The Under-17 World Cup: England’s To Lose

by | Oct 26, 2017

The double dream lives. And “only” Spain stand between Steve Cooper’s teenage sensations and World Cup glory. But whatever happens in Saturday’s final, this World Cup has been terrific. There has been none of the tail-off in excitement which usually pock-marks knock-out stages. And for all the joy that underdogs’ successes can bring, there is something satisfying about the best teams contesting the “business end.”

Quarter-finals

Mali 2 Ghana 1

They’ll not have played many matches in these conditions in Timbuktu or Tumale. The monsoon season had clearly hung around to turn the Guwahati surface into an unplayable mudheap, except for TV schedules not permitting a postponement. So, in the circumstances, this was a fantastic match.

The first half was pretty fantastic in any circumstances. Mali refused to adapt their powerful running game to conditions not conducive to it, or any good football for that matter. This may suggest Malian coach Jonas Komla lacks a Plan B. But, so what, when Plan A works so entertainingly?

The TV cameras focused more on Ghanian coach Samuel Fabin, who, in moments of particular despair, resembled Guy Goma, the IT job applicant famously brought in to a BBC News 24 interview by mistake. Goma came to mind as Mali controlled the first half and should have led by at least one more goal than Hadji Drame’s 15th-minute right-foot drive at the break.

Ghana’s Ibrahim Sulley had a 40th-minute goal disallowed for a phantom foul. And they were splashing/mud-sliding their way back into contention by the 61st minute when keeper Ibrahim Danlad lost the plot for nine vital seconds. He rushed 30 yards from goal to horribly slice a clearance and rushed back JUST in time to tip Djemoussa Traore’s audacious chip over the…head of on-the-line defender Abdul Yusif and into the net.

Mali keeper Youssouf Koita covered himself in more mud than glory, diving over Kudus Mohammed’s bobbly, mishit spot-kick nine minutes later. However, chances were few thereafter, with both sides completely knackered some time before the end, as rain continued to pour down and mud continued to pile up (to the extent that the semi-final due to be played at Guwahati was moved to Kolkata).

Mali had an extra day’s rest before their semi-final. They needed it. And probably more.

United States 1 England 4

Remember the name, Rhian Brewster?

It wasn’t only Brewster. The goalkeepers were good, when the finishing wasn’t off-colour. Both sides were unlucky not to score more…and it was STILL 4-1. And in evaluating England’s performance, it is important to remember how good a game this was. The US were lively and creative. And 4-1 was STILL the right result.

Brewster had been far from “clinical” in this tournament. But his Liverpool boss (for now) Jurgen Klopp, we are constantly told, thinks he is and has apparently personally refused to loan him out to gain senior match experience. Now we know why.

Even his last-kick penalty to complete this hat-trick was clinical, side-footed into the VERY corner of the net. His first goal, on 11 minutes, was a sharp reaction to a goalkeeping blooper by the maddeningly-inconsistent Justin Garces, although not as sensational as commentators Tim Caple and Sue Smith suggested. Smith was even more awestruck by his second goal. And Brewster was a clumsy Garces save from a four-minute hat-trick. A goal then would have ended the contest. Instead, it kick-started America’s best spell.

Josh Sargent was particularly out-of-luck when his header from a refreshingly imaginative set-piece bounced up onto the crossbar. Ayo Akinola was less erratically threatening than in previous games. And after his thunder-strike against Paraguay, Tim Weah struck fear into Caple’s heart every time England ignored his pleas and let Weah “cut inside onto his right foot.”

However, this fear evaporated when Weah did “cut inside onto his right foot” and the ball went…out for a throw, the commentary-box silence speaking volumes. And although there was still the cliched “lot of football to be played” and although America played plenty of it, the game was over as a contest, with Garces the busiest man/boy thereafter.

One of Eurosport’s may over-used facts is Paul Foden rendering Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola speechless with a pre-season friendly display against Manchester United. You could see how as his showing here reduced Jadon Sancho’s absence to a footnote (Caple noting sourly that Sancho “only” got six minutes for Borussia Dortmund that day). On this form, it will remain a footnote.

Spain 3 Iran 1

“We all know what can happen,” Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce noted as Spain struggled to add a second goal to their hour of complete dominance over an almost entirely muted Iran. Then Sergio Gomez faffed about for a bit. But, before you could scream “do something with it, FFS” at the telly, he pinged 30-yarder past unsuspecting Iranian keeper Ali Gholam Zadeh.

Spanish boss Santiago Denia Sanchez (“Santi” to his mates) appeared to be wiping tears from his eyes. He probably wasn’t – he was using a towel, for one thing. But you wouldn’t necessarily have blamed him. “That is one of the strikes of the tournament…from Sergio Romero,” Boyce loudly proclaimed. Gomez deserved better.

Spain’s methodical, slick possession football against Iran’s direct but just as slick counter-attacking style was initially a tantalising prospect. Then Iran’s “technical director” revealed their game-plan which was to nick a goal and, as Robson quoted, with a hint of disapproval: “Once they’ve got that goal, to defend their lead.”

This plan was satisfyingly dismantled by Abel Ruiz’s fine low 13th-minute finish. But by the time Plan B emerged Spain were three-up, Ferran Torres finishing off a sweeping pitch length counter-attack that was almost as good as Gomez Romero’s goal, in its own very different way.

Iran’s Saied Karimi pulled a goal back with a neat finish, two minutes later. But despite Iran’s late pressure, this was only significant as aNOTHER example of atrocious touchline decision-making (VARs would have sorted that, nobody seems to be saying…although they should). And Spain would have won by more if Abel Ruiz hadn’t missed a late sitter, which might have shutdown Boyce and Robson’s interminable debate about whether he or Germany’s Jann-Fiete Arp is the better striker.

Spain’s game plan has been a bit odd. Play Romero Gomez out on the wing, out of contention, in the first half, then look a far more threatening outfit when Spain’s number ten plays AS a “number ten” after half-time. Odd. But ready for use in a semi-final.

Germany 1 Brazil 2

I’ve never entirely believed Scottish football legend Jock Stein’s famous contention that “football, without fans, is nothing.” However, 66,613 very loud fans in Kolkata made this very good quarter-final a World Cup classic.

Non-believers in the “never write off Germany” cliché were worried as Germany entered the final quarter of the final quarter-final still leading by Arp’s masterfully rolled-in 21st-minute penalty. Nor were we re-assured by Robson’s reminder that they’d “tired at about this stage” in previous matches. Meanwhile, Boyce reminded us that he’d imagined Germany “lifting the trophy in a couple of weeks” after their 4-0 trimming by Iran and nervously remind himself that he had only been “semi-serious.”

During a breathtaking start Brazil midfielder Alan drilled a shot against the post with German keeper Luca Plogmann watching from a distance. But they had returned to the stodge of previous displays in India when the dangerous John Yeboah was upended in the penalty box, after some “Brazilian defending” by dismal left-back Candido. And, for another 45 minutes, Brazil stayed stodgy.

So, Germany were deservedly ahead after about 65 minutes. Then, for about 12 minutes, “Brazil” returned. Weverson thumped Alan’s pass past Plogmann at his near post, drawing analogies, if not equivalences, to THAT Pele pass for THAT Carlos Alberto goal in THAT World Cup final (if you don’t know, ask your Dad…or “Google”).

And, six minutes later, Paulinho drew no analogies whatsoever with his ex-Tottenham namesake when he double-thumped Brazil ahead from 25 yards, Brazil’s not-yet-used substitutes incorporating a batshit-crazy pitch invasion into their warm-up routines behind the net Paulinho’s shot nearly burst.

By now, German coach, Christian Wuck, was in full Mourinho mode. TV pictures showed just-introduced German sub Jan Boller, flat-out on the turf, head-in-hands, like a beaten player straight after full-time. TV replays showed that Brazilian on-field sub Yuri Alberto’s hand had flattened him out in the immediate build-up to the goal. “Boller’s got to be tougher than that,” claimed Robson, all heart. “Not a foul,” he added, incorrectly. Meanwhile, Wuck was addressing his, erm, thoughts directly to another TV camera. And he looked FIERCE.

Germany forced a pile of corners after the designated “minimum” six minutes stoppage-time proved very “minimum.” And Brazil’s penalty-box became a live-action pinball-machine. Luck might have deflected the pinball into the net. But Germany had none. And while Brazil were “Brazil” for little more than 20 minutes, it was enough.

SEMI-FINALS

Brazil 1 England 3

Rhian Brewster? You’ll remember the name now. He started the tournament as Brazil’s clod-hopping 1982 World Cup striker Serginho. He’s ending it like Paolo Rossi ended 1982. And more.

Just as well. The enormity of a World Cup semi-final against Brazil and a pro-Brazilian crowd in India’s largest football stadium got to England early on. They made more unforced errors and gave away more possession in the first 20 minutes in Kolkata than in the previous five games. And they were a touch fortunate to be on level terms going into the first-half cooling break. But that break worked wonders, decisively resuming normal service.

Brewster put England ahead against the run of play, the only player remotely interested in Callum Hudson-Odoi’s floated cross. Suddenly in the sort of space Kolkata drivers could only dream of, he had time to play a one-two with Brazil keeper Gabriel Brazao’s chest and stub the loose ball home.

Brazil’s equaliser was a close relative, apart from the “Brazilian” touch of a right-back in the centre-forward position. Wesley, for it was he, neatly plonked the ball into the corner of the net after Paulinho played a wall-pass off England keeper Curtis Anderson’s chest and Wesley blocked down Joel Latibeaudiere’s clearance.

Anderson, so cocksure in the penalty shoot-out against Japan, was a nervous wreck here. But he still made some key, if expected, saves as Brazil resembled “Brazil” for the first sustained period of the competition. Midfield-playmaker Alan had previously resembled Field -Haig’s family tortoise, Alan from “Black Adder Goes Forth.” Here, he at last resembled a four-lettered Brazilian playmaker.

England finally banished the nerves, though, helped by Brazao pawing Steven Sessegnon’s 39th-minute cross to a Brewster who suddenly couldn’t miss. And those waiting for a Brazilian response after half-time…are still waiting. Indeed, after Brewster completed his hat-trick (combined distance 15 yards but all good goals in their own way), Brazil chucked it, reducing the crowd to the collective silence which normally greets an Indian wicket.

The double dream lives.

Mali 1 Spain 3

Spain won. The 3-1 score didn’t quite do them justice (well though Mali played in spurts). But the cameras focused on Mali’s Cheick Doucoure as well as the celebrating Spaniards after the match.

With Spain leading 2-0 on 62 minutes and Mali’s efforts at retrieving the situation floundering, Doucoure pinged a 25-yarder against the underside of the crossbar and, replays revealed, a clear ball-width over the line. One of the revealing replays was on the stadium big-screen. Cue pandemonium on Mali’s bench. “Desperately close to halving the deficit,” said fifa.com’s match report. “Why the **** is there no goal-line technology?” asked everybody else watching.

Had Doucoure’s goal stood, and the referee’s assistant should probably have given it, Mali could arguably have at least forced penalties, as they were galvanised by the “injustice” and nearly pulled it back to 3-2 after going three-behind. However, if the stadium big-screen had replayed Doucoure’s use of his right-foot five minutes earlier to clatter into Antonio Blanco’s ankle, that might have cued pandemonium on Spain’s bench after the referee only booked Doucoure for a clear red-card offence.

Spain would have wiped-out any controversy by being about four-up by the time it happened but for some wonderful goalkeeping by Koita. The otherwise impressive Cesar Gelabert won an 19th-minute penalty with a fall which suggested he’d be easy to push into a swimming pool. Abel Ruiz converted and was grateful to Gelabert again for goal number two, converting a slide-rule pass with a slide-rule finish.

Spain’s third goal came just as Mali were recognisably Mali for the first time in the match, an unmarked Ferran Torres heading home Sergio Gomez’s cross. But Lassana N’Diaye skilfully pulled one back and would have scored his and Mali’s second if he’d showed equal skill and composure, on 83 minutes. More than just regular gamblers would have bet on penalties if N’Diaye HAD scored.

But that would have been an injustice on Spain. Boyce called the first half fairly even, apart from Spain’s better work in the “final third” of the pitch. And it had seemed that way. The first-half highlights which immediately followed disabused us of that notion. Spain were terrific. And if England are favourites for the final, it won’t be by much.