After a less-than-stellar performance at the under-21 European Championships, Matt Furniss seeks optimism for England at the under-17 World Cup.

The FIFA under-17 World Cup is currently taking place in Mexico and following the opening round of group matches, it’s evident that there are some future stars of international football on display. With an average of three goals a game to date, free-flowing attacking football seems to be the norm, much unlike the senior World Cup in South Africa a year ago.

England got off to a solid start with a 2-0 victory over tournament debutants Rwanda in their opening match on Sunday thanks to goals from Hallam Hope & Raheem Sterling. In what was a fairly dominant display from John Peacock’s side, there is a belief that this England team contains some future stars, but stiffer tests will undoubtedly come later in the tournament, including games against Canada & Uruguay in the group stages.

The current under-17 squad qualified for this tournament with after reaching the semi-finals of the European Championships in May – losing that match against eventual winners Netherlands 0-1. One of the goalscorers in the opening game; Everton striker Hallam Hope ended that tournament as joint top scorer (3) an apt focus as his surname shares a view that many have of this current crop.

Only one player remains from the England Under-17 squad that were lauded in the media as winners of the 2010 U-17 European Championships last summer, and he is current captain Nathaniel Chalobah. Chalobah was a key part of a Chelsea reserve team that were crowned the Barclays Premier Reserve League national champions in 2010/11 and only two players made more appearances for the Pensioners reserve team than he managed. The Chelsea youngster carried his impressive form into England’s opening game of the tournament and was an absolute rock in a defence that kept a clean sheet against Rwanda. Following his display, it seems that any hope that England have of reaching the latter stages of the tournament will surely be strongly based on his performances alongside Portsmouth’s Sam Magri in the centre of defence.

If any of the England players currently in Mexico have the view that they’ve ‘already made it’ as a player, they needn’t look any further than the Under 17 squad that represented England in 2007. Of the 21 players now aged between 20-21 years old, only five are currently contracted to a Premier League team and only Danny Welbeck has been handed a senior cap for the Three Lions, albeit Tommy Smith has since been capped at full international level by New Zealand.

Taking a wider look at the previous two editions of the U-17 World Cup, it’s clear that the tournament is a fair indicator of talent. Since the competition in 2009, just 10 of the 504 players named in squads at the tournament have gone on to make an appearance in senior international football (including Neymar, Mario Götze and Juan Agudelo). However, in all fairness, with those players only being 18 or 19 today, it probably isn’t the most accurate analysis of talent being displayed.

Looking back four years at the 2007 edition in South Korea, 53 of the 504 players named in squads have since made a full senior appearance, with Colombia the only participating nation not to have produced a senior international from their squad in that tournament at the time of writing. Bojan Krkić, Mamadou Sakho, Yann M'Vila, Eden Hazard and Toni Kroos are undoubtedly the best known players to be included in this statistic and this number will undoubtedly by higher in one or two years’ time.

You only have to look at the players to have won the ‘Golden Ball’ award since the turn of the Millennium to judge the level of potential that players taking part this summer in Mexico. In 2001, Florent Simana-Pongolle picked up both the Golden Ball & Golden Shoe awards thanks to his nine goal tally for France, while Cesc Fabregas pulled the strings for Spain to pick up the accolade in 2003.

Two years later, Manchester United star Anderson won it before one of the young stars for Germany last season; the aforementioned Toni Kroos, was deemed the best player in 2007. Most recently, the 2009 award for the best player was handed to Nigerian Sani Emmanuel; who has just signed a professional contract with Serie A outfit Lazio at the age of 18.

However, a recent cautionary tale for any of the players currently in Mexico for the 2011 U-17 World Cup is that regarding the 2007 Golden Boot winner; Nigerian striker Macauley Chrisantus. Following the tournament four years ago; in which he netted seven goals in seven matches, Chrisantus was linked with a whole host of the best clubs in Europe including Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid. However, moves to these clubs never materialised and the then 16-year old signed a deal with Hamburg’s reserve team, before turning professional with the club when turning 18.

The physically imposing forward is set to turn 21 in August and is yet to make an appearance for the senior Nigeria team or play in the Bundesliga for Hamburg, instead he will play in Bundesliga.2 for the third successive season after signing a loan deal with FSV Frankfurt for 2011/12. One positive for Chrisantus to focus on is that Hamburg have decided that he is worthy of a one year contract extension following a good season at Karlsruher SC in which he netted eight times. 

Whatever the outcome for England in this tournament, the performances of our younger generation in international tournaments are improving. Despite the failings of the senior and under-21 teams in the past year, the current crop of players between under-16 and under-18 levels are doing us proud and hopefully the 2011 Under-17 World Cup will see another triumph for the Three Lions. With the history of players taking part in this competition, it’s clear to see that some future stars are on display in Mexico this summer – we’ve just got to hope that some of them are English.