So. Farewell, then, a Brazil/Nigeria Under-17 World Cup final. As I predicted here, Mexico had next-to-no chance of beating Brazil. So they did. Just to spite me. And Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce was left almost tearfully lamenting the loss of “the dream final.” Boyce’s commentary colleague Tim Caple had breathlessly recommended to viewers of Sweden’s surprisingly entertaining 2-1 quarter-final win over Honduras that they stick around to watch “this Brazilian team” in action. And whilst there was always a nagging doubt that Caple was tempting fate, few outside Mexico’s fanbase gave their side an earthly.
Bizarrely, given that it finished 11-10 after 24 spot-kicks, Mexico thoroughly deserved to win the penalty shoot-out – almost to the point of outclassing the Brazilians. The Selecao scuffed at least three of their successful efforts and found a previously undiscovered hole in Mexican keeper Raul Gudino’s gloves with two others. Mexico’s successful kicks, meanwhile, were either well placed shots or, in the case of Ulises Rivas when the shoot-out was 5-4 and he HAD to score, let Boyce unveil his surely pre-prepared “pop up with a Pannenka” line as Rivas chipped his spot-kick straight down the middle while Brazil keeper Marcos flew to his right. This in turn let Boyce’s co-commentator Stewart Robson bring out his “why don’t the keepers just stand still?” line. But when both keepers appeared too drained to do anything else late in the shoot-out, they ended up watching shots – hit and mishit – roll into the corners.
Such a prolonged shoot-out inevitably produced potential heroes-turned-villains…and vice-versa. Brazil substitute Leo Pereira’s most memorable contribution to the evening had threatened to be his crass slide tackle on Marco Granados to concede the cleverly-worked free-kick which put Mexico ahead on 81 minutes (Granados was mis-controlling the ball out of play when he was sent into orbit). But his penalty made it 6-5. And perhaps the only Mexican any neutral observers would have wanted to miss, “feisty” (ahem) centre-back Pedro Teran, probably hit the best penalty of the lot, despite being the very last outfielder on Mexico’s list of penalty-takers. Brazilian right-back Auro followed him and was the first taker to have problems placing the ball – the referee appearing to insist that he leave it in the near-crater formed by previous scuffed efforts (mostly by his team-mates, remember). However, Auro’s real problem was that he had cramped up severely, which was why keeper Marcos had taken Brazil’s 10th penalty.
That Auro then found the corner of the net with a power many of his colleagues had lacked was remarkable. That Eurosport’s Stewart Robson suggested that the by-now flat-out Auro could “drag himself off the park” was more remarkable still – even for an occasional killjoy such as Robson. You could see the leg contract as Auro ended his follow-through. Alas, such heroics were in vain, as Mexico keeper Gudino made no mistake with his penalty, while Brazil number nine Mosquito made one mistake with his. The shoot-out had all the evening’s out-and-out drama, although the match itself was a fascinating watch (if not the classic Boyce and Robson claimed), especially for a game of so few clear chances. It seemed impossible for Mexico’s defenders to keep up that intensity of tackling and closing down for 90 minutes, especially when the best of them, Osvaldo Rodriguez, limped off early in the second half.
Yet when Ivan Ochoa converted the result of Leo Periera’s moment of red-mist defending, the impossible was happening…on and off the pitch. Mexican coach Raul Gutierrez’s previous perma-scowl became something altogether scarier when the ball went in – probably as close to a smile as a face could muster, having been in grimace-mode for so long. “Have Brazil got the character to go with the skill and get back into this?” asked Robson. Yes, they had. Nathan volleyed home the equaliser after his own shot had been blocked. And Leo Periera, almost inevitably, came closest to a winner when his header hit the bar. But that just set up the real drama.
If Nigeria’s Yahaya and Italy’s Scuffet adequately described their teams’ styles, then so too did Swedish defenders the Ramhorn twins, Sebastien and Johan. It could be argued that their game against Honduras offered a contrast in styles in that the Hondurans had some. But that would be unfair on the ultimate match-winner, Valmir Berisha. Berisha’s likening to Sweden’s senior star Zlatan Ibrahimovic has seemed lazily based merely on both players’ Eastern European family origins, from whence comes their distinctly un-Swedish names (cynics may argue they look about the same age, but that’s for another time). At other times, though, you can see what ‘they’ mean. And the 74th minute of this quarter-final was one of those other times.
Honduras were an altogether more expansive proposition than they had been in their previous two games – excusably against Brazil, less so against 10-man (10-adolescent?) Uzbekistan. Brayan Velasquez was as busy as you like up front. And Eurosport’s Gary O’Reilly likened athletic full-back Kevin Alvarez to ex-England international Viv Anderson (“I bet you didn’t come into work today expecting to hear his name,” O’Reilly said to commentary colleague Tim Caple, whose temporary, stunned silence somehow echoed the thoughts of a nation). Honduras even deserved their 37th-minute lead. Brayan Velasquez shrugged off three attempts by Erdal Rakip to haul him down – two inside the box – before “swinging his right boot at it” (O’Reilly) to net about the 94th ‘goal of the tournament’ contender.
Sweden’s equaliser was timely. Honduras were losing the neutral vote as each player tool a turn to contract “falling down-it is” at the first sight of potential contact. Gentrit Citaku spent much of the match bombing down Sweden’s right-wing with little thought of turning left. But on 68 minutes, he was in central midfield and played the perfect defence-splitter to Rakip, who gave the pass the finish it deserved (“he gave the defenders the eye,” O’Reilly noted of Citaku , approvingly and often). Then six minutes later, Berisha produced about the 95th ‘goal of the tournament’ contender, an audacious, nay, outlandish – and, yes, Ibrahimovic-esque – backheel to convert a move which involved the two Swedish substitutes who had been introduced just moments earlier – after the equaliser, in fact. Berisha threatened to undo all his good work with a Gangnam-style celebration before mercifully thinking better of it.
After Brazil’s apparent exposure as ‘flat-track bullies’ and ‘flatterers to deceive’ (both conclusions a little disrespecting of Mexico’s display), eyes were on Uruguay’s attempts to similarly expose Nigeria. But although La Celeste were more robust opponents than Iraq and Iran combined, they were a distant second best and could have been just as hockeyed in the end. Taiwo Awoniyi got the two goals which eventually proved enough. Kelechi Iheanacho is probably the favourite to be tournament top scorer now that Brazil’s Boschilio is on his way home (he has five goals to Boschilio’s six). And his assist for Awoniyi’s 18th-minute opener might give him the award if he is tied with anyone at the top of the scoring charts come the tournament’s end. Worthily, too. It was a cracking pass. There were only ten Golden Eaglets on the pitch when Awoniyi virtually clinched matters with his and his side’s second, eleven minutes from time. But half of them were involved in the move which got him the ball, with Iheanacho getting his name to the top of the assist list.
Uruguay’s response was either to burst into tears or try to hack down the nearest moving Nigerian. Three of those who were a booking away from a semi-final suspension duly picked them up as soon as it didn’t matter. And this lack of late dignity added to the ambivalence felt towards Uruguay by many neutrals – despite the team’s fourteen goals in their four previous matches. But Nigeria were largely a joy again, on the pitch and in the stands – the atmosphere resembled an important international fixture for about the first time at these finals. And not even Leroy Rosenior’s uncanny ability to mask any enthusiasm he may have been feeling in the Eurosport co-commentary position could prevent that. There was no ambivalence towards these Golden Eaglets by many, or maybe any, neutrals.
The ambivalence returns, though, when Argentina take the field/screen. Like their neighbours over the River Plate, they’ve been consistent scorers – three in each of their previous three games coming into the quarter-finals. Joaquin Ibanez has got the goals, although Sebastien Driussi has looked the better forward at times. But, again like Uruguay, they have seemed to view flair as for other people. And when they went two-up against a befuddled, tactically implausible Cote D’Ivoire, you sensed that they wouldn’t press home that advantage. They didn’t. And it was fortunate that Cote D’Ivoire left it until the last 15 minutes to turn from New Zealand into Nigeria. Their first-half display resembled little more than a contest to see who could miss the target by the biggest distance, with the benchmark being that if the shot was thirty yards from goal, it had to be thirty yards high and wide of it.
Their coach dressed like their coach driver and that seemed to be the origin of their first-half tactics. But once captain Franck Kessie converted a fortuitously-awarded penalty, there was no stopping them. And had they got going even ten minutes earlier, they might have forced more penalties. In fact, they became more like Nigeria with every Nigerian fan entering the ground (Nigeria’s game followed an hour later. Meanwhile, Argentina were so timid in the second half that only one of their players a suspension away from the semis will now miss the game. Even “our friend” (O’Reilly) Lucio Compagnucci failed to get in a tackle with enough bite for a booking. A curious match.
So, four semi-finalists, four different confederations represented; not a situation the senior tournament has ever produced. Sweden/Nigeria is, of course, a remake of one of the best games of the group stages, with the Swedes the only team yet to come close to beating Nigeria. They can take hope from that and from the fact that if they could beat Japan playing like they did then, they can beat anybody. Those appear to be their only hopes, though. Otherwise it’s Nigeria all the way for me. Mexico, meanwhile, will take hope from three facts. They beat Brazil, so they can beat anybody. They are the tournament’s ‘story’ in that they could win it, despite losing their first game 6-1 (and by beating their conquerors that day). And it would be two-in-a-row for both the nation and for coach Gutierrez, who ran the show when Le Tri won on home turf in 2011. Add Argentina’s irritating and irritable mediocrity to the mix and its Mexico all the way for me.
Sweden/Argentina final it is then.
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