The Under-17 World Cup: The Group Stages

by | Oct 12, 2017

The double is on. Having been stylishly convincing Under-20 World Cup winners in South Korea in June, England are contenders to add the Under-17 crown in… wait… India?

Fifa’s desire to make the global game truly global is truly admirable. Taking the senior men’s World Cup to Qatar was neither admirable nor for that cause. India? Makes more sense, even at the back-end of monsoon season. And the Under-17 World Cup’s early matches have offered fabulously entertaining justification for the decision to hold it on the sub-continent.

However, India owed its host status to… ugh… Sepp Blatter. The disgraced ex- Fifa president, to give him his full title, rightly viewed India as a billion-strong cash cow ready for milking key to the “global game” concept and actively backed football’s expansion there throughout the later years of his presidency.

In 2006, he started a “sleeping giant” narrative, suggesting with trademark self-importance that his idea could “alleviate several problems of Indian day-to-day life.” He knew it was “not the number one sport in the country. Cricket is on top of the list. But he declared: “If football can do a great job in China, Japan and Korea, there is no reason why India should lag behind.” Gargantuan “ifs.” But these analytical defects were ignored.

In January 2011, Blatter touted India as potential World Cup 2026 hosts, even though an Asian nation were, one month previously, selected as 2022 host. You know…Qatar. Funny how that slipped his mind. Maybe he tried to fix the 2022 vote for the United States, after all.

However loopy Blatter’s encouragement was, India were persuaded by it to bid for the 2017 Under-17 event. And in March 2012, Blatter said India’s bid was “most likely to be accepted,” adding, JUST too late: “I am not the only one to decide. The proposal will go through a committee comprising 24 persons.” He added some sleeping giants/alarm clocks guff and pledged not to “leave FIFA” until football was “established” in India.

In December 2013, India won the event, ahead of semi-exotic South African, Irish and Uzbek competition. And they have expressed an interest in hosting 2019’s under-20s event, which India’s federation president Praful Patel thought “the best way to sustain” India’s “footballing momentum.” However, Blatter is history. And current Fifa boss Gianni Infantino is so different to Blatter that…India it is.

On the field, the tournament has thus far been largely fabulous, with positive attitudes, creative willingness to give trickery an airing and defensive willingness to be fooled by said trickery. The goalkeeping has been good but not THAT good. So, the goals have flowed.

The scheduling, however, may mitigate against this lasting. The semi-finalists will play a ludicrous seven matches in 20-to-22 days. The later stages could be painful to watch and play in.

Group A: Colombia 0 Ghana 1; India 0 United States 3; Ghana 0 United States 1; India 1 Colombia 2

Indian crowds supporting India’s team have been sensational, making the host nation’s games better to listen to than to watch, even their entertaining encounter with Colombia.

They’ve cheered tackles, dribbles, offsides against opponents, forwards staying onside, even the stringing of one pass together. And when Jeakson Singh headed India’s equaliser against Colombia, even my computer screen seemed to shake. It was a pity on many levels that India could only stay level for 83 seconds.

Against the United States, India resembled a non-league team in the FA Cup against Championship opposition. Plucky in extremis but destined for defeat once Jitendra Singh got entangled with Josh Sargent and conceded a penalty, the crowd briefly silenced as the penalty award slowly dawned on them.

Colombia’s all-yellow kit made each player look a stone overweight (Brayan Gomez resembled Xherdan Shaqiri AFTER finishing the “all-you-can-eat” menu). Their display against India barely disabused viewers of that portly notion. And India were much-improved second time around, probably worthy of drawing level and ultimately only beaten by two bits of class from Juan Penaloza.

Colombia were better against Ghana, whose games both finished 1-0 but were both better than that. And the Black Starlets may yet develop into title contenders. They need to ditch the uncanny knack of missing semi-sitters from the corner of the six-yard box, though, two in one move against the US. And it was probably ironic (although, being American, he wouldn’t have known) that Ayo Akinola’s winner came from a situation Ghana frequently wasted.

A competent US team are already through with six points for and no goals against. But the group, like Ghana, has been better than that. And while India would probably not have qualified from any group, this one turned tough on them. They will have learnt from the experience, though. And if India host the 2019 Under-20 event, their games might almost be as good to watch as to hear.

Group B: New Zealand 1 Turkey 1; Paraguay 3 Mali 2; Turkey 0 Mali 3; Paraguay 4 New Zealand 2

Less the Group of Death than the Group of WTF?

Even if the tournament continues to be a classic, Paraguay/Mali could still be the stand-out game. Paraguay went two-up while Mali got used to the fag-end of Mumbai’s monsoon. And once Mali found their proverbial and actual feet, the match was a sensation. The African champions were desperately unlucky to lose, sawn-off by atrocious refereeing as Portugal’s Artur Soares Dias momentarily failed to distinguish between a hand and a hip from about eight yards away.

There’s goals in Paraguay. They netted six against the surprisingly competitive Kiwis. Unfortunately, centre-back Alexis Duarte pinged two of them into his own net. Duarte’s default expression was hangdog and he looked ready to walk back to Asuncion when he put New Zealand two-one up.

Fortunately, Paraguay weren’t left to rue their ability to comically miss chances. And New Zealand may well be on their expected way home early, unless they shock a Mali team who beat Turkey three-nil and would have won by at least three more with a shade of composure in one-on-one situations. “A much better Mali than the Paraguay game,” noted Eurosport’s Stewart Robson, tipping Mali as contenders while betraying the fact that he hadn’t watched the Paraguay game.

Turkey’s back four were as square as my clothes and Mali ran in behind them at will. So, it must be said, and apologies for saying it, Turkey have been a Turkey. They gave the initiative to New Zealand after a bright start. And they never had any initiative to give to Mali. Yet they will qualify if they have beaten an already qualified and possibly second-choice Paraguay by the time most of you read this. The 24-team format stands condemned if they do.

Group C: Germany 2 Costa Rica 1: Iran 3 Guinea 1; Costa Rica 2 Guinea 2; Iran 4 Germany 0

Yes, you read that last score right. And if Iran had been remotely clinical in front of goal, that four might have read six. Only Gary Lineker at his most ironic could tip Germany to win this tournament. And Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce’s audibly lost conviction word-by-word, when imagining looking back on this debacle “when Germany are lifting the trophy in a couple of weeks.”

German coach Christian Wuck has the air of Jose Mourinho about him when he’s not happy. So, he’s had the air of Jose Mourinho about him a LOT. Germany appear over-trained, effortlessly cramping up (physically, metaphorically and creatively), though being Germany, they eked out a narrow, late victory against Costa Rica anyway.

Guinea are a piece of work. They need to beat Germany to reach the last-16. That game may well be a battle between German defensive errors and Guinean missed sitters and it could be four-nil either way. Or four-each. (*writes “Guinea 0 Germany 0” on betting slip).

Guinea had plenty of possession with little cutting edge against Iran. But their draw with Costa Rica was plain silly. Forty-two shots. And not because of any tendency to hit speculative 40-yard efforts 40 yards off-target. Thirty-something of them were genuine chances, with about nine all-but-unmissable.

Guinea’s forwards found evermore inventive ways to ruin Fanje Toure’s good work (Toure joining in occasionally). And they had to equalise twice to salvage a point, as Costa Rica were rarely off-target with their few-and-far-between efforts, while keeper Ricardo Montenegro produced enough saves and general leaping about to, unlike the Germans, earn his cramp.

He may earn it again against Iran, who so obliterated Germany that they were touted as potentially Asia’s first under-17 champions for…oooh…ages. Iran’s forwards were never not a threat, Younes Delfi scoring twice and Allahyar Sayyad oozing star quality. However, Germany’s centre-backs were constantly too far apart to communicate without a phone. And sweeper-keeper Luca Plogmann’s exasperated expression has been on-screen as much as the tournament mascot. Failure to qualify would not be a huge loss.

Group D: Brazil 2 Spain 1; North Korea 0 Niger 1; Spain 4 Niger 0; Brazil 2 North Korea 0

Although Group D has followed the script, the stats don’t tell the whole story. Brazil/Spain was a meeting of Europe’s and South America’s champions. And it resembled that at times, especially in the second half, despite all the goals coming in the first. However, Spain looked more like continental champions (even if, morally, England were – see below), despite Brazil’s win after going behind to a fifth-minute own goal. The game was outed as a dress rehearsal for the final. Brazil certainly need one.

Spain turned on the expected style against Niger, ending the contest as a contest before half-time and looking capable of taking Niger for five or six, if required. Against the limited but not unambitious North Koreans, Brazil categorically did not turn on the expected style, their refusal to attack North Korea’s packed central defences down the flanks producing the sort of traffic chaos on the edge of the Korean box that you’d expect in the streets outside the stadium. Brazil are tournament favourites. But based current form, that is mostly because they ARE Brazil.

Niger/North Korea had the feel of a third-place play-off from the get-go, fueled by the smallest crowd in the first round. Niger were unafraid to shoot in both games. But they weren’t very good at shooting in either. And the 24-team format stands condemned again if their win over North Korea takes them through.

Group E: New Caledonia 1 France 7; Honduras 1 Japan 6; France Japan; New Caledonia Honduras

New Caledonia were expected whipping boys here. Honduras were not. Yet the south-west Pacific Ocean French “special collectivity” were arguably the better side in their first-game hammerings.

They were six-down to France at half-time. But this was down to three things in equal measure. France being classes above, two unfortunate own goals and a referee’s assistant with a sketchy awareness that there WAS an offside rule, let alone what it said. They were winning the second half until Cameron Wadenges’s 90th-minute goal awakened France from their second-half slumbers for long enough to score again.

New Caledonian keeper Une Kecine was nevertheless man-of-the-match. And it was no surprise that he succumbed to cramp before any of his dozy defenders. His rib-cage was crunched by an on-rushing French striker, moments after his muscle seizure. But with all subs used, he soldiered on…and made two more fine saves before the final whistle. Player-of-the-tournament so far, in a way.

Japan were as neat and tidy as Japanese sides of all ages and gender groups have nearly always been. And that was plenty good enough for a jet-lagged-looking Honduras, who appeared weighed down by the massive “H” on their shirts.

It wasn’t quite enough for Japan against France in a high-quality game between teams two or three cuts above their group opponents. There was as much fun in Honduras’s goal difference-retrieving win over New Caledonia, in a way. But should Honduras sneak into the last-16 because of their five goals here, or weakened/unfocused French opposition in their next game, history will look less kindly on New Caledonia’s otherwise brave, if futile, efforts. And the 24-team format will stand condemned again. Again.

Group F: Chile 0 England 4; Iraq 1 Mexico 1; England Mexico; Iraq Chile

Eurosport’s Boyce and Robson seem little bothered by impartiality constraints. “If England and Brazil win their groups, they’ll meet in the semi-finals,” Boyce declared, airbrushing two knockout rounds from history before they’ve even happened. But after England outplayed and outmuscled South America’s second-finest, you knew what he meant.

Chile have certainly continued from where they left off at the South American championships, where Brazil thumped them 5-0. Both sides were continental runners-up. But England were also European Under-17s “should have been” and “desperately unlucky not to be” champions, after “beating” Spain, despite losing to them on penalties…so Eurosport’s commentators would have you believe. And that extra class showed from start-to-finish.

Almost all world-class teams have a Serginho (the clod-hopping Brazil centre-forward in their 1982 team-of-all-the-talents-bar-marking-Paolo-Rossi). Rhian Brewster was this England’s Serginho, struggling against Chile, missing a three-yard gimme against Mexico. Yes, it “bobbled.” But…three yards. Then Brewster morphed from Serginho to Zico, pinging in a 25-yard free-kick to break the Mexican deadlock. THEY don’t bobble, you see.

Then again…

After a stodgy first-half against Iraq, Mexico eventually looked like Mexico at such events. Lively, spiky, zippy but beatable. It took a third goal against to spark them into lively zippiness against England. But with the famed “element of surprise” that has won far more important battles, Mexico could genuinely have nicked a point before England regained enough composure to see them home.

It wouldn’t have been as big a steal as Eurosport’s biased Adam Virgo suggested. “Of course, England were much the better side from start-to-finish,” he declared sniffily after the final whistle. Not for 20 second-half minutes, they weren’t. (Oh…and I know it’s a cosmopolitan modern world but it still made me smile to hear “Sancho to Panzo” during England/Mexico when ENGLAND had the ball)

Iran’s magnificence has multiplied expectations of Asian champions Iraq, who made Chile look as inept as Germany. How much of that is down to Chile being inept (which they’ve been) is yet to be established. Mohammed Dawood looked as good as anyone, though, applying justice with a terrific free-kick after an exceptionally well-timed cynical Chilean foul, inches outside the penalty box. He was flat out at the end, having missed a late penalty. But he can be forgiven that

The current group table suggests both Iraq and Mexico will reach the last-16. Which would be about right.

Predictions?

The football fun to continue until everyone gets knackered. And England to win. Because of their Mexico wobbles, not despite them, as they will surely be complacency killers. And if me tipping them didn’t deny them at the Under-20s, it won’t here. I’m not yet as convinced that they’ll win here as I was then. England overcame a good field in South Korea, while it’s a very good field in India. Still my tip, though.