Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Democratic. Progressive. Transparent. During the FIFA Congress held last week in Bahrain, football's world governing body amply demonstrated that it is none of these things. Meanwhile its President, Gianni Infantino, is demonstrating with uncomfortable frequency the tell-tale signs of an autocrat. 

The big advantage FIFA has in comparison to a political party, however, is that on a regular basis it presides over a sport that still has the power to transport millions to the heights and depths of emotion.

Which brings us, happily and opportunely for the beleaguered parent body, to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals, due to get underway in South Korea this coming Saturday (May 20) and run until June 11.

The official draw, which took place at the Suwon Atrium on March 14, was partly conducted by two former Argentinian players - Pablo Aimar and Diego Maradona - who shared the experience of having jump-started their international careers by winning a competition which, initially as the FIFA World Youth Championship, has occurred biennially since 1977.

Aimar played in the team which won the trophy in 1997, 18 years after Maradona had announced his genius as he contributed six goals to Argentina's victory in the second version of the tournament.

Now these two have helped to shape what promises to be an outstanding latest version, not least in placing Vanuatu, who made history last year by earning a first qualification after finishing second in Oceania, in a group that also contains Germany, Venezuela and Mexico.

The draw for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals that start in South Korea this week ©FIFA
The draw for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals that start in South Korea this week ©FIFA

Football is traditionally the most popular sport in Vanuatu, an archipelago situated in the South Pacific Ocean some 1,750 kilometres east of Australia, and which has a population of less than 300,000.

Cricket, reported to have 8,000 registered players, is probably the nearest rival in terms of male sport on the island. With international matches being held since 1966, rugby union is the longest established major sport in Vanuatu and is also popular, but this sport has been adversely affected by administrative scandals affecting its National Federation.

The Vanuatu National Olympic Committee was set up in 1920, but it took 68 years for its first athletes to qualify for the Olympics when four competitors travelled to the 1988 Games in Seoul. Since then it has had representation at every Summer Games, sending a total of 31 athletes up to and including Rio 2016.

Vanuatu's Commonwealth Games debut came in 1982, and, similarly, they have been represented ever since.

Volleyball is another very popular sport in Vanuatu, and its highest profile sporting figures in recent years have been the pairing of beach players Henriette Latika and Miller Elwin. They have been playing on the World Tour since 2008 and narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2012 Olympics in London.

The following year they excelled at the World Championships in Poland, qualifying second in their group behind the eventual bronze medallists from Brazil before giving top seeds and eventual world champions, Xue Chen and Zhang Xi of China, a fright in the first set of their second knock-out round match.

"I have sacrificed my life at home to become the best I can be," Latika said. "I have two kids who stay on the island while I am away training and competing because I want to take part. I want to make my family and country proud of me and I want to show all the young people in Vanuatu what is possible if you try hard."

But sadly, in the wake of that success, their coach Lauren McLeod warned that a lack of money was about to end their progress, telling insidethegames that the players' Olympic dream would "stay a dream" unless they gained "sustainable financial support".

Vanuatu failed to qualify for last year's beach volleyball at Rio 2016.

Frustration has also beset Vanuatu's footballing ambitions for many years. Having become a member of FIFA and of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) in 1988, and instituting one of the most advanced technical programmes in Oceania, particularly at youth level, it has taken almost 30 years for the policy to bear fruit.

Vanuatu was chosen as one of six countries globally for a FIFA pilot project whereby players are identified at a young age and selected to train and stay full-time at the National Academy.

Vanuatu's Miller Elwin and Henriette Latika in action at the beach volleyball test event for the London 2012 Olympics - they narrowly missed qualification, but went on to excel in the following year's World Championships ©Getty Images
Vanuatu's Miller Elwin and Henriette Latika in action at the beach volleyball test event for the London 2012 Olympics - they narrowly missed qualification, but went on to excel in the following year's World Championships ©Getty Images

Now there are tangible results for that commitment as a squad under the guidance of Montenegro-born coach Dejan Gluscevic, who was appointed in February this year, prepares itself for the biggest footballing challenge their country has ever faced.

The former professional striker in the Indonesian, American and Canadian Leagues, who turned coach in 2002, told FIFA's website: "I think I'm the right person for this job, I know how to adapt and use different training methods according to the needs of a team."

He added: "Given my CV, my background, my various experiences in different parts of the world, and my track record with this age group, I think I can contribute to the success of this country on the international stage."

Crucially, Gluscevic's coaching career has given him key experience for the job in hand, given that he helped to train Canadian players who participated in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, and more recently Serbian youngsters who won the last edition in 2015, defeating Brazil 2-1 after extra time.

"We will be making our first appearance in a World Cup," he added. "For that reason alone, we must see ourselves as a 'small' team. But in terms of desire, pride and love for the country, Vanuatu is a great nation. 

"This tournament will be an opportunity to show the whole world what Vanuatu can do on the pitch. It's about representing both the country and the Oceania footballing family with pride, and earning the respect of the entire football community."

Vanuatu reached South Korea as the second-placed Oceania qualifiers having lost 5-0 in the qualifying final to New Zealand, whose group contains France, Honduras and Vietnam, another team making their debut in this competition.

Gluscevic is placing his faith in "the good relationships and united spirit" shown by his players. "The boys grew up together at the Vanuatu Academy Programme," he said. "They know each other inside out, and that could well help them.

"Our training programme should also improve their overall performance and their reading of the game."

Vanuatu will be seeking to emulate some of the success earned at past international tournaments by other island nations such as Iceland at the 2016 European Championships and Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago at the 1998 and 2006 World Cup finals.

Tahiti's achievement earlier this month in winning a second successive silver at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in The Bahamas could prove inspirational to Vanuatu ©OFC/Twitter
Tahiti's achievement earlier this month in winning a second successive silver at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in The Bahamas could prove inspirational to Vanuatu ©OFC/Twitter

Earlier this month there was the more vivid example of Tahiti in The Bahamas, as they won silver at a second successive FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.

"If we look closer to home, what Fiji have been able to achieve over the past three years is also very inspiring," said Gluscevic. "They qualified for the Olympic football tournament and it gives hope to a country like Vanuatu, which dreams of such an opportunity.

"The island has been waiting almost 85 years for the opportunity to showcase its talent on the international stage.

"I guarantee you that the challenges facing Vanuatu are not the same as those of other countries. Overcoming so many obstacles to qualify for a World Cup is something extraordinary. The people of Vanuatu live and breathe football. The players who achieved the incredible feat of qualifying their country for a World Cup for the first time ever, have gone down in history."

Vanuatu under-20 midfielder Ronaldo Wilkins says he is looking forward to taking on some of the best youth players in the world.

"My favourite part of the OFC Under-20 Championship was when I scored against New Caledonia with a penalty because we ended up winning the game 1-0," he said to OFC media.

"It was really cool. I was so proud of myself. I'm so happy to play big teams. I think Germany will be the hardest because they're really good at football but I'm ready for it.

"I'm looking to get noticed while I'm there. I want to play professional football. You never know."

The squad had spent a large period of time together in New Zealand before their departure to Singapore for a series of friendly matches, and on to South Korea.

And although there have not been a lot of changes, one notable inclusion is central defender Jason Thomas joining the team after competing OFC Champions League duties with his club Erakor Golden Star.

Thomas is an important inclusion, having already earned caps with the senior national team alongside team captain Bong Kalo. He spent time during his schooling playing football in New Zealand and last year was playing professionally in Cambodia.

Wilkins is another experienced young member of the squad, having spent the two previous years in New Zealand as a member of the Wellington Phoenix Academy and attending Stotts College.

Vanuatu's team captain Bong Kalo in action this year ©OFC/Twitter
Vanuatu's team captain Bong Kalo in action this year ©OFC/Twitter

The players have been spending several weeks training at a camp in Auckland.

Wilkins said he had become familiar with staying at football camps after his time in Wellington.

"I miss my family but it's all good because I'm used to it after being in Wellington for two years," he said.

"It's really good to be here. Everything is so well-organised here so it's really helped us prepare for the World Cup."

Wilkins believes having an experienced international coach and former international player such as Gluscevic in charge has played a big part in the team's development.

"He's a really good coach," he said.

"He has experience in World Cups and he has so much to teach. I've learnt a lot of things."

Vanuatu are due to play Mexico on May 20 in their opening match in Group B before taking on Venezuela on May 23 and Germany on May 26.

Mexico are veterans at this level, while Germany faced the last Oceania debutantes, Fiji, at New Zealand 2015, beating them 8-1. Venezuela recently beat South American champions Uruguay 3-0.

"It's not an easy group, I saw that Venezuela were very strong during the South American Championship, while Mexico are a very experienced side," Germany coach Guido Streichsbier said after the draw. "We don't know much about Vanuatu, to be frank, but we'll get to know them when preparing for the finals."

Meanwhile, there is another remarkable story at these Championships in the shape of Guinea, who will have the historic experience of playing in the opening match against the hosts, having been drawn in what has already taken on the familiar title of "Group of Death", given that it also contains old footballing rivals Argentina and England.

"Argentina has good players but they have to improve if they want to get through," Maradona said. "But I don't see them as a favourite."

Six victories have made Argentina the most successful country at this level of football, although the last of these was in 2007, when Sergio Aguero matched the feats of his compatriot Lionel Messi two years earlier by top-scoring with six goals as his side took the trophy.

Since then the title has gone to Ghana, Brazil, France and Serbia.

Vanuatu's players celebrate the prospect of making their debut at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup ©OFC/Twitter
Vanuatu's players celebrate the prospect of making their debut at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup ©OFC/Twitter

But the re-emergence of Guinea in the international elite represents a huge triumph of a different nature given the way the country suffered between 2014 and 2016 with an outbreak of the Ebola virus which caused more than 2,500 deaths and grievously affected both the national economy and, as one might expect, the national sporting life.

Football clubs and national sides were forced to play their games outside of the country to prevent the disease from spreading further, until the situation was brought under control in mid-2016.

Subsequently, however, Guinea's under-20 side succeeded in qualifying for the World Cup in South Korea under the guidance of their coach, Mandjou Diallo. He said it was a "real achievement, especially as Guinea has suffered greatly with the Ebola virus".

"Fortunately, we were relatively safe in Conakry, compared to the central and forested regions," he said. "And then there was the area that borders Sierra Leone, where the epidemic struck hard. In Conakry, we continued to train and build a great team, one that could qualify for the Under-20 World Cup.

"Everyone agrees that we were placed in the group of death, as they say, because we'll be facing world-class teams.

"Our opening match against the hosts - in front of their fans - will be tough, and we'll have to be very careful and mentally strong. 

"Korean players and Asians in general are often quick and alert, and we'll have to be physically prepared for them."

For their second fixture of the tournament, the Guineans will meet England, a powerhouse at this level. "We know the British game quite well - it relies on counter-attacks and attacking transitions," said Diallo. "If we're not at our best, physically and tactically, we’ll be in deep trouble."

All told, there is the prospect of a truly fascinating international tournament to be played out. 

Whoever turns out to be the winner on June 11, the ultimate winner will surely be FIFA, who currently need all the points they can get.