FINAL: France 0 Uruguay 0 (AET, France win 4-1 on pens) 3RD PLACE PLAY-OFF: Ghana 3 Iraq 0
The best team over the whole tournament won. The two teams who beat pre-tournament favourites Spain contested the final. And the tournament entered the final with a three-goals-per-game average, almost unheard of in modern times. So the fact that said final was one of the worst spectacles of the three weeks – only the second 0-0 in the 52 games – will leave tournament memories largely untarnished. As it turned out, British Eurosport’s decision not to screen a final highlights programme could almost be considered clairvoyant, even if it meant that yours truly – a Saturday evening shift worker – had to scrabble across the internerd for sufficient coverage of the game to offer a meaningful opinion on it. Suffice to say, even Eurosport’s uber-optimist Bryan Hamilton would have struggled for good words. And as for the third place play-off, well who in Britain would want to see that when there was Universidade Volleyball about?
Defensive tactics were probably quite wise for a Uruguay side whose strength was largely defensive. And they worked. The underdogs even had the best chance in the dull bits (i.e. the first 80 minutes), when, on 20 minutes, Nicolas Lopez brought some fine reactions out of French keeper Alphonse Areola after some dozy defending from Mouhamadou Sarr – a microcosm of France’s overall display. By 50 minutes, Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce was reduced to recitals from his crib sheets. And when the ball itself went flat, you couldn’t but regard it as the best, most perceptive analysis from an inanimate object since (insert your own least favourite TV pundit here – I’m undecided between Lawrenson and Hansen). Uruguay’s selection of beanpole striker Felipe Avenatti probably raised more eyebrows than the leaving out Giorgian De Arrascaeta to make room for him. But Avenatti didn’t have a chance worthy of the name until De Arrascaeta (“Darrisquirta”, according to Eurosport’s Stuart Robson) created one for him in the final ten minutes. And, having to use a foot rather than his head, Avenatti hesitated and Areola blocked the striker’s eventual shot.
Suitably awoken, France could have nicked it themselves moments later, forcing Uruguay’s Guillermo De Amores into his first, & then his last, meaningful save of the evening; flying through the air with the greatest of ease to turn aside Jordan Veretout’s piledriver from the edge of the box before blocking Alexy Bosetti’s eventual shot after a seemingly interminable goalmouth scramble. Such a game was hardly going to explode into life in extra-time, which gave the “straight to penalties” brigade thirty more minutes of evidence (matches in Fifa’s Under-17s World Cup take this more direct route to a conclusion, to general acclaim given that the competition is by definition not open to fully-fledged adults). Robson, commander-in-chief of said brigade, managed another reference to the Colombia/Korea Republic extra-time which we’d all have long forgotten about if he’d let us. And it was hard to know whether the referee decided not to add stoppage time to the 120 minutes because he was fed up with the game – more players getting cramp than having shots at goal – or with Robson’s whining.
Even the shoot-out lacked the genuine drama supplied by all the previous such events in the competition. Paul Pogba opened things up with the sort of arrogant “you don’t like me, I don’t care” attitude which his performances could only have merited if he’d lived up to his pre-tournament hype. He scored though, approaching the ball like a ballerina with blisters – barely moving forward at all for long periods – before striking it low to De Amores’ right. Veretout, Axel Ngando and Dimitri Foulquier all seemed to aim for the same square of the net while De Amores found athletic ways to head off in the wrong direction entirely. Meanwhile, Uruguay’s spot-kicks were uniformly terrible. Indeed, it almost looked as if Uruguay had pre-planned a shoot-out defeat. Perma-grinning Emiliano Velasquez looked happier still after he powder-puffed his effort at Areola’s gloves.
Most observers were puzzled by Nicolas Lopez’s non-appearance among the first four Uruguayan penalty-takers, while Boyce produced a stat of genuine relevance, noting that none of the four had taken part in their semi-final shoot-out victory. And Robson asked plaintively about the “players who should have been taking one,” including Avenatti, who Robson previously deemed of no use at all if he couldn’t win his headers. Mind you, Robson then suggested that Pogba had been “player of the tournament, without question,” which in turn suggested that Robson’s mind had gone down with cramp as badly as any player (mind you, Pogba was the official player-of-the-tournament, so what do I know?).
The third-place play-off was contested by the tournament’s most popular teams. Iraq’s coach Hakeem Al Azzawi was the non-playing star, his circular dances after each Iraqi goal were a joy to behold…and they scored so often that he visibly thinned over the three weeks. And Ghana’s destruction of the United States was in itself a near-guarantee of popularity in most nations. So it would have made a dream final for fans (and liberals and dancers)…after Spain’s exit anyway. The lunacy of Iraqi goalkeeper and captain Mohammed Hameed finally cost his side dear. Ghana went ahead after their first meaningful spell of pressure, when Hameed rushed to claim a Moses Odjer corner and found himself fifth in the queue, behind the three defenders he crashed into and Joseph Attama, who headed the ball into the suddenly unguarded net.
Hameed remonstrated with his defenders, like all keepers whose confidence is too often matched by their stupidity. And like all such keepers…he was wrong. Ebenezer Assifuah’s right-footed shot past Hameed’s too-tentatively outstretched hand made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time (check the video…Hameed almost withdraws his hand as the ball rolls casually by), effectively ended the game as a contest…and clinched the golden boot for the striker. But neither the entertainment nor Hameed’s contribution to it were quite over, as the keeper indulged in a bit of country dancing (“take your partner by the hand”) with Clifford Aboagye some yards from the penalty area after another headlong, headstrong rush from goal…a “subbuteo goalkeeper” Hameed is not. Frank Acheampong, probably just Ghana’s player-of-the-tournament, finished the scoring (for the tournament, as it turned out) and gave the scoreline a flattering look. Hameed may have deserved to have let in three but other players deserved better. That said, there were times when Hameed was magnificent and inspirational and overall, he deserves to be remembered from this tournament with fondness.
Still a great tournament, despite its final. And the list of players who will “make it” at senior level will be longer than it was in 2011. Spain were the biggest disappointment, after impressing in their group – outclassing France, lest we forget (in fact, the so-called ‘Group of Death’ nearly supplied three of the four semi-finalists). And they had to content themselves with the competition’s ‘fair play award,’ which may be the cause of hollow laughter in the Daniel Garcia household after the injuries the American player suffered in a “zealous” challenge by Spanish centre-back Israel Puerto. Gerard Deulofeu was probably setting his sights a little higher than a season on-loan at Goodison Park, although he and Everton boss Roberto Martinez could be a productive combination. Defender Jose Campana, meanwhile, appears to have been punished for Spanish defensive under-achievement…unless he wanted to join Crystal Palace.
With three goals, on average, in each game, it was little surprise that most of the quality came from midfield and forward players. Colombia’s Juan Quintero was the most eye-catching player, whose pinpoint accurate passes of all shapes and sizes were wasted by and on his colleagues (yes you, Jhon Cordoba). Portugal’s Bruma caught almost as many eyes and his work was wasted by and on his colleagues (yes you Aladje) – a skill differential resembling Glenn Hoddle and Mark Falco at 1980s Tottenham, although at least Falco WAS lethal from three yards, unlike Aladje. Ante Rebic stood out from the scruffy Croat crowd. Yaya Sanogo looked like he’d make a fine Arsenal player…until he formally became one halfway through the tournament, at which point his form nose-dived. Florian Thauvin’s tournament was inversely proportional to Sanogo’s. Meanwhile, Pogba was good but not that good. Chile’s Nicolas Castillo also took time to live up to his hype but eventually did so. Likewise Uruguay’s Lopez.
England…well…they were better than the under-21s. Everybody sort of did OK, with maybe Ross Barkley the stand-out – as his club experience suggested. Eric Dier has equivalent club experience, and at Sporting Lisbon too. But then you heard how dismal Sporting’s 2012/13 was, saw Dier struggle with his more mobile opponents, and much was explained. The better players from nations who exited too early were mostly Egyptian, such as Mahmoud Kharaba and, against England anyway, Trezeget – although Trezeget might be wise to share a name with a player of a more appropriate pedigree. At the back, the talent was even less obvious than would normally be the case. If the BBC’s Martin Keown thought the defending at the Confederations Cup was bad (and it was), his head might have exploded at some of the games here. The scoring and entertainment was mostly due to the quality of attacking play…but not entirely.
Uruguay’s Guillermo Varela was, we were told 94,000 times, David Moyes’ first signing for Manchester United. And for much of the competition, he suggested that Moyes had made a good start. Uruguayan coach Juan Verzeri was a dab hand at substitutions, though. And he made Varela a substitute for the final. So, we’ll see. France badly missed Samuel Umtiti in the final, as he was the type of “English” style centre-half Mick McCarthy used to drool over when he co-commentated for the BBC. Greece’s Konstantinos Stafylidis was good going forwards and backwards – a rare combination in a “modern” defender. He was certainly too good for his compatriots. But no-one matched Iraq’s Ali Adnan for ubiquity (except, in later games, his midfield team-mate Humam Tareq). A star going forward, a star going backwards, a star at setpieces…and, probably, a star at Galatasary soon.
Uruguay’s Guillermo De Amores conceded the fewest goals, so won the “golden gloves” award. But Portugal’s Jose Sa made the most spectacular saves and, whisper it, England’s Samuel Johnstone actually looked the most solid custodian. Others to watch? Nigeria’s Abdul Ajagun, Mexico’s Jorge Espericueta, Croatia’s Marko Livaja (booked after five seconds of his first game…real star quality) and Cuba’s Adrian Diz Pe…just for the name, really…oh…and his mohican – it was the tournament’s de rigueur hairstyle & his was simply the best. As for others to ignore? The Turkish and Australian squads…en bloc. While Portugal’s Aladje and Greece’s Andreas Bouchalakis contrived to miss the unmissable. This wasn’t typical of Bouchalakis’s competition, & he doesn’t deserve to be remembered just for missing from three yards. This was typical of Aladje’s competition. And he does.
Thanks again to British Eurosport and Eurosport 2 UK for showing so much of the tournament, even if their scheduling seemed occasionally brainless. I have written to the channel asking for explanations (which may confirm nothing more than my official descent into middle-age), so I’ll leave it at that for now. All the commentators were good and most co-commentators were very good indeed. Gary O’Reilly’s default position may be sarcasm, and too much sarcasm for some, but that was fine by me. And speaking of sarcasm, Mark Bright was witty, incisive and informative. Stuart Robson was genuinely authoritative and professional, if clearly emotionally scarred by that Colombia/Korea extra-time. Bryan Hamilton enjoyed even the mediocre games…such as Croatia v Chile. And Stan Collymore was an all-too-brief contributor, an outstanding presence – aside from literally a couple of reversions to Talksport over-excitement. But the real, REAL star of the tournament? The spray can. Spray round the ball when it is placed for a free-kick and spray a line ten yards from the ball over which defensive walls cannot step, on pain of booking. Like all the world’s greatest ideas, simplicity itself.
A joyous tournament.
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