Despite the fears that I, among others, expressed about England’s fate in their Under-20s World Cup last-16 encounter with Nigeria, it turned out that you could say: “England could have won”, out loud, in public, and not be immediately fitted up for a white, long-sleeved jacket. Blackpool’s Matt Phillips was the one England player of which most observers had heard. And he employed his direct running style to good effect against a Nigerian team hamstrung by nerves, a bobbly pitch and good English defending. It was a shame, therefore, that Phillips’ target, every time he got into a decent shooting position, appeared to be Venezuela.
He had good chances at either end of the match. And while the suspicion lingers that an England equaliser would just have induced a second goal from the Flying Eagles, there was evidence among the other seven knock-out ties that it might have induced panic, not least from a remarkable second half in host nation Colombia’s 3-2 win over Costa Rica. Deservedly one-up after a highly watchable hour’s football, during which both sides hammered the crossbar from distance (“kissed the horizontal” – Eurosport’s Dan O’Hagan) Colombia were knocked out of their stride by John Ruiz’s well-taken equaliser. I scoffed at O’Hagan’s suggestion that, within a minute of Ruiz’s strike, Costa Rica looked “taller, stronger, brighter.” “Especially,” I noted down dismissively on my Woolworths (Worth It!) reporters’ notebook – “when they haven’t touched the ball since they scored.” Or, at least I would have noted all that if, halfway through “since”, Mynor Escoe hadn’t put Tico ahead.
Alas, Ruiz and Escoe were not to be the stars of the show. That accolade went to comedy double act Clattenburg and Child, ensuring that England’s influence on the tournament’s outcome extended beyond the brave efforts of Brian Eastick’s cruelly-understrength team. Referee Mark Clattenburg (for it was he) spent much of the last twenty minutes of the game putting his hands behind his back to signal another doomed Colombian penalty appeal. And only force of habit could have made him do it again in stoppage time when Duvan Zapata was, fairly clearly, felled as he went into the penalty area (losing his balance just as he crossed the white line, naturally). Luckily, Clattenburg’s assistant, Stephen Child, had a flag and wasn’t afraid to wave it. And, after each Tico in turn appeared to be booked for filing up to Clattenburg to complain, the ultra-cool James Rodriguez injected relief into a nation (and FIFA’s bean-counters) with a superb penalty. For the first time in the tournament, Costa Rica had been well-organised at the back – and during penalty protests, it would seem, as amid the chaos they ensured none of the queue of protesters had already been booked. They were also unfortunate that many of their better chances fell to a French second division right-back (Le Havre’s Jordan Smith). But perhaps their worst luck was to encounter the inimitable Clattenburg – the man for a crisis, especially if you want to cause one.
Penalties proved the defining characteristic of the round. Portugal overcame the suddenly-mighty Guatemala with a spot-kick softer than a chocolate bar in sunlight. And Argentina’s 2-1 win over Egypt came courtesy of three penalties, although the game was much better than that sounds. And there were two shoot-outs – one comical, one dramatic. Cameroon’s Christ Mbondi could practice ten times a day for the rest of his career and never play such a pinpoint-accurate one-two with the post from a penalty-kick – his name thereby doubling as the natural reaction of onlookers. That might have levelled matters in the shoot-out against 100%-accurate Mexico, had there been bonus goals for circus trickery. But Cameroon were so bad from the spot they could have been England. The game itself barely awoke for 79 minutes and was plagued by poor finishing after both sides scored within two minutes of each other in normal time – Eurosport’s Tim Caple asked “is this the moment?” four times in extra-time. It wasn’t.
Spain’s encounter with the Korean Republic had a decent first quarter. Or at least that’s what we were told by co-commentators Wayne Boyce and Gary O’Reilly. We weren’t to know, and will never know, thanks to Eurosport’s programme scheduling. The channel’s coverage of a women’s tennis tournament in the United States had reduced live coverage of the decisive Ecuador/Costa Rica group game to… six minutes. But between two live events, possession of the screen is ten-tenths of the law. And Ecuador/Costa Rica was being shown ‘as live’ the following morning anyway. For reasons possibly connected with hours-earlier live tennis coverage, however, those tuning in at 11 o’clock to see the much-fancied Spaniards were “treated” to yachting highlights (an oxymoron unless some rich people are dumped into the drink) and a show jumping magazine programme which was only of limited interest even to the families of those involved.
More opprobrium might have been heaped on Eurosport if they’d done that during Spain’s previous game – “welcome to Spain against Australia, you haven’t missed much, Spain are four-up.” But to describe Eurosport as “two-bob” – a polite version of what I was screaming at the telly by about 11.15 – rather focuses on the problem, as the dead-posh advertising attracted by these magazine programmes probably makes up most of the two-bob with which they have to buy in their programming. And by half-midnight, they could have gone back to the poxy bloody yachting, the football was such unexpected tosh. Spain’s team selection was as unpopular as the show jumping, with tournament top-scorer Alvaro Vasquez rewarded for his hat-trick against Australia with a place on the bench and a front-row seat for replacement Rodrigo’s version of “Bambi on Ice.”
Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui brought Vasquez on after an hour, as the game dissolved into mush. But Lopetegui gave us a masterclass in defeating the object by bringing off midfielder Sergio Canales, the one player vaguely capable of kicking the ball towards the new strike pairing. So bad was Rodrigo, again, that taking him off for a midfielder was an attacking move. And although the last eight minutes of extra-time had plentiful drama, it couldn’t possibly make up for the 112 preceding minutes of dreck…sorry…92 minutes. There was something appropriate about a Korean whose name had an anglicised pronunciation of “Leaky J” failing with the vital spot-kick (he was “Leaky G” in earlier games). But while Spain’s win was probably “better for the tournament”, as Boyce suggested, “if Korea score, you’d have to give it to them,” as O’Reilly countered. It is Spain against Brazil in the quarter-finals, which ought to be a corker. And whilst the evidence of this game may have dampened such expectations, you can’t help feeling that Eurosport would be advised to get their show jumping magazine programmes well out of the way first.
Brazil have this tournament’s copyright on slightly flattering victories, their 3-0 triumph over Saudi Arabia the latest. The first half was only notable for the worst case of simulation of the tournament to date – Brazil’s Gabriel Silva appearing to faint after running alongside a penalty box tackle. And once Brazil went ahead a minute into the second half the game was over. Attackers and defenders attacked and defend like the whistle had just gone, with Brazil scoring occasionally just to pass the time. Dudu added Brazil’s third late on (“just couldn’t close his legs quick enough,” noted Wayne Boyce about Saudi keeper Abdullah Alsdairy, disturbingly), before suggesting a first name of “Doggie” with a bizarre headed effort to make it 4-0. Despite the Brazilians’ sleepiness, their match was an altogether more satisfactory affair than Portugal’s win over Guatemala. Indeed, Guatemala, so recently the tournament whipping boys, did enough to enter both ‘plucky’ and ‘unlucky’ territory.
The general sense of injustice among Eurosport commentators at Portugal’s seventh-minute penalty award – for little more than a kindly tap on Cedric’s shoulder – was replicated among the production staff, with the goal not registering on the channel’s on-screen scoreboard until nearly four minutes after Nelson Oliveira scored. And Guatemala were even the better side when they became more expansive in the closing minutes, Kevin Norales’ free-kick bouncing over keeper Mika’s outstretched hand but also bouncing towards, and eventually away off, the post. Also a tad fortunate were France in overcoming Ecuador by a very offside-looking goal in a far better encounter than 1-0 suggests. Both sides missed sitters, French “impact sub” Alexandre Lacazette impacting on the advertising hoardings behind the goal from three yards out, while Marlon De Jesus provided another name/natural reaction combo when he missed the ball entirely from much the same distance on 71 minutes. France’s winner arrived three minutes later. Both Gilles Sunu and Antoine Griezmann chased Gueida Fofana’s chipped-pass. But, apparently Sunu – enough yards offside to make the referee’s assistant turn his head to see him – wasn’t active, even though he must have heard the ball whizz past his left ear. Meanwhile, Griezmann, who would have been offside if he’d gelled his hair forward rather than slicked back, was allowed two attempts to beat exposed goalkeeper John Jaramillo, as Ecuador’s high defensive line watched from a distance.
So it was a disappointing second round, only partially saved by a terrific match between Argentina and Egypt, also better than 2-1 – with three penalties – suggests. Argentina displayed a “positive arrogance” (O’Hagan) with Carlos Luque and second-half substitute Juan Iturbe the stars. Unfortunately, Luque’s best moment of first-half magic came when he tripped himself for the 42nd-minute penalty which gave Argentina their half-time lead – although it had looked a clear foul until about the fourth different camera angle. It was attack v. defence in Egypt’s favour after the break and this clearly won over the commentators, with analyst Matt Jackson attempting a reverse commentator’s curse by venturing that “I don’t see where a goal’s coming from for them.” It came from the spot, of course. But not before Argentina had doubled their advantage in the same manner. And as the game progressed, Argentina actually got better, with Iturbe responsible both for a horrible miss and a near miss after a “goal-of-the-tournament” style run. But they were grateful for a geometrically near-impossible goal-line clearance from Leonel Galeano in stoppage time, when Egypt had no time left for the neat, speedy approach play which made them so watchable and gave it the big boot. A fantastic match, and Argentina are improving ominously. The quarter-final line-up pits Brazil against Spain and Mexico against Colombia for places in one semi-final and the winners of France/Nigeria and Portugal/Argentina in the other. Spain/Colombia and Nigeria/Argentina it is, then. Maybe.
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