Nothing confirms more that the English Premier League was founded on a lie than native attitudes to the Under-20s World Cup, which started in Colombia last night. England actually opened the tournament against Korea DPR, which seemed like a surprise move until the ghastly goalless draw revealed FIFA’s plan to start with a 90-minute tedium masterclass to make the rest of the games look good. But a scan of the England squad shows that the welter of teenage stars which made a noticeable impact during last season’s EPL were… mostly on tour with their clubs. It isn’t unfair to describe England’s squad as second-string. Only Blackpool’s Matt Phillips, whose direct, pacy style threatened to unlock a fair few EPL defences last season, has made more than a handful of appearances in top-flight English football.
For this most ‘senior’ of underage world tournaments, the clubs are not compelled to release their players (there isn’t a continental under-20s tournament in Europe or Asia, with last year’s continental under-19s tournament serving as a qualifying competition). And if English Premier League clubs are not compelled to do something that compromises their narrow, financial interests, it is not done. So although the 21 players involved will gain considerable international tournament experience, virtually all of it looks likely to go to waste. The squad will be at the generally-accepted peak of their careers for the 2018 World Cup finals. It is almost probable that none of them will be involved in those finals. It is a stronger squad than that which briefly took to Egyptian fields in the previous tournament in September/October 2009. But that is more of a comment on the shambles that was 2009, when the European mid-season timing of the event further weakened the already-weakened squad.
This was amply demonstrated by England’s 4-0 defeat to Ghana, a crushing blow only partly softened by the Black Satellites ultimately winning the tournament, and the subsequent progress made by the players involved. Ghana’s formed a significant part of their 2010 African Nations Cup winning-squad and senior World Cup quarter-finalists. Matthew Kelly’s doing OK with Liverpool. At least England are in the finals this year, unlike the holders, who failed to make the qualifying standard of a semi-final place in this year’s African Youth Championship, because they had finalists Nigeria and Cameroon in their group. This was only made to seem even more wrong by England’s insipid display against the Koreans. For 15 minutes before half-time, England were actually not bad. For the remaining 75 minutes they were actually very bad indeed.
This was against a Korean side which passed the ball sharply and with purpose for seven or so minutes at the start of each half and then gave up. Their demeanour at both half-time and full-time suggested they hadn’t twigged that they were playing an “England XI” chock full of lower-league loanees. And if Korea DPR were Asian under-19 champions last year, that doesn’t augur well for the continent’s other representatives, the Korean Republic, Saudi Arabia and Australia. But do not abandon hope all ye who enter here. The 2009 event produced plenty of quality football. And this tournament still promises the same, despite a slow start. Austria v. Panama was every bit as 0-0 as England’s game. Egypt surprisingly held the Brazilians 1-1 after a game of two halves, a cracking first one, containing both goals, and a dull second one. And Argentina’s 1-0 win over Mexico produced a 150-second highlights package on FIFA’s website which included some particularly tasty Argentine fouls (take a bow, Matias Laba) but no clear view of the winner by impressive AS Roma youngster Eric Lamela.
South American nations have traditionally given such events due significance – it is no surprise that the competition’s up-front selling point is that it was graced in the past by players such as Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Ghana’s 2009 success denied Argentina a three-in-a-row, with one Sergio Aguera the star man in 2007 in Canada. Argentina also won in 2001, with Brazil nipping in to win the 2003 affair while the Argentines weren’t looking. Argentina are expected to be in amongst at the business end this year too, and not just because England’s reserves are in their group.
Almost inevitably, Spain are among the pre-tournament favourites, and not just because they always are these days. Brazil are up there in the betting ranks too, and not just because they always have been and still are. Spain’s Daniel Pacheco has done OK with Liverpool. While Real Madrid rising star Sergio Canales will be a midfield presence. Brazil’s next big thing, Neymar, scored nine times in the Selecao’s South American under-20s triumph but is rested, having played for the ‘seniors’ in the Copa America. Internazionale midfielder Philippe Coutinho, who created Danilo’s goal against Egypt, looks set to star instead. While other players in the “must be good ‘cos I’ve heard of them” category include Fulham twinkle-toes and one-time Chelsea transfer controversy Gael Kakuta for France.
And the more even spread of qualifiers from the continental confederations has led to more eclectic knock-out stage line-ups in previous underage international tournaments, rather than the diminution of standards critics might suggest. Croatia against Guatemala has a particular appeal from this distance. For the internationalists amongst us, British Eurosport are again the media godsend, with lots of unearthly-hour live coverage and handily-placed highlights for those of us with no proper jobs… er… I mean… ”working from home.” Eurosport 2 are weighing in with their share too. And providing you can forego a social life for the next few weeks (as I have managed for the last few… years) you should see most balls kicked in Colombia. Some peoples’ attitude to Eurosport’s studio-based coverage of international football tournaments which aren’t the World Cup, European Championship or Copa America has remained resolutely sniffy – I’ve only recently left the sniffy camp myself. But the next three weeks could make some compelling viewing, however it is provided. I’ll let you know next week whether it has done so.
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