Even I, a serial stalker of low-to-middle-ranking international football tournaments on British Eurosport, was caught unawares by this year’s Under-20s World Cup, which will already have started by the time this so-called preview sees the light of day. My attention was focused on the unexpectedly entertaining Confederations Cup, covered live on terrestrial telly both here, where I’ve watched the second round of matches, and in Ireland, where I saw the first. However, any comparison between the punditry skills offered by Robbie Savage and Mark Lawrenson and those of Irish state broadcaster RTE’s Richie Sadlier (no, me neither) and Liverpool/Dublin hybrid Ronnie Whelan will have to wait for another life. I can hear but can no longer listen to Savage or Lawrenson. And my aunt’s infatuation with Whelan – whom she met on a plane once – proved a terminal distraction to any responsible note-taking. You try concentrating on a tactical analysis of Mexico v. Italy with a 70-something woman squealing “oooh, there’s my Ronnie” every twenty seconds.
I’d had the Under-20s tournament in mind for some time, ready as I was to provide this site with the same searing insight which brought Uruguay v New Zealand to life for so many of you two years ago (oh, come on, you MUST remember it). But the start date I had in that mind was July 13th, which is actually the end date. So… some seconds after the last minute began, here’s my preview. Sorry if it seems rushed, ill-prepared and superficial…he says to a resounding chorus of “what’s new?” from readers everywhere. This under-20s tournament, staged over a manageable three weeks in Turkey, invites comparisons with last year’s Olympics, in that British nations have attached less importance to it than just about all other competitors and because this lack of attention can be put into focus by reference to a past victory by a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina.
Messi scored twice 2-1 win over Nigeria in 2005’s under-20s World Cup – and it was the same opponents and scoreline in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But the involvement of the world’s best player, and stars such as Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Angel Di Maria, in under-20s and Olympic tournaments failed to inspire due respect for said competitions on these shores. The tournament’s supporters can also cite Chelsea’s Oscar as a star of the 2011 event, in Colombia, with his hat-trick in the 3-2 extra-time victory over Portugal in the final. England’s star in their “run” to 2011’s last 16 (three 0-0s in their group and a 1-0 loss to Nigeria) was…er…well, exactly. And, coming so soon after the European Under-21 Championships, England’s 2013 squad was never going to be over-sprinkled with stardust, even if their putrid displays in Israel would have afforded any under-20s there a week’s extra rest.
Everton’s Ross Barkley is probably the most generally familiar name in manager Peter Taylor’s squad, with a flicker of recognition for Tottenham’s Harry Kane, who played in the Premier League for Norwich City on-loan last season. Goalkeeper Connor Ripley will make tournament viewers feel old by being the son of Blackburn’s 1995 Premier League title-winning winger Stuart. While defender Eric Dier adds a positive exoticism for an England squad, as he plays for Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon. Spain are champions of just about everything BAR the under-20s world and are almost inevitably favourites to rectify that in Turkey. They won last year’s European under-19 title in Estonia – the under-20s World Cup qualifiers – with a group of late teenagers who could prove as talented as their triumphant fractional elders in the Under-21 Euros.
And the absence of any young Iberians and Anglos is nothing compared to the lack of both Brazil and Argentina. Neither even qualified for the final group stage of January’s South American Youth Championship, which was at least as galling for the Argentine hosts as it was for the Brazilian holders. The continent will instead be represented by Chile, Colombia and Paraguay, who edged out Argentina, and Uruguay, who beat Brazil 3-2 with a last-minute winner from Roma’s Nicolas Lopez. Uefa’s other entrants are France, Portugal and Croatia and Greece, who were England’s semi-final conquerors in the under-19 Euros, after extra-time, before losing 1-0 in the final. France include midfielder Paul Pogba, who last season proved that Alex Ferguson was fallible by helping Juventus to the Serie A title after leaving Manchester United last July.
New Zealand narrowly avoided the senior team’s ignominious fate in Oceania, overcoming senior team conquerors New Caledonia 3-2, having been 2-0 down, in an otherwise leisurely stroll to the Australia-less Confederation’s title. The Aussies themselves will also be in Turkey, joining South Korea, Uzbekistan and Iraq as Asia’s standard bearers. South Korea became Asian under-19 champions last November, but needed a 93rd-minute equaliser before prevailing on penalties against an Iraqi side which looks like a potential story-of-this-tournament, especially as they are England’s first opponents. Cuba and El Salvador are among the three under-20s finals’ debutants (with Greece) having reached February’s CONCACAF tournament semi-finals before being knocked out by the United States and champions Mexico respectively, two US goals in the opening ten minutes seeing off Cuba before any traditional enmities could surface. And Africa’s final four, from their under-20s event in March, are champions Egypt, Ghana, who lost the final on penalties, Nigeria and Mali.
Once more, British Eurosport are, comprehensively, fulfilling the nation’s broadcasting duties where SKY and the BBC didn’t fancy treading. SKY were in Israel at the under-21s, so we’ll – just – let them off. While the BBC have probably blown much of their football budget on having stadium presences throughout Brazil for the Confederations Cup (one can only pray that they saved some money by neglecting to fund a return ticket for Lawrenson). Nonetheless, the Under-20s World Cup deserves better media attention, well though Eurosport will undoubtedly do. Of course, if the nation’s football authorities can’t be that bothered, why should anyone else be? The next three weeks, be it England’s display or the tournament generally, may answer that.
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