It is a quirky system that requires two-thirds of the matches to knock out one-third of the entrants. But the opportunity for a well-placed third-placed team in a group to qualify for the last-16 gave us what drama there was in the third series of matches at the Under-20s World Cup… and perhaps the most bizarre qualification in recent tournament football history. England, of course, followed this website’s suggestion of three points and a zero goal difference, thanks to a solid defensive display against Group F runners-up Mexico.  Dull as dishwater it may have been to watch. But given the paucity of playing resources available to the England set-up (almost three-dozen players refused participation, we’ve been told almost three-dozen times in recent days), it was a commendable effort from coach Brian Eastick’s men and boys. The flaw in the plan has now emerged, of course, and it is shaped like Nigeria, who are the tournament’s top scorers and will provide England’s last-16 opposition in a classic ‘contrast of styles’ encounter – i.e. Nigeria have some.

Nigeria’s Group D was the best example of how a dead group was brought to life by the ‘best third-placed’ system. You might have expected more intensity from the Flying Eagles’ encounter with Saudi Arabia, given that England awaited the winners and Brazil awaited the losers.  But Nigeria’s 2-0 win was an aimless, passionless affair from two of the tournament’s better teams. And Croatia/Guatemala would have been much the same – but without the quality – if qualification hadn’t been a given for the winners. This was a reality which didn’t immediately dawn on some observers, me very much included. And the Eurosport commentator also failed to grasp the enormity of the situation, constantly referring to “results elsewhere” having to go a certain way for either side to qualify – clean forgetting that Group D was the last to finish and that results had already ‘gone elsewhere.’ My memory tells me that he suggested these results would have to go Croatia’s way rather than Guatemala’s, making the not unreasonable assumption that a team who had lost their opening fixtures 5-0 and 6-0 had no place near a last-16 which excluded far better sides such as Uruguay and Australia.

Uruguay’s match against Cameroon was afforded an importance it would not otherwise have had by a combination of the third-placed qualifying system and a collective inability to break down New Zealand, which left the least exciting group, B, as the tensest. Eurosport’s Dan O’Hagan was so overwhelmed by the arithmetic of it all that he missed out on Portugal’s dreary 1-0 win over New Zealand (keeper Stefan Marinovic beaten at last) ensuring England’s place in the last-16. And he was convinced that Uruguay needed victory to qualify when, in reality, they only needed a draw. This partly explained their dozy performance in a dozy first-half which was neatly summarised by a fourteen-man brawl just before the break which barely involved a push, let alone a punch. How dull.

By this stage, Cameroon were ahead. And, eventually, this led to some tension and excitement as the undeniably skilful Uruguayans went in search of the goal that, O’Hagan eventually twigged after about 76 minutes, “would change both teams’ fortunes in a big way.” Cameroon held on. Portugal stayed awake. Both New Zealand and Uruguay finished on two points while, in Group E, Austria and Panama were tonked 4-0 by Egypt and Brazil respectively and ended up with just the point they gave each other in their 0-0 draw some years ago. All of which meant England, bereft of goals and flair, were through. Nobody seemed to notice, which, when you think about it, was about right.

For any ‘true’ England international sport follower, this was a double-delight, as it not only meant qualification at the expense of Australia among others, but also at the expense of an Australian side that were hugely entertaining and deserving of so much more. It’s always better that way in the world of the ABAs (anyone but Australia). The Aussies were the tournament’s fashion victims bar none. Added to striker Kerem Bulot’s inappropriate facial tattoos (are there any appropriate ones?) was Mustafa Amini’s ginger Afro which was clearly the result of a bet he lost heavily.  But this didn’t justify their departure in Group C, the very antithesis of the ‘Group of Death.’ They were entertaining against both Ecuador (who will threaten anyone left in the tournament) and Costa Rica (who won’t). And they provided plenty of entertainment against group winners Spain by disregarding the advice ‘keep it tight for the first 20 minutes’ as comprehensively as any international football team could ever have done. They were 4-0 down by then, were already “looking for the half-time whistle,” according to commentator Tim Caple, and their defenders had given up even standing next to their attackers when the fourth went in.

Caple asked if Spain were “going for a fourth goal” just before the tattooed-but-actually-quite-good Bulot made it 4-1. But you couldn’t really blame him for losing count. It was easily overlooked, too, that Spain had rested a few players from their attacking formation. And they pretty much declared with the score 5-1, replacing both their captain and goalkeeper at half-time. So it is that we are to be denied the tournament’s best left-foot, Australia’s Thomas Oar, who had a ‘goal-of-the-tournament’ contender chalked off against Spain, while England’s Callum McManaman continues to occupy second place behind Portugal’s Pele in palest imitation of namesake listings (a distant second, mind you).

Mali and Korea DPR will not be missed. The latter’s talent for wild underachievement at tournaments they enter as Asian champions was as much to the fore here as it was in last month’s Womens World Cup – they even made Argentina look expansive. And if there is a book entitled “The Korean Peninsula and the art of tackling” there must be thousands of remaindered copies in bookshops from Pyongyang to Seoul, with the Korean Republic every bit as well-versed in the ‘art’ of the ill-timed lunge as their nominally “democratic republic” neighbours and namesakes. Mali, meanwhile, were as consistent as England, though thankfully it is against all laws of mathematics for a team to qualify for a knock-out stage after three 2-0 defeats. Their only place on this tournament’s honours board will be for most ridiculous-looking sending-off. Semi-conscious on a stretcher, Mohamed Konate received a pompously-brandished second yellow card about which he could simply not have been aware, as proven by the anguished expression on his face when he tried to come back onto the field.

For a nanosecond, you felt sorry for him, until you remembered the unforgiving tackle which put him on the stretcher in the first place and were glad that France (Les Kakutagivesitawayagaines) and the Korean Republic qualified at their expense, despite their own glaring inadequacies. Given this opposition in Group A, host nation Colombia’s winning of it looks less impressive than it might. Indeed, their victories seemed to follow a law of diminishing returns after their evisceration of the French. But they’ll beat Costa Rica in the last sixteen, despite the glorious unpredictability of “Arsenal target” Joel Campbell up-front for the Central Americans and unwisely-named midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda, whose parents clearly misread Russian politics in 1991; bringing us neatly back – whether on the subject of mediocrity or early 1990s mittel-European political upheaval – to Croatia/Guatemala. The surly, one-paced Croatians against the leaky, one-paced Guatemalans promised little but, in its own way, delivered the most enthralling, remarkable and, ultimately, delightful match of the tournament. Knowing that a 1-0 win would be enough and would guard against any seemingly unwanted popularity, the Croatians were cagier than London Zoo. Meanwhile, Guatemala relied on the big boot up-field in the hope of causing defensive panic and a fluky goal.

It was a tactic destined to fail, of course, hence their second half display which revealed a hitherto unsuspected flair and attacking penetration in their ranks. So confused was Eurosport’s commentator when substitute Abner Bonilla headed against the post from four yards just after half-time that he declared Guatemala were a “width of paint” away from taking the lead. It was still a surprise, though, when, on 81 minutes, keeper Roberto Padilla gave it a big boot up-field and caused defensive panic which allowed Marvin Ceballos to joyously volley past Croat keeper “Chelsea’s Matej Delac,” who was soon in tears at the now very real prospect of elimination and suddenly being available for a loan spell far away from the riches of Stamford Bridge.

Surely Croatia would now play? Surely not. Indeed they showed more urgency in gathering for a late fight in the Guatemalan penalty box than they had for any possession there in the previous 80-odd minutes. All they could do in stoppage time was ruin the story of the tournament by grabbing the equaliser that would put both teams out. So naturally they started showing some more urgency, the miserable gits. Nothing became this curmudgeonly bundle of central European cynicism than their leaving of the tournament. A Guatemalan player kicked the ball out to allow Croatia’s Mario Ticinovic to receive treatment and was upended by a late, sliding tackle from behind from one of Ticinovic’s colleagues for his pains. The final whistle went soon after, with a caption on-screen informing us that Ticinovic, who was booked for the late tackle which got him injured, would miss the next match. By this stage, the whole Croatian squad were going to miss it too. Ha-ha.

So it was that easily the most hapless team of the tournament were through, by winning one game. Indeed, anyone who won one game had done enough to qualify for the last-16. This failed to impress Eurosport’s Jon Driscoll, who had greeted Costa Rica’s qualification with the words “with a minus five goal difference for crying out loud.” What he thought of Guatemala’s qualification with a minus ten goal difference isn’t, and probably shouldn’t be, recorded. For all the delight at their unlikely qualification, Guatemala’s last-16 clash with the drowsy Portuguese isn’t in the ‘mouth-watering’ column and is probably not destined for the ‘humdinger’ column either. Brazil/Saudi Arabia looks a possibility for both and there’s scope for unpredictable entertainment from France’s game with a strangely-unheralded Ecuador and Egypt’s clash with Argentina, who have to be better than they’ve so far shown, don’t they? Spain and Colombia ought to account for the Korean Republic and Costa Rica respectively, while Mexico/Cameroon is a meeting of the tournaments major enigmas (trans: “I’ve got no idea about that one”). As for England? Well, their sturdy defending and Jack Butland in goal – saver of a crucial early penalty in the clinching 0-0 draw against Mexico – would give them a chance against all but the very highest scorers in the tournament. Oh dear.

A word of acknowledgement here to Ian Cleverly, whose contributions to a ‘football commentator’s’ thread on a ‘Digital Spy’ forum have informed these tournament articles. “Not sure who it was as there was no name check,” he noted of the Croatia/Guatemala commentator. And if he doesn’t know, nor do I.

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