Football tournament overviews in my name must always come with the same health warning. My ability to see good in such events is razor-sharp. My optimism during recent African and Asian Cups, and this event in Colombia in 2011, has survived some pretty mediocre football. So I understand if readers have pinches of salt at the ready when I declare the group stages in Turkey to have been refreshing, entertaining and occasionally very exciting. However, such cynicism is misplaced, for once. The football from the cream of the planet’s post-teens has been, almost entirely, all of the above.
The 36 group games produced only one 0-0 draw and one out-and-out stinker – Greece v Mali in both cases. And even that has ‘gone viral’ thanks to Greek striker Andreas Bouchalakis finding the centre of the crossbar from four yards. “The miss of the tournament,” noted Eurosport commentator Wayne Boyce. “The miss of the entire history of football, I think,” suggested co-commentator Matt Jackson. All teams with realistic designs on further progress have displayed progressive, positive attitudes; predictably, teams such as Spain, France and Portugal; less predictably… well… England. The young lions’ exit is still recent enough to defy explanation and they deserved little of the criticism heaped upon the under-21s after their exit from their Euros last month.
Nigeria have also been lively going forward, while Colombia, Mexico and Ghana got sluggish starts out of their system to produce thrilling displays in their third games. Bright though England were, their qualification would have sent Ghana home which would have been a pity after the Black Stars produced the most exciting display to date in overwhelming the United States. And the ‘story’ has, of course, been Iraq, who topped the group in which England came last. Seemingly overawed in their first 45 minutes – by the occasion as much as England, I think we must admit – they produced an expansive, (very) ultimately rewarded second half and carried that freedom of expression into a terrific match against an Egyptian team who also entertained far more than many qualifiers for knock-out stages of previous tournaments.
Nearly three goals a game is a worthy effort in modern football, especially given the near-lack of proverbial ‘whipping boys’ among the 24 teams. The ‘back door,’ through which four third-placed teams qualified, worked well this time – adding tension and interest to the last round of games, without qualifying any team on the basis of one spawny 1-0 win (copyright Guatemala in 2011). The competition has also, on balance, benefitted from the woolly liberalism applied by match officials. Normally only ‘liberal’ in their despatch of yellow and red cards for trivialities, the referees in Turkey have only booked players for, well, bookable offences.
Mistakes have still been made; Paraguay’s Gustavo Gomez should have seen red, not yellow, for his elbow on Greece’s Konstantinos Triantafyllopoulos – although Gomez got himself booked again within minutes, so history was barely affected. And Chile still found a way to get themselves down to ten men against Egypt, having come into the tournament with a reputation for regular red cards. But Croatia were sufficiently becalmed by the five bookings they picked up in a potentially nasty game against Uruguay – a team not averse to the niggly foul themselves, although they so successfully avoided sanction for their combination of shirt tugs and ankle taps that they emerged from the group stage with its best disciplinary record.
Fifa’s barmy idea of introducing almost law-changing refereeing directives, untested, into international tournaments usually resulted in a series of match-spoiling cautions and dismissals. Every Croatian would have been booked, and most twice, had such an environment been introduced to this competition. So, although one Eurosport commentator bemoaned this refereeing leniency as “another Fifa directive,” it is one that, at this event at least, has worked. An equally simple innovation has been the “spray can,” used by referees to ensure that defensive walls are at least ten yards away from free-kicks. The foam-like substance with which referees encircle that ball and then draw a line behind which the wall must stand is probably having some other apocalyptic environmental effect – destroying Turkey’s ozone layer, perhaps. But, as we know, such non-footballing concerns are no concern of Fifa’s.
If this method was being used properly, of course, referees would draw a circle ten yards from the ball all the way round. But that would take ages, and we’d be stuck with analysts such as Mark Bright (see below) to fill in the gaps. Referees are also either not bothering to pace out the ten yards in the time-honoured fashion, or are skipping sideways to a point which is usually at least twelve yards away (Danny Mills noted that there were three cut strips in each penalty area, which made them six yards wide, and most walls were two cut strips away from most free-kicks).
Still, these are minor quibbles with an idea that is genius in its simplicity. Eurosport commentators are divided as to whether it has been used for some time in Brazilian or Argentine domestic football. And more than one has suggested that the spray could be just as effectively used in quelling dissent among the more argumentative players – the camera cut to a watching Ryan Giggs after one such suggestion, purely co-incidentally, of course. But now that it has appeared on the world stage, expect European leagues to quickly follow suit.
Congratulations and thanks are again due to Eurosport for showing so much of the competition. But such gratitude comes with heavier qualification than usual. We all know Mark Bright’s failings as a co-commentator and analyst. “Turkey need a goal,” he informed us at least five times as the hosts were losing 1-0 to Colombia. He has also developed a wide range of extraneous noises to link his inanities, with plenty of ‘ooofs’ and ‘ooohs’ whenever strong tackles go in. And Bright’s, and to a lesser extent Leroy Rosenior’s inadequacies are only emphasised by the quality of other commentators and co-commentators. Stan Collymore made an unexpected but typically well-researched and articulate contribution to the broadcast of Spain’s win over France. Gary O’Reilly’s sarky boots are a comfy fit. And while Tim Caple still sounds like he’s using random groups of three syllables to describe South Korean players, he and his fellow main commentators continue to display knowledge gleaned from years of experience of such tournaments.
But Eurosport’s scheduling and editing have left much to be desired. Highlights packages are seemingly edited at random. The 45-minute version of USA v Spain, for instance, was the second half, as live, when the key action was Spain trebling their lead in the final minutes of the first half. The Portugal/Cuba highlights also missed the opening goal. Other highlights programmes have just disappeared from the schedules, unannounced, usually to be replaced by motor sport, once by motor sport highlights from August 2012. Even the schedules on Eurosport’s own website might as well be guesswork some nights. There isn’t much point investing in Eurosport Player if they are showing Moto GP when advertising Uzbekistan v Uruguay. Advertising revenue plays a vital role, of course, at a channel which obviously buys in all its content, on the tightest of budgets. But do British Eurosport really need to show Egypt v England three times a day having, as far as I’m aware, ignored Iraq v Chile – only the Group F decider, after all – entirely?
Rant over. The second round genuinely promises some intriguing fixtures. These range from Spain’s stylists – including surely senior team-bound Gerard Deulofeu – against Mexico’s… er… stylists to Chile v. Croatia, a match-up of the two teams with the worst disciplinary reputation coming into the tournament and the worst record at it. Iraq have genuine prospects of progress against an inconsistent Paraguay who are without Gomez, their suspended captain. Portugal v Ghana will see one hugely talented team go out too early, as will one of the tournament’s very best players, Bruma, if Portugal lose. Likewise if Korea Republic beat Colombia, who have been this far inspired by the intermittently magical Juan Quintero, although it will be a shock if South America’s champions depart so early from an event which ‘lacked’ Brazil and Argentina in the first place.
Underachieving hosts Turkey take on a French team whose collective mind has been elsewhere. France’s, and the competition’s, best player was supposed to be Paul Pogba, after he, if some of the hype is to be believed, almost single-handedly won Serie A for Juventus last season (who is Andrea Pirlo anyway?). Instead, striker Yaya Sanogo has been the best Bleuet. But if Pogba is the big game player his previous advocates are now claiming, then Turkey will need more than Cenk Sahin’s searing pace, Salih Ucan’s Stylistics hair-cut and individual brilliance such as Okay Yokuslu’s rather-better-than-OK winner against Australia. Nigeria’s Abdul Ajagun will give Uruguay’s still relatively untested defence a potential runaround, which could be good enough on its own unless La Celeste’s Nicolas ‘the rabbit’ Lopez continues to mutate into Luis Suarez…in a good way.
Greece against Uzbekistan doesn’t set the juices flowing quite as much. But Greece’s Konstantinos Stafylidis is the best crosser of a ball – dead ball or moving – at the event. And there is a certain intrigue attached to seeing how Greece’s extensive collection of misfiring attacking players lay waste to his work this time. It is, of course, at this stage that the stars of the tournament start to shine. And names such as Quintero, Ajagun, Deulofeu and Bruma certainly have it in them to maintain the Under-20 World Cup’s reputation for introducing planet football to the international stars of the almost-immediate future. And I haven’t even mentioned players such as Croatia’s Marko Livaja and star keepers such as Iraq’s headcase Mohammed Hameed and Portugal’s Jose Sa, whose double save from Nigeria’s Ajagun was up alongside any of the event’s many spectacular goals as a tournament highlight.
This Under-20s World Cup has been a genuine joy so far. And if you are able to watch any of the knock-out stages – and if Eurosport’s various platforms deign to show the games rather than 12-month old motor sport highlights from the Czech Republic – you should do so.
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