and Hernan Crespo. Messi, who will turn 19 during the World Cup, is an integral part of the Barcelona team that reached the Champions League final and is likely to win this year's Spanish league. His recovery from a torn thigh muscle will be crucial to Argentina's hopes of a third World Cup title. ''He's a player who eliminates his rivals and that makes him a type of terrorist in today's soccer,'' said Jorge Valdano, an Argentine World Cup winner. ''He eliminates them, leaving them without any hope of recovery.'' And 17-year-old Sergio Aguero could join him. Nicknamed ''Kun,'' the striker played alongside Messi in the team that won last year's World Youth Championship, where Messi was the leading scorer. At 15, Aguero became the youngest player in Argentina's top league and this season has eight goals in 16 league matches for Independiente. His pace and skill led to Argentina's 1978 World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti to describe him as ''having something of Romario about him.'' And current Argentina coach Jose Pekerman may not be as cautious as Menotti, who in 1978 cut the 17-year-old Diego Maradona from his World Cup roster. ''Kun is playing out of his skin at the moment,'' Pekerman said. ''There are many players who didn't get to play at the World Cup until they were 24 or 25. I'm not saying that's going to be the case with Aguero. I remain hopeful that he can still make it.'' Spain also has a pair of youngsters who could make a big impact. Fabregas became Arsenal's youngest first-team player three years ago. This season, he was the creative midfield force behind the club's drive to the Champions League final, outplaying the established World Cup-bound Patrick Vieira of France and Riquelme. He's still 19. ''If he can get in the Spain team, as he should be, he could be the main player in the World Cup,'' former Arsenal forward Paul Merson said. ''He's that good.'' Lining up with Fabregas could be 20-year-old defender Sergio Ramos. Real Madrid signed Ramos for $34 million, making him Europe's third most expensive transfer in the last off season after Chelsea's Shaun Wright-Phillips and Michael Essien. He was the youngest player to debut for Spain in 63 years when he played in a friendly against China in March 2005 at age 18. ''It's very important to have young players in the side, as they can bring something new to the table,'' Ramos said. ''You need to strike a balance between new talent and old heads.'' Ghana has 20-year-old striker Gyan Asamoah, the Netherlands has 19-year-old forward Ryan Babel - who last year became his country's youngest scorer in 68 years - and Mexico will be bringing Andres Guardado. Guardado, a 19-year-old midfielder, made his international debut in December's 2-0 friendly win over Hungary - three months after he first played for Mexican club Atlas. ''He's got the dynamism you'd expect of a 19-year-old kid,'' Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe said. ''He shuttles back and forth. He doesn't know what fear is, either. We thought he might be nervous and overawed about playing for his country, but he's shown real character and steel.'' Eddie Johnson of the United States will be hoping to emulate Landon Donovan's performances at the 2002 World Cup, when he was voted young player of the tournament. The 22-year-old forward has scored nine goals in 15 matches for his country. (AP)

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