The FIFA Under-20s World Cup: A Final Reckoning

by | Jun 14, 2017

England’s finest footballing hour since 1966, claimed pundits who had only just discovered there WAS an Under-20s World Cup in the Korean Republic, let alone that England were the best team in it. Welcome, bandwagon jumpers.

Anyway, I told you so. About how good Under-20s World Cups are and how England would win this one. Regular readers will know of, and be wearied by, my insistence that less-well-known international football tournaments have merited more attention than filling space on Eurosport when there’s no tennis, cycling or ski-ing on. So, while I’ll never need Danny Mills for vindication, it was good to hear “real” pundits concurring.

If it was England’s finest etc… since ‘66, the final should have been on BBC1, not BBC2, with Danny Murphy, not Mills, doubling as co-commentator and studio-analyst (no “here in Suwon” pretence from the Beeb, anxious to assuage fears of wasted licence fees). “Most importantly,” presenter Mark Chapman remarked about Mills and fellow studio-analyst Trevor Sinclair, they were “not on holiday.”

Nonetheless, head coach Paul Simpson’s team were the best and most stylish in Korea, ahead of at least five other genuine title contenders. And they had the most double-barrelled names. Ian Storey-Moore’s days as a pub quiz answer are numbered if everyone who should make the senior squad does so. Once, names like Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Kyle Walker-Peters, Ashley Maitland-Niles and Jake Clarke-Salter may have been on Bullingdon club members lists. How times have (wonderfully) changed.

This, however, is a medium-large “if.” For about the first time since the English Premier League (EPL) was founded in 1992, England’s Under-20s were unhampered by non-cooperation from clubs. So, viewers would have heard of many of Sunday’s triumphant finalists, from watching Everton, or other “top, top” clubs’ “weakened” FA and EFL Cup selections.

Whether these players will become regular EPL starters is another matter. Dominic Solanke, officially the finals’ best player, made a high-profile, reportedly £3m, move from Chelsea to Liverpool during the finals. Yet even he may find it hard to climb a pecking order including Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana or Roberto Firmino.

Being the new Daniel Sturridge will not be top preparation for the 2022 World Cup finals, wherever they are held. And with broadcast money expanding into small-nation GDP territory, clubs will too often buy-in overseas talent.

Celtic were purportedly interested in Solanke, which would have offered him immediate shots at Champions League football. But only if EPL clubs commit to their league’s original objective of grabbing all the money helping the national team will England’s best young talent become the best they can be, for club or country.

Over to you, Richard Scudamore. Words which have never spread more hope than dread.

Anyway, the semi-finals and final (if not the third-placed match) were entertaining, dramatic affairs, with all four teams eschewing the defensive, fearful outlook which so often besmirches games at this stage of major tournaments.

Ian King, chief football writer at the terrific “Twohundredpercent” website (oh…wait…you’re here already) tweeted his particular enjoyment of “players attempting 60-yard pot-shot lobs when 1-0 up in a World Cup Final with five minutes to play.” While Chapman “wouldn’t mind more Under-20s internationals on Sunday mornings, because that was great.” And both semi-finals were worthy of the expansive tournament which preceded them.

Venezuela 1 Uruguay 1 (after extra-time, 1-1 at 90 minutes, Venezuela won 4-3 on penalties)

Venezuela were probably second-favourites against England anyway. But having to play FOUR games in the previous 13 days, compared to England’s mere three in 12, probably lengthened those odds (this added playing-time congestion is a stronger argument against extra-time in underage tournaments than Eurosport commentator Stewart Robson’s various whines about the concept).

As their semi-final against Uruguay entered stoppage-time, such considerations were no consideration. Uruguay led a tight but watchable game thanks to Nicolas de la Cruz’s 50th-minute penalty, awarded by the Video Assistant Referees (VARs) despite Josua Mejias’s tackle on Agustin Canobbio looking fair on first viewing and second TV replay and even more so on first TV replay. And it would have been 2-0 in a flash but for a world-class save by busy Venezuelan keeper Wuilker Farinez from Nicolas Schiappacasse.

But Venezuela were undeterred. The longer the game went on, the better it got and the better they got. They deserved extra-time. Tongue-twisting substitute Samuel Sosa’s 91st-minute 25-yard free-kick was a suitably wonderful way to get there, even if Uruguay keeper Santiago Mele might have saved it if he’d been as mobile on his line as he was in the quarter-final penalty shoot-out.

And the already-booked Sosa also had the presence of mind to stop himself midway through his shirt divesting, thus avoiding the most unsuitably inglorious end to his tournament and a lifetime of “what happened next?” infamy.

If Venezuela were tired after all their football, and the strenuous pre-match warm-ups which Robson referenced whenever he could, they weren’t showing it, dancing and clapping in their pre-extra-time huddle like what Eurosport commentator Wayne Boyce called a “Venezuelan version of the haka.”

Uruguay also found an extra gear, despite their shirts being a far darker blue than they had been at kick-off, making extra-time good enough to silence Robson completely on the matter. Federico Valverde nearly won it direct from a corner, Farinez at risk of doing himself a mischief booting the in-swinging goalbound effort off the line. And the obligatory last-touch drama was supplied by Jan Hurtado’s shot against the outside of the post.

There was a sense of obligation too about de la Cruz missing a shoot-out penalty. Venezuela introduced Christian Makoun with seconds left, for his second MINUTE of the finals but didn’t give him any of the first five penalties. Oddball decision-making on a Theresa May election-calling scale. But not as oddball as letting de la Cruz anywhere NEAR a decisive kick, let alone Uruguay’s fifth kick when they were 4-3 down. There were many good reasons why Venezuela deserved to win. But, morally and practically, Uruguay deserved to lose for THAT.

Italy 1 England 3

England were already dominating. It was already looking as if Italy had gone one-up about 70 minutes too early. Robson had decreed that Italy could not “hang on forever.” Nevertheless, Sheyi Ojo’s impact from the bench was as sudden and decisive as any coach could want.

Within a dozen minutes of the Liverpool man’s introduction, he had created chances for himself and others, and chaos in Italy’s rearguard and in the mind of previously unflappable tournament-star keeper Andrea Zaccagno. And a 1-0 deficit was a 2-1 lead, going on 3-1. England would have won without Ojo. But they won more memorably and explosively with him. And while Italy were clearly affected by their man-down heroics in the match of the tournament against Zambia three days previously, England would have won without all that too.

Riccardo Orsolini swept Italy ahead with a wonderful, unstoppable curling left-foot shot on two minutes. It also swept him to the top of the goalscoring charts. Orsolini stayed there. It was a surprise that Italy stayed ahead for so long. It was the first time England had been behind all tournament. They reacted rather well.

England had a near-monopoly on good chances before half-time and a total monopoly after it. Kieran Dowell and Dominic Solanke could have scored twice each before the break. Dowell should have scored once and Solanke was denied by inches and Zaccagno respectively.

Solanke was the width of a post away from a goal to be replayed forever more, on 53 minutes. But to anyone other than England fans fearing “52 years of hurt” an England win seemed inevitable, especially after Ojo replaced the luckless Dowell. Italy “can’t hang on for ever,” Robson noted on 65 minutes. He was proved correct in the next attack when Solanke coolly side-footed home after Zaccagno palmed Ojo’s low right-wing cross into his path.

Eleven minutes later, another Ojo cross caused more defensive consternation and Ademola Lookman supplied the cool finish. Eleven minutes later still, Solanke’s 25-yarder burst through the surely-knackered and certainly disillusioned Zaccagno’s hands. The goals arrived on 66, 77 and 88 minutes. Such was England’s control it was possible to believe they’d planned it that way.

Italy 0 Uruguay 0, straight to penalties (“Hooray” – Robson). Italy won 4-1 on them.

The last ten minutes of the third-place match were lively. They were all I saw live. I wish I’d known they were almost all that was worth watching.

Uruguay dominated but their shot selection was Zambian (“a little bit wild,” Eurosport’s Russell Osman understated…a little bit wildly). One Federico Valverde 30-yarder stuck in the railings behind the goal. “Bet he couldn’t do that again,” noted Osman’s com-box colleague Tim Caple. Uruguay’s shots seemed more designed to “do that again” than win the game. Yet they should have won late on. Only Juan Boselli knows why he didn’t pass to a lonely Jose Luis Rodriguez on 87 minutes.

Italy’s Giuseppe Panico had the best chance, finding Mele’s chest from four yards. And they were grateful that second-choice keeper Alessandro Plizzari was almost as good as Zaccagno, whose non-selection as “Golden Glove” winner should have been referred to the VARs.

Uruguay didn’t need hapless penalty villain de la Cruz to lose this shoot-out, as the portly Rodrigo Amaral and Boselli both placed their kicks too close to Plizzari. And Italy celebrated their comprehensive shoot-out triumph with a passion their 90-minute display hadn’t hinted at and neutral spectators didn’t really feel. To them, though, amends were about to be made…

Venezuela 0 England 1

For once, the showpiece occasion merited the description; an extremely good game, with lashings of quality and drama, which made it exceptional for a final.

Farinez was kept busy. Solanke should have beaten him with a tenth-minute effort, as England quickly settled into the rhythm which earmarked them as tournament favourites from the finals’ earliest days. Lookman nearly beat him with a thumping 25-yarder. Calvert-Lewin plonked a good chance wide. A stellar Josh Onomah pass should have been converted by Solanke but wasn’t.

And then, on 35 minutes, for the first time since “some people were on the pitch” thinking it was “all over” (hey, it HAD to be referenced), England led in a World Cup Final. As Chapman keenly observed, it was the perfect hat-trick in one goal, as Calvert-Lewin won a header, cracked a right-foot shot which Farinez brilliantly saved and netted a left-foot rebound which Farinez almost brilliantly saved.

Venezuela were rarely in it. But when they were they really were. They nearly led when Ronaldo Lucenda’s…ahem…Ronaldo-esque 45-yard free-kick thumped the post (“Tomori territory” for those with memories of England centre-half Fikayo’s OWN goal from the same spot in a group game. “A World Cup Willie shot” for Sinclair). They nearly levelled when faux-blond Adalberto Penaranda fizzed a 25-yard free-kick inches past the same post. And England keeper Freddie Woodman was a semi-distant helpless observer of both.

England were markedly the better team until the game changed on 52 minutes. Venezuela sub Yefersen Soteldo exploded from the bench much as Ojo had in England’s semi-final, immediately setting up striker Sergio Cordova, who would have been tournament top-scorer by an innings if he wasn’t as profligate as he was prolific. Woodman gratefully leapt on his profligacy here.

However, continually inspired by Soteldo, the Venezuelan genie was out of the bottle. And the game developed wonderfully as a result. Influential and unmarked Venezuelan skipper Yangel Herrera headed straight at Woodman moments later before Onomah crashed a 30-yarder off the underside of the crossbar which bounced on the line and span to safety. EXACTLY like 1966.

Tomori, Guinea’s top-scorer after the afore-mentioned own goal, nearly netted for another team that wasn’t England when his bullet header was saved by Woodman, who was better prepared this time for Tomori’s (own)-goal-scoring instincts.

Then, on 73 minutes, Clarke-Salter caught Penaranda’s knee in the penalty box and, though not really needing the help, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers confirmed the spot-kick award after VAR intervention. “Only 38 seconds,” noted BBC commentator Guy Mowbray, approvingly. Although amidst the drama, the already-booked Tomori should have been dismissed for his signed protests at the decision, as the VAR experiment summary states “A player who uses the ‘review signal’ will be cautioned.”

These finals have lacked one thing in quality…the penalty-taking. And Penaranda was a stickler for this new tradition, directing his not-quite-Pannenka penalty centrally enough to allow Woodman to block it with his trailing arm as he dived past (think David Seaman v Scotland, Euro ’96).

Penaranda probably should have made more of the rebound too. But he was now determined to atone for his spot-kick error, creating Venezuela’s many good moments. And with England being about the best counter-attacking team in Korea (alongside the occasionally breathtaking Zambians), the excitement rarely relented.

England defended well, especially against crosses. And Venezuela came closest to equalising thanks to two unlikely sources. Clarke-Salter’s sliced clearance was probably going inches wide but was wisely scrambled to safety by Woodman anyway. And Farinez, who ventured forward throughout stoppage-time, morphed into a classy midfielder as he glided past defenders on the edge of the box in stoppage-time, before morphing back into a goalkeeper as he sliced his shot horribly wide.

Calvert-Lewin and Ojo both tried to beat the nomadic Venezuelan custodian from distance (see “60-yard pot-shot lobs,” above). And England’s continuing confidence made stoppage-time feel less fraught than it might have been (although diehard fans may have felt more fraught…51 years of hurt etc…), even when four minutes’ stoppage-time became six minutes, the first time I can recall that happening ON-SCREEN.

It is not unusual for holders of underage titles to fail to qualify to defend their trophy, as happened to 2015 winners Serbia. The next Under-20s finals will be in 2019 (with India, October’s World Under-17s Cup finals venue, as possible hosts). But a new England squad will be trying to qualify. However, England Under-17s’ recent European Championship display (beaten finalists on penalties) suggests that they will have a better crack at defending their trophy than most.

And the final was wholly appropriate to the tournament it concluded. It had the right teams with the right attitudes. Venezuela, coached in Korea by senior team boss Rafael Dudamel, got due reward for their investment. England, taking it seriously for a huge change, likewise. And the right result.

A happy ending to an excellent three weeks.