The Under-17 World Cup: The England Kids Are Alright

by | Oct 31, 2017

A mostly great final to sum up a mostly great tournament, with almost precisely the right result.

England’s under-17 success in India, on the back of the under-20’s triumph in Korea in June, has had England’s jingoistic media drooling over the senior team’s prospects in Qat…well…in 2022 anyway, although basic arithmetic and probable playing conditions suggest that 2026 is a better prospect (especially with qualification places available to 25% of the world).

There is, of course, plenty of opportunity for potholes to emerge on the paths to senior glory. Basic arithmetic and definite playing conditions suggested that Brazil’s youth double in 2003 would boost future senior prospects. They didn’t (unless Brazil would have been worse still at those finals).

And the day after Steve Cooper’s teenage rampagers’ triumph, a masked Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whose goal won the under-20s final, was toiling in a face mask as an out-of-position striker in a dismal Everton side. However, that is just illustrative of a worst-case scenario (and not entirely reflective of Calvert-Lewin’s Everton career to date). For once, the jingoistic media is not being mindlessly patriotic.

England 5 Spain 2

Three minutes before half-time, Callum Hudson-Odoi hit the post. And, for the first time, the thought occurred that this might be “one of those days” for England, who were two-nil down after 42 minutes despite being fractionally the BETTER side for 42 minutes. Then Rhian Brewster made it 2-1, and it turned irrevocably from one of those days into England’s day.

Man-of-the-match? Phil Foden? Tashan Oakley-Boothe? The whole England team? My vote went to the cameraman/woman by the bottom-left-hand corner flag as Spain’s team, subs and officials descended on them in celebration of their first-half goals and England’s team, subs and officials identically celebrated their four (FOUR!) second-half goals.

When Foden made it 5-2 and led the charge towards the (mostly Indian) England fans in that corner of the ground, said camera operative had wisely decided to be elsewhere, ANYWHERE elsewhere, leaving us with the main camera shot, showing just how large a pile of humanity had descended upon them.

In previous rounds, Spain appeared to think they had their games won at three-nil and both Iran and Mali threatened to punish their over-confidence. Here, the celebrations of Sergio Gomez’s stunning finish to put them two-up was partly a reaction to the stunning nature of that finish. But Spain again appeared to think they had the game won, forgetting that they were only two-up and that Iran and Mali were NOT England.

Spain looked lethal on the break, with both goals the result of a quick pass out of defence to central-striker, Abel Ruiz, and terrific onward use of possession BY Ruiz. This ended the debate as to whether Ruiz or German goalscorer-and-sod-all-else Jann-Fiete Arp was the “better” player. But it didn’t end the game as a contest…even if Moha Moukhliss hadn’t loused-up the three-on-goalkeeper situation xx minutes previously, with appallingly heavy touches on the ball and the on-rushing Anderson.

Right-back Steven Sessegnon twice made amends for his role in England’s L-shaped defensive line for Spain’s first goal with inch-and-picture-perfect assists for England’s first two goals. Foden made amends for his defensive doziness during Spain’s second goal with inch-and-picture-perfect passing during the second half which England deservedly won four-nil. And England deserved their luck at defending setpieces, Anderson providing the goalkeeping version of “I just hit it and it went in” when Miranda’s header from a corner, a minute after Morgan Gibbs-White made it 2-2, just hit him and stayed out.

Spain were mostly down to dispirited walking-pace after the delayed second-half cooling break. And 5-2 arguably flattered England a touch. But only a touch. Convincing victory for England, in a football World Cup final, was the right result. For arguably the first time ever.

Brazil 2 Mali 0

It was a surprise to see Brazil’s error-prone keeper Gabriel Brazao win the “golden glove” as the tournament’s best goalkeeper. And (obvious, if pertinent, joke in-coming), judging by his display in the third-place play-off, it was a surprise he didn’t drop it.

The game was a tale of two goalkeepers. Brazao let a soft shot through his hands and the ball dribbled narrowly wide. Mali keeper Youssouf Koita let Alan’s even softer shot through his legs and not only did it find the net, it also seemed to speed up as it went through him, destroying his hopes of scrambling his embarrassment away to safety.

Until that 55th-minute clanger, this game was a non-event. An uninvolved Brazil, whose tournament only occasionally scaled the heights of involvement, against a knackered Mali, whose tournament never recovered from the knackering experience of a quarter-final on a Guwahati mudheap.

After that clanger, it livened up. Slightly. But Mali took no advantage of their dominance of final-third possession until Chieck Doucoure made Brazao look good-ish with a series of medium-to-long-range strikes either side of the 90th minute. By then, sub striker Yuri Alberto had made a light meal of a tap-in for Brazil’s second goal and the game. long-forgotten almost before it ended, was up.

Tournament legacy

The good stuff. Three-and-a-half goals-per-game (plus England’s last two). Largely progressive, vibrant football. Well-supported, although it was easier to find regular five-figure crowds among a billion-plus population than, for example, during the 2015 finals among 18-million Chileans. Well-refereed, although instances of adolescent petulance were few (until the fag-end of the final). Especially as the tournament wasn’t well referee’s assisted (see below).

The venues looked largely impressive, even the obvious cricket ones, with Navi Mumbai’s pavilion a visual delight. And, after a few teething troubles with the bottled water supply at early games, the tournament organisation was largely reported as successful, although there was too much at stake for anybody relevant to say “Er…that was a bit rubbish, wasn’t it?”

Fifa president Gianni Infantino hailed the tournament “a resounding success,” although he would say that, wouldn’t he? Head of Fifa Tournaments, Jaime Yarza, spoke of “a fantastic tournament” which showed India as “a footballing nation in every sense,” (about which India’s cricket authorities might have a view) although HE would say that, wouldn’t he? And his suggestion that “fans have filled the stadiums in all the matches” was visible b****ks.

India’s Football Federation president, Praful Patel, spoke of the “astounding success” of the finals’ “organisation” and “infrastructure.” Although, he etc… The event itself did no harm to India’s bid for the 2019 Under-20s World Cup. But they might lose out (to Poland or Peru) as Asia hosted both youth competitions this year. And Infantino hinted that India might be more in line for the 48-team, merged under-17s and under-20s event (under-18-and-a-halfs??) Fifa has concocted for no obvious footballing reason, post-2019.

The pitches largely withstood the occasional monsoon tribute act in regions where the monsoon season was formally over. The pitch at Guwahati, in North-East India, collapsed in a mudheap, with the semi-final due to be held there (Brazil/England) moved to Kolkata even as Mali and Ghana were slogging through the trenches.

The telly was good. The value of Eurosport’s years of experience covering such tournaments was best quantified by the relative co-commentaries on the final of Eurosport’s Stewart Robson and Trevor Sinclair on the Beeb, who, as with the Under-20s, appeared to realise there was a major international football tournament taking place only when England looked likely winners.

Sinclair is a decent pundit. But, on co-commentary, he sounded like Mark Bright with a heavy cold. And the extent of his research appeared to be watching England’s semi-final against Brazil. Thus, for instance, England keeper Curtis Anderson was the nervous semi-wreck who fumbled his way through that semi-final, rather than the self-confident, trappy git of the penalty shoot-out against Japan.

Wayne Boyce did the final, which suggested he has taken the “voice of Eurosport” mantle from Tim Caple. Caple will always BE the voice of Eurosport for seasoned Eurosport-watchers, though. Even if Boyce and Robson have formed an effective double-act. And despite Jon Driscoll’s often appropriate, always listenable, world-weary, semi-sarcastic tone.

Eurosport 1 and 2 were not well-served by the tight tournament schedule, which left them with only one of four games during the early group stages. But Eurosport Player had every minute of every game. And it isn’t expensive. AND I’m not being paid to write that…although I’m not unwilling TO be paid to write that…and many more genuinely good things about Eurosport’s coverage.

The bad stuff: Couldn’t see much wrong on the telly. And none of it was India’s fault. The biggest was the lack of goal-line technology (GLT). This probably wasn’t damaging in football terms, though Mali may argue otherwise after Doucoure’s “goal” in their semi-final. Mali’s downfall was, as suggested above, more to do with Guwahati mud than muddied vision of a refereeing assistant with no tech back-up (the “assistant refereeing” was another tournament failing, with even the offside law too much for some).

But GLT was in-use at the senior World Cup in 2014. Indeed, early GLT experiments took place at 2005’s under-17s World Cup in Peru. So, for it not to be used in India was a giant leap backwards. Cost has been a prohibitive factor in using GLT below the very top levels of football. But Fifa MAKES money out of GLT implementations. And if it can add $400m to the World Cup finals’ purse, surely it can fund GLT at every finals’ venue it selects. I have strong suspicions on where Mali’s football authorities would prefer the money went.

England’s legacy

Among the FA Premier League’s declared objectives (yes, the “FA” Premier League’s) on formation in 1992 was to assist the England national team. It has been as successful in achieving this as in giving a toss about an objective which has always seemed mere window-dressing for the big clubs’ power and money-grab that the Premier League (EPL) always was. Now, however, EPL clubs have the chance to achieve that objective whilst keeping the power and the money.

When an England mid-tournament exit was still a possibility, much was made of the mid-tournament exit of Jadon Sancho, an England star at May’s under-17 Euros in Croatia. Sancho’s search for his best senior first-team prospects took him from Watford to Manchester City to German Bundesliga high-flyers Borussia Dortmund. And his erstwhile colleagues may have to do likewise, unless there are more opportunities for late-teenage English talent to break into English top-flight senior football.

However, why not? Why could Spanish 2003 under-17 World Cup star Cesc Fabregas (top scorer and player of the tournament) make Arsenal’s first team aged 16 and EPL team aged 17 and English teens not make first teams in other “major” European leagues? The maturity of 2017’s England youths suggests they are more rounded individuals than many predecessors, with the FA having placed greater emphasis on developing the person beyond the footballer.

And Sancho is already breaking into Dortmund’s first-team. The Eurosport voice (I forget which one) had a disapproving tone when reporting that Sancho had been withdrawn from the World Cup to play “just six minutes against Eintracht Frankfurt.” But if Sancho is doing THAT aged 17 years, 7 months, then he won’t fail as an international footballer for the want of regular top-flight major-league and Champions League first-team experience.

Conclusion

While I always enjoy international football tournaments more than the football dictates I should, this was the most enjoyable yet. Though not because England won, as my national allegiances are greener than that. In 2013, when I last wrote about this event, the football was obviously played by mid-teenagers, good though it was. Here, it would have been easy to forget that the football was being played by mid-teens, if we weren’t constantly telling us it was easy to forget etc…

Congratulations to all involved.