And now, live from the man who told you that “with my forecasting prowess, the US look a decent each-way bet”, the next instalment of teenage-plus Fifa football fun and frolics in New Zealand…
Signs of taking football too seriously, no. 1: Racing around to finish early morning chores in time for British Eurosport highlights of Uzbekistan v Austria Under-20s at seven o’clock in the morning. In fairness, the Uzbeks’ two-nil win over aimless Austria wasn’t half bad (i.e. the first half was). Something went on in all the last-16 matches at the Under-20s World Cup, which could not necessarily have been said about this much-maligned round in previous competitions. And the stars of the round were definitely African, a toss-up between Mali’s private goal-of-the-season competition entrants and fruitcake Senegalese goalkeeper Ibrahima Sy.
Probably the last time most sports fans saw Wellington’s “Cake Tin”- as the city’s regional stadium is known because it looks like a…well…cake tin – the crowd was rocking as New Zealand’s cricketers were putting the West Indies to the sword in their World Cup quarter-final. In the sharpest of contrasts, the crowd for Mali’s surprise three-mil win over Ghana was rattling around the tin. The “smattering” (there weren’t enough people for a “crowd”) was possibly as little as 3% of the stadium’s 48,000 capacity (the official crowd was 2,235 but most of them must have been early arrivals for the second game – below). Indeed, it would have rattled around even the smallest of the finals’ venues. This was a shame, not least because it represented 1% of capacity per stunning goal.
Mali’s opener came from two one-twos between Diadie Samassekou and the inevitable Traore (Adama) before Samassekou rifled home a right-foot drive from the edge of the box. Dieudonne Gbakle netted the second, a stunning, curling left-footer from 20 yards which keeper Lawrence Ati could only have heard, not seen (“God’s gift,” said Eurosport’s Dave Farrar, possibly exhausting his French vocabulary). And full-back…full-back Aboubacar Doumbia played just the one one-two with Traore before deftly dinking the third goal over the on-rushing Ati.
The smattering was more of a gathering by the time the United States and Colombia took the field. 6,062 according to Fifa’s figures…and when are they ever wrong? And these huddled masses were treated to a sterling Colombian effort NOT to beat the US. Colombia were getting right on top when the States scored, Paul Arriola’s shot blocked down rugby-style by Juan Quintero with Rubio Rubin (did his parents lack imagination?) lashing the loose ball home before the referee could give a penalty. And they were gifted a late penalty by more rugby from Kellyn Acosta, a tackle which would have been a black card in Gaelic Football and was a second yellow card here. However, Jarlan Barrera could not have given US keeper Zack Steffen more of a clue where he was going to put his spot-kick if he’d told Steffen beforehand “I’m aiming for that square of the netting.” Steffen was duly waiting when the kick eventually rolled his way.
Signs that you take football too seriously, no. 2: Setting the alarm in order to watch Serbia v Hungary Under-20s at five o’clock in the morning. For far too long, i.e at all, Hungary looked likely quarter-finalists having won only two games within 90 minutes out of seven in qualifiers and finals matches. Their game was a non-event until they scored and very much an event afterwards. In fact, I needn’t have bothered with the alarm as I’d have been up anyway for Bence Mervo’s fifth goal of the tournament – the fourth to cross the line. Such was his visible surprise that Mervo genuinely forgot his choreographed goal-scoring celebration and headed maniacally to the dug-out after converting the impressively ginger-haired Zsolt Kalmar’s cutback (I’m biased, OK?). A minute earlier, Serbia’s Filip Jankovic was a postcode off-target with as good an opportunity and was replaced by Ivan Saponjic straight after the goal.
The pivotal moment? Yes…but the substitution, not the goal. Both sides discovered some creativity. But Serbia had been the better side in getting to this stage and having showed it increasingly as full-time approached, Saponjic’s 91st-minute headed equaliser was as deserved as it was scruffy. Yet there was still time for Serbia’s Milan Gajic to return the initiative via his second booking. Serbia immediately replaced their best forward, Stanisa Mandic, and a penalty shoot-out loomed large. Until the 118th minute, extra-time copied the first half. Yet despite Hungary being no sound or fair-minded neutral’s favourites, you could feel sorry for Attila (what were his parents thinking?) Talaber. He could try to shin 100 more crosses so precisely out of the again impressive goalkeeper Gyorgy Szekely’s reach and never succeed.
Ukraine merited far huger sympathy after they were twice sawn off against Senegal. After another desperate first half, only Sy’s shot-stopping kept Senegal in the remotest contention, mixing lunacy and agility in the most entertaining fashion. He could do nothing about Artem Biesidin’s slick finish to an even slicker move on 70 minutes. And he could do just as little about Mykyta Burda’s towering header two minutes later. However, a sharp-eyed referee spotted a foul on Sy which simply never happened, which made his temporary blindness eleven minutes later all the harder to fathom. Sidy Sarr volleyed the legs from under Ukraine defender Taras Kacharaba with almost as much venom as he volleyed the ball into the roof of the net a second later. “He’s blundered his way through,” noted Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce. But the blunder wasn’t Sarr’s.
Again, though, sympathies were tempered. Sy’s star quality shone, whether he was drawing sharp intakes of breath with his risky faffing about on the edge of his own box (one intake was clearly audible on the telly) or making magnificent saves. Fans of Sy’s French club Lorient “definitely won’t be bored,” noted Eurosport’s Gary O’Reilly, correctly. And O’Reilly was right again about the penalty shoot-out being “absolutely made for him.” Sy milked the occasion from the moment it was decided who would take the first kick. It was no shock that he made three athletic saves, and no surprise that his athleticism made it look as if he was further off his line than he actually was when he made those saves…not that the ref paid any heed, as per. Ukraine’s boss Oleksandr Petrakov looked and sounded less enamoured with proceedings (“I don’t know much Ukrainian but I can sense he’s not happy” – O’Reilly, again). And for all Sy’s delightful showmanship and skill, you really couldn’t blame him.
So Uzbekistan are the former Soviet Union’s sole representatives, almost as unlikely quarter-finalists as they were in Turkey in 2013. If there isn’t an Uzbek word for “collywobbles”, there will need to be to describe the last 20 minutes of a match they had previously controlled. However, Austrian coach Andreas Heraf was in his country’s 1998 World Cup squad, which commentator Farrer interpreted as “(reaching) a good level as a player.” Farrer was clearly too young to remember 1998 properly. These Austrian Under-20s are very much in that side’s ghastly image. And Heraf didn’t even get in the starting line-up. Referee John Pitti’s name also served as a review of the first half. However, Uzbekistan were eventually good enough for Farrer to wonder aloud how a Honduran side that beat them 4-3 could lose 3-0 to Fiji three days later (“that’s a strange one”). Dostonbek Khamdamov’s double-strike shortly after half-time sealed victory, the first celebrated by a colleague with a “
The goals elicited another “strange” Farrer observation, that Uzbekistan were “not very good at holding onto leads,” – they’d only led against Fiji and held onto that one. More strangeness too from one of Khamdamov’s colleagues, who celebrated the first goal by revealing a “Love you UZB” t-shirt, which suggested a tad too much patriotism…or that his partner has a weird name. My first sight of Portugal/New Zealand was Portugal’s number seven firing a shot into the bottom corner after 24 minutes. There the comparisons with Cristiano bloody Ronaldo shuddered to a halt. “Did the sides swap shirts at half-time?” asked Eurosport’s Matt Jackson, bemused by New Zealand’s swagger after their 64th-minute leveller and the way the “Junior All Whites” flew through plucky territory and came out the other side as likelier winners.
That Portugal dug victory from the depths of their worst performance of the finals was down to individual brilliance. “Almost balletic,” noted Jackson, Unfortunately, he meant the defender’s pirouette which let Gelson Martins through to curl a fabulous shot into the corner with the outside of his right foot. Leaving the hosts two minutes short of extra-time. Of course, New Zealand’s exit won’t affect local interest in the tournament too much, as it was never that huge in the first place. Shame, though.
Germany now look firmer favourites than ever. They were quick, slick and…well…“un-German” in this tournament in the group stages and for 70 minutes, against Nigeria opponents who “asked more questions” than Fiji et al, Germany were as terrific as Portugal were terrible.
Goalscorer Levin Oztunali, the suspiciously heavily-bearded Mark Stendera and livewire striker Hany Mukhtar had too many dizzying passes and moves for a surprisingly one-dimensional Nigeria. Only “star” winger Julian Brandt was at all off his game. And, as I’ve written before, when Eurosport’s Tim Caple latches onto an under-performance, he does not let go. Thus much of his commentary was more about what Brandt was doing badly than what others were doing at all. Brandt was eventually put out of Caple’s misery with 12 minutes left. But Stendera’s surprise withdrawal eight minutes earlier did more to disrupt Germany’s style as both sides struggled late on.
Brazil won a higher-quality penalty shoot-out than the tournament’s penalty-taking had suggested was possible. Caple thought Uruguay taking then to penalties was a shock because “they only scored three goals in the group stages,” clean forgetting Uruguay’s draw and win against Brazil in qualifying. Diminutive, snarling captain Nahitan Nandez led perma-chippy Uruguay by dismal example. Brazil, meanwhile, were restricted to long-range efforts from range, despite dominating possession in the 90 minutes and a surprisingly lively extra-time.
Danilo missed Brazil’s best chance in the added 30 minutes, beating the ground with so much frustration that you feared for…well…the ground. It wasn’t clear whether this was frustration at shooting wide or knowing that Caple was reminding viewers, yet a-bloody-gain of how “he looks like a young Rai,” one of the 1990s selecao. Jackson, meanwhile, felt Uruguay needed to “channel their aggression into the penalty shoot-out,” which they did by slamming their first two penalties high, Mauro Arambarri into the net, Rodrigo Amaral halfway to Tasmania. Keeper Gaston Guruceaga has been about Uruguay’s best player in New Zealand and got a hand to two of Brazil’s generally well-struck and placed penalties. Brazil keeper Jean didn’t get near any of Uruguay’s spot-kicks, even Franco Acosta’s, which was almost hit at him. Thanks to Amaral, he didn’t need to. Brazil now meet suddenly-out-of-form Portugal, Mali play Germany, the US take on Serbia and Uzbekistan will have “a clash of cultures” (O’Reilly) with Senegal (glad he said that, I’d run out of alternative verbs).
Signs that you take football too seriously, no. 3: I’ll be setting the alarm for five o’clock Sunday morning, whichever game British Eurosport deign to show. At the time of writing, however, they are only scheduled to show one – a sign that this ridiculous channel doesn’t take football seriously enough.
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