Serbia were one of the first two teams I saw live on telly in this ultimately satisfying World Under-20s Cup Finals. And, decent though they were, they didn’t scream “potential world champions” at me. Nemanja Maksimovic’s slide-rule finish on one hundred and eighteen minutes gave the Serbs what we were reminded every ninety-four seconds was their first world title “as an independent nation.” However, between reminders ninety-one and ninety-two, British Eurosport commentator Wayne Boyce informed us that Fifa had “given” Serbia the 1987 title won by Yugoslavia, in a supreme piece of historical revisionism and geo-political nonsense.
I’d like to nominate one of the recently-indicted Fifa officials to tell players such as Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki that they’d won for Serbia…and to do so in the middle of Croatian capital Zagreb. Some of them might feel safer confessing to racketeering.
I’d doubt whether many of this Serbian unit will be as well remembered in 2043 as Suker et al are now. They were firmly in the well-drilled column, which was especially evident for much of the final’s uninspiring first half. Indeed, their best moment of the first 45 minutes came in the 46th minute (first-half stoppage time, not satirical comment) when Sergei Milinkovic should have headed them ahead.
Until then, goalkeeper Pedrag Rajkovic and left-back Nemanja Antonov had been their stand-out performers, as Brazil sought what we were reminded every 94 seconds was their record-equalling sixth title at this level, which would have matched rivals Argentina.
However, Boyce was understating in industrial quantities when he noted just before the hour that “the game has opened up a bit since half-time.” Co-commentator Stewart Robson offered “the game is becoming a bit more spread” as his version of the “game’s getting stretched” cliché. And with 20 minutes left, things really got spread.
Serbia’s front two, Stanisa Mandic and Ivan Saponjic, had misfired horribly for much of the match, Saponjic vindicating coach Veljko Paunovic’s decision to use him only as a substitute in previous matches. But Mandic was unmarked in the right place as Milinkovic’s right-wing cross rolled along the six-yard line. And it was a chance not even he could miss. Three minutes later Brazil substitute Andreas Pereira had “Manchester United fans licking their lips” with a solo equaliser which combined his superb balance with defending most resembling “interpretive dance.” That Pereira is at United would surely have cakewalked When Saturday Comes magazine’s long-standing “overused fact of the tournament” award.
Yet Brazil’s display was best summed up by “number ten” Gabriel’s permanently exasperated expression and Marcos Guilherme’s regular-as-clockwork failures to net curling right-footed shots from the edge of the box. They were made to pay as they tired late in extra-time. And even after Milinkovic’s winner Serbia could/should have scored again. It was little wonder Brazil ran out of gas. The tournament, and the gap between rounds, was truncated by staging four games-per-day for as long as there were four games to stage. That left the winners, all effectively teenagers remember, having to play seven games in a 20-day tournament.
On top of this, Brazil went to extra-time and penalties three times, making their workload EIGHT games. And on top of this still, Brazil didn’t start until June 4th, making it eight games in SEVENTEEN days. Insanity. However, lest anyone label this the reason for their ultimate failure (which “losing finalists” still unequivocally is in Brazil, despite the senior team’s 2014 traumas), Serbia needed extra-time FOUR times. Eight-and-a-third games in, for them, eighteen days.
That the final was, notwithstanding the deadly dull first half, the best in many years, is a remarkable testament to everything about the finalists. This should be remembered, lest anyone feel Serbia were somehow unworthy champions…or if Fifa decide to redistribute the title in the wake of any further Balkans geopolitical shifts.
Not that Serbia were the best team to watch in New Zealand. Often they looked nowhere near it, especially during their attritional quarter-final against the United States…and during their struggle with the singularly unimpressive Hungarians in the previous round…and their opening group game loss to Uruguay…you get the message. Yet such teams are far from always the winners… think Brazil in the 1982 senior finals (or Portugal in 1966 ☺). And the Serbs were not difficult to warm to. After regular references to his place in Serbia’s full international side, it was a relief to see Andrija Zivkovic eventually, if fleetingly, live up to his reputation. Rajkovic was among the best keepers on show. And Antonov was likeably miserable. Coach Veljko Paunovic was also a watchable touchline presence, without resorting to the usual lunacy of that particular genre. His substitutions worked a little too often to be just luck. And fair play to him if he can now command the sort of money that he used to earn as Dave Grohl’s stunt double on Foo Fighters tours (a role which Grohl could have usefully resurrected on the current tour).
Brazil’s coach Rogerio Micale is, an elderly relative informed me, the spit of “Harold from Neighbours.” I shall die happy not fully knowing what that means. But his team were no less stereotypically Brazilian. They lacked the skill and guile to breach Uruguay’s defences in round two. And Portugal had enough clear chances to overcome a similarly straight-jacketed approach to their goalless quarter-final. It was a touch more “just like watching Brazil” against Senegal in the semi-finals. But even that only came after the wind was almost visibly taken from Senegalese sails by going a freak goal down so soon. Senegal Andelinou Correa’s third-minute opener would have been lauded to the hilt…had it been in the right net. Four minutes later, it was two-nil and the first component of the “dream” African final was in tatters, Brazil declaring at five after going four-up before half-time.
Serbia/Mali was the first game I watched live on the telly and it didn’t scream “potential semi-final” at me. Thankfully, this “dress rehearsal” stood to both sides and their semi-final was, mostly, terrific. Mali were hampered by fielding the Invisible Man’s twin brother at right-back during a fantastic first half, and Zivkovic could have won the game in normal time had he any faith at all in his right-foot.
But Souleymane Koulibaly recovered magnificently from his erroneous part in Serbia’s early opener and his side were eventually worth Youssouf Kone’s late outswinger of an equaliser from thirty yards. Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce actually identified Aboubacar Doumbia as the crowd’s darling, suggesting that they were “singing his name” during the second half. However, the chant was actually “Serbia,” sung in the Serbs’ traditionally deep voices, as was made clear by its re-emergence as their team lorded it in extra-time. Kone’s brainless second booking, for a tug on the untouchable referee’s shoulder, came long after Saponjic’s headed winner, which he celebrated by momentarily but still disturbingly turning into a gurning Les Dawson (please don’t have to ask your Dad about him).
Mali were worthy bronze medallists. “Third-place play-offs” are “bronze medal matches” in modern Fifa parlance. However, with actual medals at stake, such games matter, hence the quality of their 3-1 win over Senegal. Mali have now scored enough fabulous goals for their own “goal-of-the-tournament” competition, having added three late beauties to Kone’s semi-final strike and the terrific treble which saw off Ghana in round two. This was after going behind to a Senegal side reduced to ten when Moussa Ba took his turn to collect two cautions.
It remains remarkable that Adama Traore’s 25-yard thunderbolt after shaking off two defenders, was with his weaker foot. Nine minutes previously, he’d curled in the free-kick of the tournament left-footed, which left Sy wide-eyed in wonderment after it flew past him. And Sy didn’t even move for Traore’s second, about the only time he was motionless all tournament.
Naturally, there were two more rotten penalties to add to the rogues’ gallery of 12-yard failures. At 1-1, the irrepressible Sy kneed away Falaye Sacko’s spot-kick and Diadie Samassekou cried in anguish as he found the net from the rebound…only for the ball he’d just headed to fly miles over. And Senegal failed to make it 2-2 when Mali keeper Djigui Diarra saved both Malick Niang’s spot-kick and Mamadou Thiam’s powder-puff rebound.
But it wouldn’t have been a proper stage of this tournament without rotten penalties. After all, even Germany lost on them, after missing a pivotal one in normal time.
Mali’s loss to Uruguay on the drawing of lots for second place in their group was their gain in the end. But their quarter-final victory over Germany was as much of a lottery.
It is at least unusual for a player to go off injured after getting whacked on the side of the face with the ball. It may have happened in the “old days” when footballs were made of sterner stuff. However, footballers were also made of sterner stuff then, apparently. So Mark Stendera’s departure was a surprise, as was the effect of his absence on Germany’s performance.
Stendera was good, apart from corners which became a running joke for Eurosport’s perma-jocular pundit Gary O’Reilly. But not that good, surely? Julian Brandt’s superbly-taken 38th-minute goal should have underpinned their expected victory, even after the 94th rubbish penalty of the tournament, Hany Mukhtar’s perfectly weighted side-foot pass to Diarra on 55 minutes. Coulibaly’s headed equaliser, three minutes later, from an erroneously-awarded free-kick, “inspired” some unexpected “Dad-dancing” among Malian celebrants which might have had a few more neutrals rooting for Germany. And if Mukhtar hadn’t been as woeful from eight yards as he had been from 12, the Germans would have won the match…and possibly the tournament. “We will carry our hats high,” German coach Frank Wormuth said afterwards, clearly still traumatised by events.
Senegal were some neutrals’ favourites, if only for Sy’s antics, which also lit up their torturous 1-0 win over Uzbekistan in the quarter-finals after he’d stolen a number of shows in their shoot-out elimination of Ukraine. And it was a shame that Portugal’s “bronze generation” (someone somewhere will have called them that) bowed out so meekly on penalties. There was a dearth of genuine star players, however. Fifa’s pre-tournament blurb that “the future stars of world football will be setting stadiums alight across the country” proved as credible as a Jack Warner plea of innocence. Sy was a “star” but he was a better personality than he was a keeper.
Yet it was a successful tournament (on and off the pitch, according to Eurosport’s Stewart Robson, though how he could ascertain that from his commentary position twelve time zones away isn’t clear). And the sight of Serbia’s Vukasin Jovanovic bawling his eyes out after the final was a fitting closing image of a tournament that mattered and still merits more focus than it gets in the UK.
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