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The best tournaments are won either by the best team or the best story. So the 2013 World Under-17s Cup was bound to feature in the “best” column, regardless of the result of the final. Nigeria were eventually so far and away the best team that it almost seems churlish to criticise their triumphalism towards the end of their 3-0 win over Mexico. Boys will be boys, I suppose. But there seemed little need for goalkeeper Dele Alampasu to prostrate himself before the ball, taunting the Mexican forward who had been the target of another overhit pass. Three minutes earlier, he might as well have been flat on the floor for all the chance he had of reaching an Ivan Ochoa header after Mexico’s best move of the match. And had Ochoa’s header flashed just inside the post rather than a yard outside it, Nigeria would have been 2-1 ahead of a rejuvenated Mexico team who had not been playing at all badly to that point.
A goal then would have set up a fascinating climax to what had been an excellent final for an hour, dropping in standard only when the Mexicans added fatigue to dispirit, having dominated possession only to seem destined to be well beaten. They were well beaten in the end, thanks to Nigerian captain’s rocket-launched sidefoot from an 81st-minute free-kick on the edge of the box. But there were enough “if onlys” about the game to make Nigeria’s triumphalism seem excessive. When Abdullahi Alfa danced a mini-jig of delight on being substituted with ten minutes left, and the score still 2-0, Eurosport’s Stewart Robson (occupation: killjoy) declared: “you’d like to see the comeback,” and you sort of knew what he meant. Offered the opportunity to call the final scoreline “harsh” on Mexico, Robson declined, stating that he “never thought Mexico would win this.” And, from the moment they went behind in the ninth minute, none of us thought they would.
Nigeria had hit Mexico for six “breakaway goals” in their Group F meeting three weeks ago. And the opener here was the primest example of the genre you could hope to see. From the moment the ball hit the ground after a Mexican corner was cleared to the moment said ball hit the back of the net, nine seconds elapsed. Nine. Blimey. Mexico’s Erick Aguirre provided what would be termed a clinical finish in different circumstances. But he’d been left on the wrong end of a three-on-one situation by Nigeria’s pace and centre-back Pedro Teran’s by-now trademark, ahem, impulsiveness. And if he hadn’t applied the finishing touch, Musa Yahaya almost certainly would have. Teran was therefore the last person to be giving out to left-back Luis Hernandez as the Mexicans left the pitch squabbling at half-time. Hernandez had been time and again exposed by quick passes to marauding wing-back Musa Muhammed, who was a “back” in the most nominal sense. Indeed, Muhammed was so often in so much space that you feared for him if he was at all agoraphobic.
Nothing direct came of this in the first-half. Nigeria’s most golden of golden opportunities – in a half where they had but 39% possession – came through the middle, Taiwo Awoniyi hitting the side-netting of an open goal from Kelechi Iheanacho’s pinpoint pass and Yahaya hitting the underside of the bar after the centre-backs were caught out by a long ball. And the debate may rage as to whether Muhammed’s ball in from the right on 56 minutes was another hit-and-hope cross or a speculative, ambitious shot on goal. Either way, he was in as much room as Hernandez had ever afforded him. Either way, the ball swung later than a Jimmy Anderson jaffa. So while Mexican keeper Raul Gudino tried to parry it to safety, he only parried it to Iheanacho. The nature of the goal probably did as much as the very fact of it to depress the game as a spectacle and a contest. And Mexico got particularly tetchy in and around the third goal. Nevertheless, it was as good a final as expectations suggested. Probably between the two best teams and certainly in front of the two best sets of fans.
The third-place match probably exceeded expectations everywhere outside Argentina. Sweden have improved as a side throughout the year, not just in this tournament, but since the Uefa finals where, as Robson noted “they were fairly dull.” The Blaghult centre-forward Vlamir Berisha will take the plaudits, many from himself if the estimates of the size of his ego are to be believed. And he took off with the tournament’s Golden Boot as top scorer while no-one else was looking, after his hat-trick against the shell-shocked Argentines. Maintaining a tournament tradition of scoring or conceding early, Argentina were a goal down within seven minutes, Berisha converting a pass from Leroy Rosenior stunt-double Carlos Strandberg, who took full advantage of being given a start at last by superbly volleying home Sweden’s second on 20 minutes.
Eurosport’s Jon Driscoll was insistent that Sweden were “very basic.” This was harsh given the flowing move which created Strandberg’s goal; and harsh too on Gustav Engvall, who deserved a goal from his terrific run and shot in the 24th minute. Even Berisha had to acknowledge Engvall’s contribution when he drilled home the rebound after Engvall hit the post. Eurosport’s resident optimist Bryan Hamilton wasn’t ruling out an Argentine comeback “if they can just get the next goal.” Striker Sebastien Driussi – one of my favourite players of the tournament – was having a decent game amid the chaos and Argentina’s 63% possession threatened a comeback of sorts.
Midfielder Lucio Compagnucci – one of my least favourite players of the tournament – was living “up” to his different reputation (winning ticket in this match’s Compagnucci booking sweepstake: 28). And when Hamilton noted that “these are young players, they need help from the touchline,” you couldn’t help but think that Compagnucci needed “help” from further afield. It was a mild surprise, then, that Compagnucci scored Argentina’s goal just before half-time, which threatened to make the second half a contest. However, as Mexico were later to demonstrate too, this was not a day for Barcelona-style possession stats. After dominating the first dozen minutes of the third quarter, Argentina were undone for good by the first decent setpiece delivery into their own box, Berisha clinching the Golden Boot with his head. He looked as if he was about to enter the land of a thousand dances with his goal celebration. But he was actually signalling to be substituted, presumably having bruised his ego at some stage. And when the increasingly-tetchy Compagnucci was substituted in the 63rd-minute, the game was over as a spectacle as well as a contest. “We’ll remember him,” Driscoll noted, correctly.
The general consensus during the tournament is that these teams will now “upgrade” to the next World Under-20s Cup in a little under two years’ time, which suggests faulty basic arithmetic to me. But history tells us that wherever these players will be in two years’ time, they won’t be together. As Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce said moments before the trophy was presented to the partaay-ing Nigerians, “this is as close to the real thing as some of these players will get.” This didn’t say much for Boyce’s sense of occasion. But he was probably right; which is a pity. He had previously noted of Nigeria that “there are plenty out there who look as if they’ve probably got a good shot” at making it at the highest level. And while their advantages of pace and power are greater at the age of 17 than they will be in full adulthood, you would like to see much more from at least half this side. Indeed, they won this tournament largely without one of their most influential players, Success Isaac, a name to remember on a number of different levels. Iheanacho, Muhammed, Awoniyi and Chidebere Nwakali will be among those with “a good shot,” as might goalkeeper Alampasu, whose all-round performance in the final, triumphalism aside, was nigh-on perfect.
Elsewhere, obvious star names were thin-ish on the ground. Brazil’s number ten will always attract attention, and Nathan deserved it here. And from the less successful nations, star quality was only evident in players such as Croatia’s Alen Halilovic. Otherwise the tournament’s success was driven by a stream of good players and/or teamwork (hello, Japan). And the tournament was a success, even if the crowds, as per, did not reflect that quality. It very nearly had the happiest of endings too. Firstly, Mexican coach Raul Gutierrez nearly forgot to take his medal. And when he suddenly realised this, he actually smiled. At last. Moments later, Fifa president Sepp Blatter stepped forward to help hand over the trophy. Before he could be led away, he was enveloped by a swarm of exuberant teenage Nigerians and was very nearly left in an undignified heap on the floor. And let’s be honest, we would ALL have smiled at that.
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