One of the enduring legacies of the Toulon Festival over the past forty years has been the high volume of players, hailing from different continents and spanning different generations, who have used the competition as a springboard to firmly establish themselves on the global football map.
At the highest level of the game, the competition can boast four previous participants that have gone on to win the Ballon d’or: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Zinedine Zidane and Jean-Pierre Papin. In addition, twenty-five others have won the World Cup and many, many more have won multiple domestic league titles.
Beyond these major accolades, there are also plenty of other cases of emerging players who have caught the eye at Toulon and within a relatively short space of time, have seen their own careers take on exciting new paths.
A number of recent examples can be taken from players that have received official recognition by the tournament.
Since 2008, Scout7 and its partners at the French Coaches Association UNECATEF have been given the responsibility of awarding the John Haynes Trophy to the Breakthrough Player at the competition. The award was created to highlight a single emerging player, whose impact on the pitch warranted special recognition.
Within two years of winning the inaugural award, Ivory Coast midfielder Emmanuel Koné was included in the final 23-man squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The following two winners, Gerson Martinez and Mike Lindemann Jensen, are now top flight regulars for their clubs, Deportes Iquique and Rosenborg BK, in Chile and Norway respectively.
The 2011 winner, Ulises Dávila, was quickly signed up by Chelsea after the tournament on a long-term contract, whilst in 2012 the Dutch recipient Ricky van Haaren went from being on the verge of being unemployed, following his release from Feyenoord, to securing a new two-year contract with another Eredivisie club.
The most recent winner of the award is another player now playing his football in the Dutch top flight, Mexican forward Jesús Manuel Corona.
Prior to the 2013 Festival, Corona was already established as a youth international, having been part of his country’s successful run to the CONCACAF U20 Confederation title earlier in the year. He had also featured in all of Mexico’s games at the 2012 Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, where he scored the opening goal in their 3-0 final win over Denmark.
However it was only on his return from Northern Ireland that he started to get himself firmly established at domestic club level, when he started to feature regularly for Monterrey under Víctor Manuel Vucetich, both in the Liga MX and in the CONCACAF Champions League.
His major breakthrough occurred when he was selected to start Monterrey’s opening game of the 2012 FIFA Club World Championship against Ulsan Horang-I of South Korea. He scored the opening goal in a 3-1 win and kept his place for their semi-final against Chelsea, which they went on to lose by the same scoreline. He opened the scoring again in the subsequent play-off match against the CAF representatives Al-Ahli, which helped his team secure third place at the tournament.
Five months later he had his biggest domestic career success to date – starting both legs of the 2013 CONCACAF Champions League final, as Monterrey defeated Santos Laguna 4-2 on aggregate to win the competition.
Before flying out with his Mexican teammates to take part in Toulon, he had to play in four games over ten days as his club contested the Liguilla 2013 Championship Play-Offs, with the last of those games taking place just eleven days before the opening Festival game.
As a result of playing so many games in such a short space of time, Corona picked up a small injury in the build-up to the tournament, which meant he wasn’t picked to start their opening game against Nigeria.
The decision made him cast doubts on how many opportunities he would get during their two weeks in France.
“I remember I was injured when the tournament started and I thought I wasn't going to be able to play,” he explains.
“I knew about the tournament because of other Mexican teams having played there before and I was desperate to do well.”
“I played only a few minutes of the first game, and I was a bit depressed. Then I started training hard and I was told I was going to play in the starting line-up for the next game against Brazil. That changed my mood, which is something very important for such a tough competition, with opponents such as Brazil and Portugal.”
After playing 62 minutes in a narrow defeat to the Brazilians, Corona started the final two group games. The first game was a 3-3 draw against Portugal, which was followed by a game against Belgium, where victory would have assured Mexico of a place in the third place play-off. Corona put in a man-of-the-match performance, setting up their only goal which looked to have secured their place in the play-off. However a late equaliser in injury time brought their Toulon defence to an early end.
Despite their elimination, the tournament had helped the team acclimatise to European conditions ahead of their participation in the FIFA U20 World Cup, which took place just a few weeks later in Turkey.
However, despite Corona starting all four of Mexico’s games, the World Cup campaign was to end in disappointment as Spain turned around a one-goal deficit to eliminate them in the last sixteen.
Corona had entered the competition on a high following his recognition at Toulon, but that could not mask his disappointment at their early exit.
“The award at Toulon was a bit of a surprise, but very good news for me,” he points out.
“I really appreciated it, and it was a really good incentive for me to get to the World Cup in the best shape possible.
“Looking back, the Toulon Festival was a great experience and really good preparation for the tournament. Unfortunately, we were not so good at the World Cup, because of the mistakes we made.”
Corona pictured with his award at Toulon last year
Following a summer which had seen domestic success and personal recognition tempered by disappointment on the international stage, Corona’s performances had seen his name being linked with a potential move to Europe.
This in itself was a major development, because historically very few Mexican players have made the decision to migrate to Europe early in their career. During the previous summer only one member of Mexico’s tournament-winning Toulon squad, which also included members of the nation’s gold medal-winning Olympic team, signed for a European side: Javier Aquino at Villarreal (although Diego Reyes and Héctor Miguel Herrera both subsequently signed for FC Porto the following year).
On August 22nd 2013, it was announced that Jesús Manuel Corona had signed for FC Twente on a four-year contract, becoming the only Mexican player to feature in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2013/14. Like Aquino in 2012, he was also the only member of Mexico’s Toulon squad to migrate to Europe in the following transfer window.
His first season in Europe has seen him make just 16 first team appearances so far, mainly from the bench, but he did manage to score on his league debut against FC Groningen in September.
Despite that, the twenty-one year old is enjoying Dutch football and acknowledges that his performances at Toulon in the summer may have played a small part in helping him secure his move.
“It can be hard living in a new country, but I have to look forward and fight to achieve my goals,” stresses Corona.
“Little by little I am getting used to it, thanks to my colleagues and family. I'm also taking lessons to learn the language and I'm adapting to the Dutch football system. But I do feel relaxed and happy in this country.
“I think my performances in Toulon helped a lot (with the move), even though I was not able to give it 100%.
“My performances with Monterrey, especially during the FIFA Club World Championship and the preparation for the Under-20 World Cup in Puebla also helped me to secure my transfer to the Netherlands.”
Corona admits that one day he hopes to go on and represent Mexico at full senior level, but first he knows that he needs to achieve good results for Twente.
He also thinks that this year’s U20 Mexico group taking part at Toulon can improve on their performance from last year.
“All the Mexican national teams are progressing and expectations are growing,” he says.
“I hope they can improve on our previous performances.”
The 2014 Toulon Festival will begin on Wednesday 21st May and over 12 days will feature ten U20 national teams competing for the title: Mexico, France, England, Portugal, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, China, South Korea and Qatar.
The seventh recipient of the John Haynes Trophy will be named immediately after the Final, which is taking place in Avignon on Sunday 1st June.
For further information on Toulon 2014 please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.