The odds against a Brazil/Nigeria final in the Under-17 World Cup are now shorter than a jockey. For all my talk of “dark horses” in this tournament, the second round revealed a gulf in pace, power, technique – and any other Alan Hansen-ism you might care to quote – between the Selecao, the Golden Eaglets and the rest.
It was a curate’s egg of a second round, made odder by the appearance of seventeen teams in it – Slovakia allowed to enter a team of lookalikes for the first half of their 4-2 defeat to Uruguay, presumably because the real team was delayed somewhere on the way to the ground (though not in match traffic as the crowds remain abysmal).
The version of goalkeeper Martin Junas who played in the first half didn’t so much misunderstand the trajectory of a long ball forward as miss the turning completely. This set the tone for the rest of the half and by the time the real team got going they had four goals to pull back.
This wasn’t too much by very much, though – Uruguayan custodian Thiago Cardoza making two blinding stops as well as waving at a couple of shots as they hit the frame of his goal. Slovakia also twice found what Eurosport’s Andy Bodfish called the “onion sack,” which makes you wonder where he buys his vegetables (unless Fifa own the copyright to the term “onion bag” – which is frighteningly plausible).
Such was the crumbly nature of Uruguay’s defence under the late pressure that you’d fear for them against a team with the pace and power which the Slovaks lacked even in their good spells. Next up for la celeste? Nigeria. Oh dear.
The Golden Eaglets overran Iran much as they had Iraq in their final group game, with an incessantly vibrant first-half display including two goals in quick succession to eliminate any prospect of a tight contest.
The Iranians lasted 22 minutes rather than the Iraqis’ two minutes. And this wasn’t the only manifestation of Iran’s superiority over their near-namesake neighbours. For example, not only did they grab a consolation goal but it was a cracker, Ali Gholizadeh finding the net from 25 yards with Messi-esque minimal backlift.
However, Musa Yahaya was both the name of a Nigerian midfielder and a generic description of the team’s style. And while Iran were starting to knock the ball about like a team that sensed they’d weathered the West African storm, they were wrong. The Nigerians lost their way fractionally when the scorer of their wonderful second goal, Kelechi Iheanacho, succumbed to injury almost immediately afterwards. But it was way too late by then.
Cote D’Ivoire, though inevitably less boisterous than the Nigerians, won their all-Africa battle with Morocco. The Ivorians have crept into the quarter-finals some way below the radar – and, in the case of this win, entirely off Eurosport UK’s radar. But, shorn of the favourites’ tag which has overpowered their senior team so often, they perhaps remain a tournament “dark horse.”
Well…as dark a horse as anyone can be in a bright green shirt with some orange ‘splurge’ spilled across the bottom. When Meite Yakou was hauled over for the fourth-minute penalty which set Cote D’Ivoire on their way, it looked as if his green shirt had been pulled halfway up his torso to reveal an orange undergarment. Only closer inspection revealed this to be just ‘some orange splurge.’
Tunisia faded away against an Argentina side whose inconsistency within games would infuriate any manager remotely worried about keeping his job. Fortunately for the perma-miserable Humberto Grondona (“Humberto by name, Humberto by nature”), his dad is the long-standing, ahem, ‘controversial’ Argentine FA supremo Julio Grondona. So by the end of this match, Humberto was metaphorically (AND literally) sucking a lollipop.
Argentina failed utterly to build on their second-minute goal in a largely dozy first-half. But they got their noses in front again with Joaquin Ibanez’s cheeky backheel through the keeper’s legs from very close range (Tunisia’s Bahaeddine Othman gormlessly appealing for offside as he ran over the goalline). And they didn’t let matters drift again.
Their most ‘dangerous’ player, however, remains…erm…’combative’ midfielder Lucio Compagnucci, who was a slightly over-officious ref away from a second suspension in the tournament. Eurosport analyst Gary O’Reilly’s hearty approval (“our friend Compagnucci”) would have caused some uncomfortable flashbacks among Crystal Palace fans of a certain age.
“Combative” was a key element missing from Japan, who kept Europe’s interest in the tournament alive by succumbing unexpectedly to Sweden. The Japanese continued to have more than “a touch of the Barcelonas about them.” Unfortunately for them, this stretched to their defending, which had more than a touch of the “Javier Mascherano on an off-day” about it.
This was rarely more evident than in Sweden’s 11th-minute opener. Valmir Berisha, the oldest-looking player in the tournament by an inappropriate number of years, invites continual comparison with senior star Zlatan Ibrahimovic – both with his goals and his gob. “If he talks the talk, he’s got to walk the walk,” raged a determinedly-unimpressed Jim Beglin. But Berisha could have walked in his goal against Japan, so little attention did the defence pay him.
O’Reilly had, possibly correctly, imagined an earlier half-time team-talk from Japanese coach Hirofumi Hoshitake as “loving the pretty, pretty stuff, but can we have some end product, please?” with heavy emphasis on the consonants in ‘end’ and ‘product.’ The answer was ‘no.’ And for all Japan’s possession, 75%, for pity’s sake, they needed Sweden’s Linus Wahlqvist to ping one in his own net to give them hope of a comeback from their 2-0 half-time deficit.
So it is that Japan are not in the quarter-finals, while Honduras are, which isn’t really “one of the beauties of football,” to use a commentary cliché which got an airing this week (although not on Eurosport, to be fair). The Hondurans haven’t been bad. But their play has been about as imaginative as their badge – a dirty, great “H” which covers about a quarter of their shirt.
Uzbekistan’s Akramjon Kolimov got himself sent off for two bookings in the first 24 minutes. But it took the Hondurans another 50 minutes to break down the Uzbek defence. Substitute Jorge Bodden’s toe-poke did the damage. However, his own substitution, stretchered off with three minutes left, was included in Fifa’s two-minute highlights package. And to that I have nothing to add.
CONCACAF will therefore be better represented in the last eight than Europe, as Mexico’s nominal defence of their title continues, despite their 6-1 whumping by Nigeria in their first match – a statistic destined for ad nauseam repetition should los ninos heroes justify their alternative nickname and win the tournament.
They almost certainly won’t, of course. But I’m not looking forward to their eventual exit. Coach Paul Guttierez looks hacked off enough while they are winning. If and when they get beaten, he might spontaneously combust.
Mexico were plenty good enough to see off an Italy team who veered from workmanlike to uninspiring via mediocrity, much as they’ve done in all their games. Neither side hit anything resembling heights in Mexico’s 2-0 win. And Alejandro Diaz’s 26th-minute goal, which separated the side until the last kick, was a 20-yarder as sweet as it was out of context.
Most teams have carried their fondness for striking the frame of the goal from the group stages – even Honduras managed one header against the post. So Italy hit the post in a second-half revival of sorts. And Antonio Romano’s header might even have gone in if it hadn’t come off the edge of his mildly ludicrous mohican-ish haircut (the hairstyle of choice for rather too many players here). Served him right for looking like that, I thought to myself – mutating into my dad with each syllable.
Italy’s otherwise excellent goalkeeper, Simone Scuffet – another whose name matched his team’s style – made a hames of things for Mexico’s 92nd-minute clincher. Having lost a 50-50 challenge on the edge of his box, Scuffet feigned injury. And his Lazarus-esque recovery, on realising that play was very much ‘on’ as he lay “prone,” was too late to stop Ivan Ochoa finding the empty net.
Brazil await the Mexicans, which is the main reason that we’ll be spared those “winning the tournament after losing their first game 6-1” reminiscences. The Selecao eventually established their superiority over Russia, who had dipped a toe uncharacteristically into “plucky” waters by the closing stages. And Brazil would probably have won anyway if Dmitriy Barinov had not been dismissed in the 69th minute, even though all the goals in their 3-1 win were subsequent.
Barinov was a shade unlucky to see red, supposedly because it was one of those situations where the referee would have mysteriously benefited from having played the game himself – I wonder if Beglin checked the Saudi official’s career before spouting that old one.
In fact, Barinov had his studs on the ground at the moment of, admittedly considerable, contact with Brazilian right-back Auro. But the referee was probably satisfied that he’d produced the right colour card, as the writhing-in-agony Auro didn’t speed in-between two defenders, nutmeg a third and hand striker Mosquito the opening goal on a plate for, oooh, three minutes.
Russia’s late goal provided evidence that Brazilian TV is still showing Keystone Cops re-runs, which in turn provides hope to Mexico and/or others due to meet Brazil. But I’m not sure there’s quite enough about the remaining quarter-finalists to prevent the Brazil/Nigeria meeting that doubtless commentators everywhere are calling the “final that everyone wants.”
Mind you, that particular cliché might actually be true.