The 2017 Under-20 World Cup: V For Victory

by | May 29, 2017

Far beneath Fifa’s, some might say on-going, corruptive deceit and abuse of patronage lies the laudable ambition to make football a truly global game. The fruits of the honest endeavours in that direction are visible at the current U-20s World Cup in the Korean Republic, where the group stages have produced results such as Zambia 2 Portugal 1 and, drumroll, Germany 3 Vanuatu 2. And if those weren’t refreshingly surprising enough, England have won their Group…in considerable style.

For the first time in recent years, a squad truly representing England’s late-teenage talent is at the World U-20s, with past selections hampered by the adjacent European Under-21 championships, which inhabit the same two-year cycle. Harry Kane, Ross Barkley, James Ward-Prowse and John Stones were in the last England squad to qualify, in Turley in 2013, where they drew twice, lost once and went home. They were better than that sounds. The Iraq side they led 2-0 with 15 minutes left and mostly outplayed, before drawing 2-2, were entertainingly talented semi-finalists.

And such results make at Under-20s finals more open and pleasantly unpredictable than recent senior equivalents. This year, we’ve had Oceania’s decent tournament, a cause for celebration…outside absent Australia. Vanuatu’s “must-be-a-misprint” results against Germany and Mexico. Venezuela as unlikely leading South Americans. Vietnam’s enthusiasm and intermittent skill. And group stages with nearly three-goals-per-game if the penalty-taking wasn’t so rank. All this, and video assistant referees (VARs), too. If only Fifa’s development millions developed less-developed footballing nations rather than individual administrators’ political ambitions.

Group A: Argentina 0 England 3; Korean Republic 3 Guinea 0; England 1 Guinea 1; Korean Republic 2 Argentina 1; Korean Republic 0 England 1; Argentina 5 Guinea 0

Bar one bound-to-go-viral defensive blooper, England could not have done better thus far. Argentina dominated possession against them but England created the two clearest chances and took them both, Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s diving header a particular delight. And the VAR system had an impressive debut, Argentina’s Lautaro Martinez caught red-elbowed ‘altercating’ with Fikayo Tomori and deservedly red-carded while Tomori was treated for the resultant injury.

Korean Republic eventually overwhelmed Guinea, who only found their attacking mojo when they were three-down. And they all-but-eliminated Argentina. This allowed them to squad rotate for the England game. But England were more convincing winners than the 1-0 score suggests. There’s a pack of potential champions knocking about. And you don’t have to be as annoyingly-biased as Eurosport TV commentators Tim Caple and Adam Virgo to put England in it.

Argentina nearly saved themselves with a 5-0 evisceration of Guinea, which could have been double-figures if their nickname wasn’t the “lack-of-quality-in-the-final-thirds.” Guinea, though, will return home with the superficial glow of a 1-1 draw with England. This was merited, but only just and only eventually. England hadn’t put a foot wrong until Tomori put his in it, six minutes after taking the lead, turning on the edge of the centre-circle and, with hardly any backlift, pinging a backpass beyond slightly-out-of-position and excusably unsuspecting keeper Freddie Woodward. Still, no real harm done. So, let’s never speak of it again. Right? RIGHT???

Group B: Venezuela 2 Germany 0; Vanuatu 2 Mexico 3; Venezuela 7 Vanuatu 0; Mexico 0 Germany 0; Germany 3 Vanuatu 2; Mexico 0 Venezuela 1

Venezuela topped Group B, with maximum points and no goals against. Vanuatu bottomed it, with minimum points and an unlucky 13 goals against. But the Pacific Islanders were the story and stars of it. Vanuatu’s Ronaldo Wilkins. A juxtaposition of footballing monikers to remember a tournament by. Names that go together like…well…President Trump. Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce took 68 minutes to call him “more Ronaldo than Wilkins.” But we all knew it. There’s a joke too about how Bong Kalo should have rung alarm bells among supposedly more illustrious defenders. But to tell it would belittle him and his team.

Things looked grim for them when they were two-down at half-time against Mexico and three-down just after half-time against Germany. And in-between times, things were grim when Venezuela ran them ragged. This made their comeback against Mexico astonishing, Mexico’s 94th-minute winner heartbreaking and being, Virgo suggested, “the better side in the second half” against the bang-average Germans, truly inspirational.

Dick Taiwia, their third keeper in three games, was no “Subbuteo keeper.” Yet his headlong rushes out of goal helped him make save-after-save rather than look foolish. Well, maybe both at times. Germany were surely thinking “how many” after 50 minutes. The answer? “Only just enough.” Venezuela have long been South America’s whipping boys. Here, an expansive team could go “deep into the tournament,” to use a current buzz-phrase. Ronaldo Pena was flattened by a full-squad pile-up after opening the scoring in their opening game, against Germany. And their fun has hardly stopped. However, Vanuatu currently remain the story from this heartwarmingly madcap group.

Group C: Zambia 2 Portugal 1; Iran 1 Costa Rica 0; Zambia 4 Iran 2; Costa Rica 1 Portugal 1; Zambia 0 Costa Rica 1; Portugal 2 Iran 1

As responses to falling two-behind go, Zambia’s was perfect; four goals in 17 minutes, which eventually decided this oddball group. Indeed, Zambia were all-but-perfect until they dressed all Cote D’Ivoire orange for their final game and similarly under-achieved. Zambia had already qualified, having “shocked” Portugal. But the changes for their final match may have proved significant.

Portugal were largely unimpressive. The “six half-chances” Eurosport’s Russell Osman claimed they missed in quick succession after Zambia’s opener looked more like three-or-four full chances, Diogo Goncalves having a Vincent Janssen patch. They were human mogadon (other sleeping tablets are available) against Costa Rica and, appropriately qualified via a mishit, deflected cross, four minutes from the end of these finals’ group of death.

Costa Rica qualified without scoring from open play…nearly making a horlicks of one of their two penalty goals, while making one of their second spot-kick against the Zambian XI. And Iran will forever wonder how they finished below such mediocrity, especially as they fully merited the two-goal lead against Zambia, having already beaten Costa Rica.

All Portugal deserved was the “Yoffy from Fingerbobs-lookalike” competition between coach Emilio Peixe and Costa Rican counterpart Marcelo Herrera. Peixe’s default touchline position was arms outstretched in puzzlement, summarising Portugal’s displays to the muscle. He was one of Portugal’s “golden generation” of youth footballers who get 94 mentions-per-Portugal-game during Under-20s finals. Whatever metal this lot are, it’s rusty. So…semi-finalists, minimum.

Group D: South Africa 1 Japan 2; Italy 0 Uruguay 1; Uruguay 2 Japan 0; South Africa 0 Italy 2: Uruguay 0 South Africa 0; Japan 2 Italy 2

Three teams deserved to qualify from Group D, although Uruguay look more like potential champions than Japan or Italy, who produced a defensive non-masterclass in their match – a far better spectacle than feared, as a draw all-but-guaranteed that both progressed. Only on 89 minutes did they apply the handbrakes and go all “West Germany/Austria 1982.” (Google it…and gaze in wonder). Those impish VARs awarded Uruguay a penalty against Italy almost a minute after Joaquin Ardaiz was fouled. Italy had time to score themselves, which would have muddied some considerable waters. Nicolas de la Cruz’s spot-kick was saved because of course it was. Still, Rodrigo Amaral’s fab free-kick was a worthy winner of a fine game.

Japan were midway between neat-and-tidy and Barcelona, as ALL their teams seem to be, regardless of age, gender or venue. South Africa might have qualified from other groups (hello, Group C) and might have had a shout here too, if Luther Singh’s shooting accuracy had matched his willingness to do so. And Italy may yet progress “deep” if Riccardo Orsolini’s finishing stops being more appropriate to fellow-scorer against Japan Giuseppe Panico and Orsolini didn’t so often suggest his surname was a first-letter misprint. France will be tasty second-round opponents…

Group E: France 3 Honduras 0; Vietnam 0 New Zealand 0; France 4 Vietnam 0; New Zealand 3 Honduras 1; France 2 New Zealand 0; Vietnam 0 Honduras 2

…because they possess a self-confidence bordering on arrogance, which some won’t take as news. This could become over-confidence against more strenuous opposition. Three Group E wins, nine goals scored, none against was impressive. But the much-touted Jean-Kevin Augustin’s over-cooked Panenka against the bar (a new phrase, surely) six minutes into their tournament may prove an accurate visual representation of it.

Group runners-up were champion starters-of-arguments-in-empty-rooms New Zealand. Their 45-minute dabble with arrogance against Vietnam would be exposed by better opposition.  In this multi-media world, there should be no “unknown quantities,” at any level of international football. Yet they appeared to have eschewed researching Vietnam entirely, given their surprise at Vietnamese over-exuberance…especially in the tackle, as Eurosport’s Stewart Robson continually highlighted.

Vietnam were worth their point against New Zealand and, despite fading at a gallop in the second half, should have had all three. New Zealand’s reversion to a, cough, more “English” style, bought them second-half control. But Hoang Duc Nguyen squandered a late chance he could almost have blown into the net. Honduras were mostly terrible against France and New Zealand and required Vietnam’s downward-spiralling form to eventually claim a victory. Perhaps fortunately for the tournament, it was already insufficient to sneak a last-16 spot on a freak of arithmetic.

Whereas, for all their limitations, Vietnam would have been welcome second-rounders. Coach Hoang Anh Tuan seemed furious as his team sank to the turf after their New Zealand draw, although you’d hope that was because he wanted them to acknowledge their fabulously enthusiastic support. And Quang Hai Nguyen was half-a-post-width from the goal of the groups with his left-foot zinger against Honduras.

Group F: Ecuador 3 United States 3: Saudi Arabia 0 Senegal 2; Senegal 0 United States 1; Ecuador 1 Saudi Arabia 2; United States 1 Saudi Arabia 1; Senegal 0 Ecuador 0

One of John Motson’s more-irritating commentary habits (and it’s a strong field, we all know) has been to ask if a team has “gone two-up too early.” The answer must have been “yes” in a particularly disturbing fashion in his early journalistic years. It was never more emphatically “yes” than demonstrated by Ecuador here. Their lively forwards rushed them into a two-goal lead, seven minutes into their tournament, against the United States. Then they spent the remainder of it taking various wrong options after getting into countless goalscoring positions, especially against a powerful Senegal side. So, they are out, whereas Saudi Arabia somehow aren’t.

Out-everything’d by Senegal, the Saudis were helped the most by Ecuador’s profligacy. And by possibly the softest two-bookings dismissal in international tournament football history, Tottenham’s USA centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers the non-plussed victim after two hardly-fouls-at-all in two late first-half minutes. The US have been unusually likeable, the excellent Joshua Sargent instilling pride in ginger-heads everywhere. And they won the group with just five points. It should have been more. But after recovering from their early Ecuador shocks to get to 2-2, they fell behind again thanks to previously impressive keeper Jonathan Klinsmann.

Yep. Jurgen’s boy, as confirmed by TV cameras pointing at him every time his son did something to make Pop proud (Marcus Thuram, Lilian’s boy, is playing here too. I’m old). However, Junior double-faulted for Ecuador’s third goal, which meant no more proud Pop shots. So, although the States deservedly drew with the last kick, Jurgen’s thoughts were his own. One goal against Senegal would have pushed Ecuador ahead of the Saudis into the last-16, as goal difference separates two sides level on points, rather than the head-to-head rule which would have rendered this and other games in Korea meaningless. Instead, the group closed with a hugely entertaining but, for Ecuador, completely useless goalless draw.

Round Two

The wisdom of my offering knock-out stage predictions is well-established as “limited.” And even with my “anybody but England” mentality, I’m not tempting any fates by calling their road to a semi-final’ at least, Roman-built straight. Or that England captain, Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, should practice his trophy-raising skills. So, I’m saying nothing. At all.


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