It is not an age group that draws much glitz or glamour, but for many of the players at the COSAFA Under-17 Championship to be staged in Mauritius from July 19-29, this could be among the most important tournaments of their career.
Twelve nations from across the Southern African region will contest this year’s title, seeking not just to claim the glory of lifting the trophy, but also to qualify for the 2019 African Under-17 Championships.
That, in turn, could set them on the past to next year’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup, a stage that has launched the careers of many of the game’s greats.
While this age-group has the perception of being schoolboys kicking about on the pitch, it is vitally important in the development of any player.
It is not just a first introduction to international football for many, but helps to shape their path through the national team age-groups and sets them on the road to the senior national team.
This is not just true for players from the African continent. Germany midfielder Toni Kroos won the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, but he says the most important competition of his career was the Under-17 global finals in 2007.
“It was one of the most important events in my development as a footballer,” Kroos told FIFA.com.
“At that level you’re in a kind of vacuum: you’re still a youth player but at the same time you’re only a few steps away from being a pro. It’s a challenge and you think to yourself that if you work hard you can play in the first team next season.
“Obviously an Under-17 World Cup is a very special stage where you play against the best players in the world in that age category and your every move is observed by coaches, players, the media and pundits.
“It provides you with a kind of motivation to reach a higher level.”
Kroos won the Golden Ball as the best player in that tournament in South Korea.
“You play football to achieve something with your team, not just as an individual,” Kroos said. “I knew I’d had a good tournament but I was overwhelmed when I received that award. I was totally happy with the fact we’d won a medal in Korea.
“The individual award was simply a consequence of what the team accomplished.”
Kroos, now a star with Real Madrid and appearing at the 2018 FIFA World Cup with Germany, says he was always under pressure to succeed as a player and his Under-17 World Cup experience gave him confidence.
Just 18 days after winning the individual award in South Korea, he made his professional debut for Bayern Munich.
The players who appear in the COSAFA Under-17 Championships this year may all be dreaming of playing in Europe’s big leagues one day, but must start to show they are capable in their own countries first.
The experience and the confidence gained from playing in the regional showpiece competition can give them confidence when they go back to their clubs.
And for those that progress to the African finals and perhaps the World Cup, it will be the opportunity to market themselves to a wider audience and perhaps kick-start their professional careers.