FIFA Under-17 World Cup: The Group Stages
If Jack Wilshire clocked the squad lists for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup currently taking place in the United Arab Emirates, he might see how the definition of nationality has developed. Austrians called Marko Kvasina and Nikola Zivotic, Canadians called El Mehdi Ibn Brahim and Ali Musse and a Uruguayan called Kevin. There’s no doubting the best name on show, however, the so-far impressive Brazilian’s striker Mosquito, who (let’s get the insect punning out of the way early, shall we?) stung Slovakia for a hat-trick in the Selecao’s 6-1 opening game victory.
Brazil have looked the best team, too, although it remains unclear how strong the “opposition” was in their group – only Honduras offered anything resembling resistance. Those inverted commas certainly belonged to the hapless, hopeless hosts and what Eurosport analyst Jim Beglin considered stage-frightened Slovakians. Their only urgency came after Denis Vavro scored the consolation goal and briefly ran to pick the ball out of the net in order to get the game restarted… before remembering that it was 5-1 and that any rush would only give Brazil more time to score a sixth goal… which they did anyway.
If Brazil have actually been “just like watching Brazil” for a change, Japan have been almost as impressive. My dad describes any team that strings more than three passes together as “having a bit of the Barcelona about them” (he even said it once about Stoke last season – I had to leave the room). But Japan have been worthy of the comparison. More impressively still, every member of Japan’s squad started in one or more of their group games. And, perhaps barring their keeper in the dramatic late win over Tunisia, Mizuki Hayashi, they are all in contention for a place in Japan’s last-16 match against Sweden.
Russia’s qualification as one of the best four third-placed teams in the six groups was a more fraught affair. They won their European title courtesy of penalty shoot-outs after goalless draws in both semi-final and final. And they lost 1-0 to both Japan and Tunisia in the UAE before discovering some attacking mojo against a “helpful” Venezuela defence. As it transpired, Russia could have won the European title and reached the World Cup last 16 by scoring just two goals in five games (and three in seven if you go further back in the Euros). But they could also have put more than four past Venezuela keeper Beycker Velasquez. One rush of blood to the head apart, Velasquez had a good, if short, tournament, despite the number of times he had to strike the common arm-outstretched, wide-eyed pose of a goalkeeper exposed by codswallop defending.
So the group stages have produced a final 16 full of attacking intent. Only Croatia played for their required draw, for much of their final game against a vociferously-supported Uzbekistan. And they were punished for their attitude by Jamshid Boltaboev’s superb 79th-minute winner, for which it was – almost – worth enduring the inevitable “bolt from the blue” in Tim Caple’s Eurosport commentary. It was little surprise that the other eliminated third-placed team were from Group E, although most forecasters probably got the final group placings behind Argentina all wrong. And few would have forecast Argentina v Austria as game-of-the-tournament to date.
Argentina were fortunate to win 3-2, in a game which would have ended 6-6 with ordinary goalkeeping and average finishing. And Beglin’s insistence that Austria were “plucky” did scant justice to the quality of their play. Unfortunately, the Austrians were otherwise neither plucky nor quality and deservedly finished bottom, behind even Canada, who, at times, were both. Iran only managed three goals but they were all classics. However, they loused up a slew of easier chances against Canada, and on the break in their win over Austria. So unless they restrict their attempts on goal to 25-yard screamers or mazy penalty box dribbles, further progress is unlikely.
Africa’s challenge in this tournament has been expansive. It is a statistical freak that Morocco took part in the group stages’ only 0-0 draw, with Uzbekistan, as they had little difficulty finding nets elsewhere – although Younes Bnou Marzouk’s miss against Croatia was a doozy. While Nigeria pinged in 14 goals, mostly of top quality (and Success Isaac really needs to keep scoring with a name like that…a “name-of-the-tournament” shoo-in but for Mosquito). Nigeria beat holders Mexico 6-1 in their opening game, inflicting the heaviest-ever defeat on a defending champion – although the nature of underage tournaments mitigates against the status of holders having any significance. And Mexico were at home when they won in 2011.
Mexico recovered from this footballing shellshock sufficiently well to finish second in their group. And it would be another record if they were now to go on to retain their title. It would, though, be as big a surprise as it would be a story. Meanwhile, the, ahem, “Golden Eaglets” 3-3 draw with Sweden was a belter, even if the highlights Eurosport offered UK viewers focused far more on the two-goal second half than the four-goal first. These games have done as much as the one-sided, usually 6-1, affairs to keep the goals-per-game ratio above three. New Zealand goalkeeper Zac Speedy (misnomer of the tournament) looked like he’d modelled his hair on old pictures of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and kept goal much as you imagine Mitch Mitchell might in their 7-0 walloping by Uruguay. Yet the Young All Whites could have actually beaten Italy. The Italians have been mind-numbingly ordinary, winning their first two games thanks to a New Zealand penalty miss and a goal eight seconds into the second-half against Cote D’Ivoire, who were themselves only denied victory against Uruguay eight seconds from the end of second-half stoppage time. A weird and unsatisfactory group.
Only the hosts have looked completely out of their depth here. Panama had one or two moments. And even Iraq, whose record was only better than the UAE on goal difference, had good spells in each of their games. Eurosport’s excitable co-commentator Bryan Hamilton gave us a running total on what the Nigeria/Iraq score “could be,” eventually settling on “6-2 or 6-3.” And to be fair to both he and the Iraqis, he wasn’t wrong.
One of the tournament’s most impressive features has been the long-range shooting. There have been plenty of potential future “crossbar challenge” winners on display and barely a game has seemed to pass without the frame of the goal being tested. The least impressive feature, as seems to be the case with all major underage tournaments, has been the crowds – barely smatterings in some instances. Only the lovably -Nigerians have drowned out the calls to prayer which herald half-time intervals in each day’s early games, although I’ve never seen as many Uzbeks, and Uzbek flags, in one small area before.
British Eurosport’s coverage has frustrated, too. The commentary and punditry experience of regulars such as Stewart Robson has been augmented by the authority of newbie Beglin, despite the 50-year-old Irishman’s excessive recounting of his inglorious, long-ago underage international career. One tale of “one fantastic player I came up against in France,” gave us an age to list footballing superstars who are currently 50-or-so. I’ll bet no-one got down to Daniel Bravo, who played for “that great Paris St. Germain side of the mid-1980s” that we all remember SO well. Unfortunately, without access to Eurosport 2 International, a lot of games have only been available on UK TV screens via awkwardly-scheduled, thoughtlessly-edited highlights packages. Still, “bravo” (Daniel or otherwise) to Eurosport, as per, for devoting any significant time to the tournament at all.
It has been another entertaining watch, despite the consistent 30-degree-plus heat, even at night, in October (are you watching Joseph S. Blatter?). You frequently have to remind yourself that you are watching mostly 16 or 17-year-olds – and not just because one or two of them look as if they have been, well, 16 or 17 for a few years now. After an Under-20 World Cup without Brazil or Argentina, the Under-17s have taken to the world stage without Spain or Germany. And although Europe’s challenge has suffered in their absence, the tournament as a whole has not. England, suffice to say, aren’t being missed at all. So it is that Brazil, Nigeria and Japan have emerged from the groups as tournament favourites, with enough proverbial “dark horses” to suggest that the excitement is far from over.
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