The Under 20 World Cup: The Final Curtain
Nothing became the Under-20s World Cup like the leaving of it. I got it wrong (yet) again. A terrific and genuinely competitive third-place play-off was followed by a fine final – Brazil beating Portugal 3-2 in a relative thriller for such occasions. Or at least, I have to assume it was a relative thriller for such occasions. Having watched British Eurosport’s 90-minute highlights programme rather than the live feed (which would have taken me to 4.30am on my people’s sabbath without sleep), I can’t be too sure how entertaining the game was, as the ‘highlights’ package appeared to have been chosen and edited by someone with no knowledge of one end of a football from the other.
One hundred and twenty minutes plus stoppage time into ninetyminutes doesn’t go, even my rudimentary arithmetic tells me that. But Eurosport’s highlights made it fit by cutting vast chunks of the game in an almost arbitrary manner. They deigned to show the goals. But in ignoring the fifty minutes between Portugal’s two goals and editing extra-time on even more of a whim, the viewer not only lost all sense of the rhythm and quality of the game, but also missed some genuine highlights. The “crazy incident off the post and crossbar just after Portugal levelled”? Don’t know, didn’t see it. Portuguese goalkeeper Mika’s “wobbles in the first half”? Did they threaten another Brazilian goal? Maybe, maybe not. And as for Henrique’s golden opportunity to make it 4-2 late in extra-time, I’ll have to assume that it might have been commentator Wayne Boyce’s “they think its all over…” moment, because in the highlights package, it just wasn’t there.
It wasn’t just that these incidents were left from the highlights, despite clearly being highlights – even the Fifa website’s miserly two-and-a-bit minutes of match action found room for them. The programme editor(s) didn’t even cut out commentary which referred to them, leaving the viewer with whatever is the opposite of déjà-vu. As I’ve said before, the breadth of Eurosport’s football coverage is impressive. And it has led to an increasingly knowledgeable roster of commentators and analysts, who deserve great credit for audibly learning from their increased experience – unlike some BBC analysts I won’t mention, because that would be unfair on Alan Shearer…
And it may be that Eurosport themselves were blameless. The editing may have been done in advance by the company from whom Eurosport were buying in the product. But whatever the original source of the programming, the impression is occasionally created that football is a cheap space-filler for the channel and that production values are all-too-often not, well, valued. For those on the whole night shift, there was considerable reward. The final clearly needed both an early goal and a Brazilian goal to give it even half a chance of becoming a spectacle. And it got both. Brazil’s opener was possibly the crappiest goal by which any team could end ten hours football without conceding a goal – Sergio Oliveira getting his semi-mohican to Oscar’s cross from a free-kick and guiding it past his own flat-footed keeper.
Oscar’s claims for a hat-trick ought to be strangled at this birth. But however ‘dubious’ the goal might have been, it inspired the right response from the Portuguese, who showed that, yes, they could attack and, yes, they could create chances, when the enigmatic Nelson Oliveira stayed on his feet long enough to serve Alex a tapped-in equaliser on the proverbial plate. Next thing we knew from the highlights, an hour had gone and Oliveira was staying on his feet again to drill a low shot underneath the body of previously ultra-impressive Brazilian keeper Gabriel – a “Ligali mistake”, analyst Gary O’Reilly called it, in (dis)honour of France’s tournament custodian (see below).
Brazil had already made two changes by this stage and Coutinho’s customarily inexplicable early departure (“it is strange” – O’Reilly) was brought forward by Oliveira’s strike. Coutinho hadn’t had his best game in the final, but the change still smacked of instructions from his club. That said, the change worked, much as coach Rey Franco’s semi-final changes had (the senior job awaits, unless Mano Menezes can improve on his side’s semi-dismal Copa America display), as substitute Dudu skilfully set up Oscar’s only ‘proper’ goal of the night. And even though Portugal (gasp!) kept trying to win the game – and may well have done if diminutive attacking midfelder Caetano hadn’t been quite so diminutive when the ball went flashing across the face of goal in stoppage time – extra-time beckoned.
Much has been made of the Under-17 World Cup dispensing with extra-time altogether and going straight to penalties, due to the extreme weather in host nation Mexico and the very youth of the players. And most of the extra-time periods in this tournament suggested the same decision could be taken simply to reduce boredom. But the final’s final 30 minutes was lively enough. Caetano should have made it 3-2 when he broke Brazil’s L-shaped offside trap (left-back Bruno Uvini having the annoying habit of appealing for offside when stood yards behind attackers and team-mates alike) but produced an attempted chip which could only have cleared the keeper if he’d been Caetano’s own height. And in immediate response to O’Reilly’s call to arms on 110 minutes – “here we go, bodies forward, what have you got?” – Oscar completed the worst hat-trick in international football history. “There’s my answer,” noted O’Reilly, deadpan as could be. Oscar had “got” a mishit cross, and that was enough to beat the wobbly Mika, who later stopped Henrique becoming tournament top-scorer out on his own but had rediscovered the art of net-minding just too late.
This completed a ‘Latin’ American double over Europe as Mexico cuffed a knackered-looking France in the final’s curtain-raiser. France’s ‘impact sub’ Alexandre Lacazette was given the chance to show he had more than a half-hour cameo in him, but merely showed that he didn’t – heading France in front early on and being wrongfully denied a clear penalty moments later before gradually fading from view. Mexico’s Ulises Davila tried a shot from 25 yards for which ‘speculative’ was a mighty kind description…until you remembered that Jonathan Ligali was between the French sticks, and the rest you can guess.
Lacazette was then taken out at the knee by Mexican goalkeeper Jose Rodriguez for the clearest imaginable penalty. Lacazette’s colleague Gilles Sunu surely thought so, or else he’d have slightly less casually swung his boot at the loose ball and found the empty net rather than thin air. But the collective surprise of France’s forwards when they saw referee Antonio Arias standing on the penalty spot brandishing a yellow card rather than pointing at it was about as lively as it got for Les Bleuets, who proceeded to lull Mexico into a true sense of security until the game was all-but-lost. “They’ve got to snap out of it if they want to get into it,” noted O’Reilly, correctly. France’s tendency was to shoot from distance (understandable when you have Ligali stood in front of you in training sessions).
And Mexico probably needed Edson Rivera’s terrific diving header from a 70th-minute corner to make it 3-1, otherwise France’s late rally might have been dangerous. But Les Bleuets only really threatened a comeback after Gael Kakuta came on. And that is never a good sign. Brazil’s results summed up the tournament. List them and you get the sense of a dominant, expansive team. But they weren’t quite like that. List the quality players to have emerged over the past three weeks (plus those, like Coutinho, who already had emerged) and you get the sense of a skilful, expansive tournament. But it wasn’t quite like that. There were too many bad games (Austria/Panama), too many sides not up to it (England, if we’re being honest, Croatia, Guatemala, if we’re being really honest – despite the fun they provided by beating Croatia -…Austria …Panama). And defensive organisation, impressive though it was in itself overall, dominated just a little too much.
Thanks again though to Eurosport (even allowing for my complaints above) for providing extensive coverage, introducing some of us to the workings of Gary O’Reilly’s mind and giving commentator Tim Caple the chance to namecheck 1980’s American rock band Quiet Riot in one of his early commentaries (they, apparently, headlined the first major event at one of the tournament’s venues). It was a chance Caple clearly relished…although I’m sure he’d deny that in court.
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