The FIFA Under-20s World Cup: The Story So Far

They’re already up to the quarter-finals of this year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup. Here’s Mark Murphy with an update on where it’s got to so far.

The group stage

What’s wrong with Honduras youth football? After their 3-0 defeat to Fiji in 2015’s Under 20s World Cup, I didn’t expect the current team to say “Hold my beers…”

Norway’s TWELVE-nil win over the hapless Hs was so unexpected that announcers had to specify that Norway won. Mind you, Honduras were a shambles in losing their first game 5-0 to New Zealand, Darwin Diego putting through his own net after eight minutes for no reason whatsoever; although at least he was moving in his own penalty box, unlike his colleagues for any of the other goals.

But the Junior All-Whites (All-Blacks in their first two games) beat Norway 2-0, Gianni Stensness drilling home the goal of the groups from 35 yards (“terrr…rocket of a finish” – disoriented commentator John Helm). And Honduras ‘only’ lost 2-0 to Uruguay, their defending suddenly coherent. THEN things got weirder.

In 24-team events, three points and non-horrendous goal differences usually qualify teams for last-16s (in 2011, Guatemala qualified with three points and a horrendous goal difference). Norway’s three points and better goal difference than any group winner…didn’t. Erling Haaland (nine-goal ‘hero’ against Honduras) win might be home now, pondering life with dad, Alf-Inge (yes, Forest/Leeds fans, HIM). Norway’s 3-1 defeat to Uruguay was a fine game, Uruguay playing bright football which simply looked wrong in those dirty blue shirts. But New Zealand simply caught them out.

The big surprise exit, however, was European champions Portugal. They were coasting to victory against pointless South Africa, who lost 5-2 to Argentina and should have shipped five to Korea Republic. But a second-half South African penalty and Portuguese penalty miss kept the scores level, and Portugal, toothless in victory over Korea Republic and defeat to Argentina, couldn’t craft a winner.

Korea Republic beat Argentina 2-1. But they nearly drew, which would have qualified them only as a best third-placed team, subbing both scorers when they were two-up on 20 minutes and soaking up considerable pressure to the end. But the win left Portugal in third and knocked-out. It was the narrowest of exits, mind. They matched the fourth-best third-placed team, Panama, on points and goal difference. But the Panamanians qualified by scoring three goals to Portugal’s two. Having been pegged back by Firas Alburaikan’s wonder strike for pointless Saudi Arabia (the Asian champions), Diego Valanta found a 78th-minute winner, Panama’s first at an Under-20s finals.

Tournament favourites France laboured to three wins, struggling to put away the Saudis who had ten men for 80 minutes and only really clicking into gear for about 15 minutes in their feisty 3-2 win over African champions Mali.

Mali came from two-down against Saudi Arabia to win 4-3. Mali dominated against Panama but conceded two points to a soft penalty. They conceded another against the Saudis but were gifted a goal by Saudi keeper Abdulrahman Alshammari side-footing the ball straight to Sekou Koita, who somehow stopped laughing long enough to score.

Penalties were the bane of Ecuador’s group games. Jordan Rezabala had one saved in their 1-1 draw with Japan. Likewise Leonardo Campana in their 1-0 loss to Italy, where they dominated the second half against a, ahem, ‘robust’ Italy despite Jackson Porozo seeing red before half-time. But South America’s champions avoided their European and Asian counterparts’ fate with a 1-0 win over under-achieving Mexico.

Davide Frattesi took 166 seconds to open Italy’s scoring account, in their 2-1 win over Mexico. But by then, Senegal’s Amadou Sagna was looking for his second goal, having taken nine seconds to confirm Tahiti’s potential as tournament whipping-boys. It was unfulfilled potential. Senegal declared when Sagna completed his hat-trick. And while they shipped five to Poland and six to Colombia, Tahiti were no Honduras.

Hosts Poland were rubbish. They were more heavily beaten by Colombia than two-nil suggests. And it was handy that, having impressively beaten Colombia, Senegal didn’t need to beat Poland. Nil-nil suited both sides. And it showed. Polish fans have been way better than the team. And when nil-nil looked inevitable, they celebrated magnificently.

Ukraine were surprisingly good. The United States perhaps should have beaten them, their coach, tournament perennial Tab Ramos, “satisfied” even in defeat. But the US had to settle for second place, despite a stunning team performance, in beating Nigeria 2-0. Nigeria also qualified after thumping some idiot’s (my) pick as tournament dark horses Qatar and drawing a nasty encounter with Ukraine. Qatar scored and conceded goals-a-plenty in the Asian qualifiers. Here they just conceded.

Second round

The ghastly Poles apart, the last-16 were the right 16. And the Poles lost 1-0 to Andrea Pinamonti’s first-half ‘Pannenka’ penalty for Italy. Italy were on top for 70 minutes, until Pinamonti dim-wittedly tried another ‘Pannenka’ from 20 yards and predictably amusingly failed. Then Poland tried to play and discovered that they could…a bit. But Italy’s defence were stereotypical enough (just) to see out a slightly better game than many feared.

New Zealand were the lone surprise package. But they confirmed that they were well worth their place by taking Colombia to extra-time and penalties in a terrific match they could have won…and surely would have won if they’d worn their lucky tournament black.

Andres Reyes headed home an early free-kick for an impressive Colombian side, wearing pink-and-blue shirts to stir the hipster souls of Dulwich Hamlet fans. But New Zealand deservedly levelled, once the chances stopped falling to the lively, fabulously-named but limited Callum McCowatt, the equally fabulously-named Elijah Just applying the deftest close-range finish to Liberato Cacace’s inch-perfect cross. Surprisingly, no more goals followed, partly because the ref blew the final whistle 90 seconds early.

New Zealand finishing only three places above Poland in the final rankings was cruel, especially on keeper Michael Woud, who saved Colombia’s first three shoot-out penalties but was penalised for encroachment in making the third save (officials at last taking a blind bit of notice of such things). Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get near another kick. And midfielder Joe Bell became the time-honoured “player-of-the-match who misses vital shoot-out penalty,” as New Zealand eventually lost 5-4.

Denys Popov popped up again to score a key goal as Ukraine overcame ‘plucky’ Panama 4-1 and establish themselves, if it isn’t already too late to do so, as tournament ‘dark horses.’ Having scored both their group-stage winning goals, he put Ukraine two-up here, just before half-time. And when Danylo Sikan made it 3-0 even more just before the break, the game was up.

The draw did little to keep geopolitics out of sport, throwing up three intra-continental fixtures. Ecuador won the South American ‘derby’ (what’s 2,600 miles between rivals?), gaining revenge after Uruguay beat Ecuador twice on the way to…er…Ecuador winning 2019’s South American under-20 title.

Uruguay led on 11 minutes, with the (s)crappiest goal of the tournament, Ronald Araujo netting after the ball pinballed off keeper and post. Alexander Alvarado levelled from the penalty spot, ‘non-celebrating’ as if Uruguay was one of his former clubs. And a feisty, entertaining affair turned decisively in the last quarter-hour. Thanks in part, according to the commentator, to the “beautiful” refereeing of Michael Oliver.

Ecuador were 2-1 up when Oliver won it. Sergio Quintero had thumped a half-cleared corner into the net when Uruguay’s Bruno Mendez batted away Alvarado’s goalbound drive, his arm aloft, while he shouted “ow, my hand,” in Spanish, which Oliver somehow spotted from fully NINE yards away. Gonzalo Plata netted and penalties, the bane of Ecuador in the groups, were suddenly their future. Well done, Michael Oliver. England to retain their title after all.

John Helm ‘heard’ that Senegal/Nigeria would be “attritional” and was determined to push that narrative, which he was eventually weaned off by what he called “an African thriller” as a sensational second half unfolded.

The impressive Sagna and the…erm…’tall’ Ibrahima Niane gave Senegal a merited two-nil interval lead, Niane kneeing the second goal high into the net from half-a-yard RIGHT on half time. But Nigeria blew apart the ‘great time to score’ narrative, upping their tempo after the break and pulling one back on 59 minutes when perpetual motion in dark green, Aniekeme Okon, diverted Success Makanjoula’s 20-yard free-kick high into the net. Freak goal or fabulous? Galvanising either way.

Only even-taller Senegal striker Youssoph Badji’s ungainly efforts to find the net (“he needs a goal” – Helm) strayed from the general quality. That, and Helm’s insistence that certain players had “christian” names. Senegal looked likeliest to the end. But Nigeria finishing one place BELOW Poland in the final rankings was very cruel indeed.

The third geopolitical nightmare, Korea Republic/Japan, was a football one for 45 minutes, the match commentator talking about the weather after 15 minutes. And when he asked who’d be the “happier” coach, the answer was whoever most wanted to bore the collective arse off the crowd. Then Korea Republic changed from a back-five to a back-four and the game became a classic.

Japan were denied a 50th-minute goal by an obscure but correct offside call, one to irritate VAR luddites. Each keeper made a ‘save of the tournament’ candidate. Korea Republic’s big number nine Sehun Oh glance-headed home the 84th-minute winner. And the ref ended the game as the ball pinged around the six-yard box after a Japanese corner.

Pre-tournament favourites France fell to a similarly late winner, from the USA. Sebastian Soto opened the scoring, telegraphing his shot so much you could see its destination on radio, French keeper Alban Lafont clearly too young to have heard of ‘radio.’ But France’s formerly off-station main men, Moussa Diaby and headline-writers’ gift Michael Cuisance, were on the right wavelength, Cuisance hitting the outside of the post before Diaby set up big number nine Amine Gouiri’s expertly-taken equaliser.

Diaby also hit the post after half-time and Nabil Alioui thumped home the loose ball. Then the opposite of the commentator’s curse (blessing?) struck Tim Weah, who played the killer pass for Soto’s second goal to a soundtrack of “he’s been too quiet so far in this second half.” And with seven minutes left, Justin Rennicks netted the rebound after Lafont spilled Sergino Dest’s 25-yard “screamer.”

Mali rescued their tournament with no extra-time second-half stoppage-time left against Argentina. Sekou Koita, one of the tournament stars so far, nearly gave Mali a first-half lead when his stunning free-kick was finger-nailed onto the bar by Argentine keeper Manuel Roffo. But he saved his most stunning free-kick until (very) last. He found Bouboucar Konte when nobody else was looking. And Konte drilled home Mali’s second equaliser of the night.

Adolfo Gaich had fired Argentina ahead, Clement Kanoute’s clearance hitting an unsuspecting Abdoulaye Diaby and falling comically perfectly for the big number nine. Diaby stayed involved, bullet-heading Mali level but, in extra-time’s opening minute, inadvertently diverting Ezequiel Barco’s off-target shot into his own net. However, Mali keeper Youssouf Koita saved Tomas Chancaly’s shoot-out spot-kick and Mali netted all five of theirs.

The football so far

Mostly really good, especially the second round, where tournaments’ prospects of memorability often go to their grave. There wasn’t a nil-nil for six days, and that was an entertaining affair between already qualified pair Italy and Japan. Yuli Kobayashi nearly side-footed a brilliant 35-yarder into…his own net. Then Marco Carnesecchi became the second Italian keeper to save a penalty.

As per in under-20s finals, defensive attitudes are at a premium. The common, often effective, use of ‘the big number nine’ has been a joyous riposte to tactical snobs. And the crowds haven’t been awful. The stage is set for some future big names to emerge.

VAR so far

Video assistants have felt part of this tournament’s furniture. They’ve seemed busy, with every check captioned on-screen. Most have happened as play continued and would otherwise have gone un-noticed. Some have mattered too. Argentina benefited from a “VAR penalty” and a yellow card turning red while hammering South Africa, the penalty coming with the score 1-1. And Ecuador could have been out if Mexico’s ‘equaliser’ wasn’t disallowed for a VAR-spotted offside (the cameras’ focus on Mexico’s Mario Trejo as he awaited the fate of his ‘goal’ seemed un-necessary. Funny, though).

VAR is here to stay.

On the box

Awful. With ‘Free Sports’ (FS), you get what you don’t pay for. They have broadcast, live or ‘as-live,’ just 18 of the first 44 games with no highlights, or mention, of the others. And their coverage lacks context and analysis to the point of allergy. For instance, Portugal’s impending exit was completely ignored while the other match in the group, Korea Republic against already-qualified Argentina was on-air.

As-live coverage has irritating quarterly ad breaks (preparation for future games structure?). And the two-hour Colombia/New Zealand as-live coverage needed extending for extra-time and penalties, sacrificing some ‘Formula Drift’ motor racing (no…me neither). Un-necessarily, too. A professional video editor could have accommodated everything. FS eschews such extravagance. Rather than edit-out breaks in play or the interminable faffing around surrounding extra-time, they simply cut the third quarter of the match altogether.

If this is free-to-air sport-broadcasting’s future, this future is shit.

The quarter-finals

In 2017, England already looked likely champions by now. But anyone could still win here. Flair fans will probably cheer on Colombia, against Ukraine, Mali, against Italy and Senegal against Korea Republic, while pondering USA/Ecuador, before remembering whose president Donald Trump is.

Fab games await.