The FIFA Under-20 World Cup Finals: A Preview

It comes with the territory of biennial age-limited tournaments, of course. Not one English player who won the 2017 Under-20s World Cup would be eligible for the 2019 edition, which begins in Poland on Thursday. Still, their non-qualification, and that of their final opponents Venezuela, was eye-catching. As was Brazil’s, although that’s only because its Brazil. They didn’t qualify in 2017 either.

England’s “failure” isn’t as rare as semi-distant observers might think. The last champions to even qualify for the next edition were Argentina, in 2007. They successfully defended their 2005 title, straddling the event’s name-change from World Youth championship and helped by Golden Shoe and Ball winner, as top scorer and best player, Sergio Aguero (and if you know one end of a football from the other, you’ll know, or can guess, who did that same double in 2005).

Semi-distant observers might also be surprised that the England squad which won the 2017 Under-17s World Cup didn’t form the basis for the team which tried to qualify for Poland. In this, they were hamstrung by circumstances, with said qualification for European teams coming via 2018’s Uefa under-19s championship. And a team full of under-18s would be at some disadvantage in an under-19s event, champions or not.

As it transpired, England exited the under-19 Euros at the group stage, thanks to a 5-0 thumping by France. Semi-finalists Italy, Portugal, Ukraine and France qualified for Poland. Portugal expansively won the competition, hockeying Ukraine 5-0 in the semis before beating Italy 4-3 after extra-time in a thrilling final. And England lost a play-off for the fifth finals spot, 3-0 to Norway. (NB: England won’t be defending their Under-17 title either; a 5-2 thumping by eventual winners the Netherlands eliminating them from the just-finished under-17 Euros in Ireland at the group stage).

Shorn of the mighty Albion, the tournament won’t get the late-stage BBC exposure of 2017, when Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the only goal of a hugely entertaining final. Although the mighty Michael Oliver and assistants Simon Bennett and Stuart Burt will whistle and flag-wave for the quasi-nation. Instead, it will be on “Free Sports,” which launched in August 2017.

And, shorn of the mighty Albion, the tournament has probably garnered little attention in Scotland, after Timothy Weah’s public account of the abrupt end to his Celtic loan spell. In a post which was otherwise gushing about the club, Weah, said that “the gaffer,” Neil Lennon, told him it was “in the best interests of the team that I pack my things and go home,” after he made the United States squad, which opens its tournament on Friday, the day before Celtic’s Scottish Cup final. Weah hit a hat-trick in USA’s 6-0 second-round win over Paraguay in the 2017 Under-17s finals.

It remains a big deal globally, though. And England’s 2017 squad had a sprinkling of soon-to-be-household names; Calvert-Lewin and Arsenal’s Ashley Maitland-Niles perhaps the best-known currently. There is a sprinkling of EPL youth in the 2019 squads, although only Man Yoo’s Portuguese right-back, Diogo Dalot. who also played in 2017, is anything like ‘household.’ But the list of past event stars stretches far beyond Aguero and Messi (you guessed that Messi was the 2005 star, right?).

England were brilliant in 2017, as noted in these pages. And the football generally was expansive and entertaining. Watching coaches may have shuddered at the tactical deficiencies which caused this expansiveness. But many among the wider audience for the final enjoyed how England poured forward, even as they led 1-0 in the closing stages, rather than ‘close the game out.’

The tournament will take place in smaller venues than those used for Euro 2012 matches, denying tickets to the thousands of empty seats which have cheered teams on in past finals’ matches not involving the hosts. It is, though, an eclectic 24-team field (so…yes…the four best third-placed teams in the groups qualify as 75% of the games eliminate 33% of the teams).

Uefa has six teams, five qualifiers and Poland. Four confederations have four teams, while Oceania has two: The inevitable New Zealand and Tahiti in the ‘wait…WHO?’ role subverted magnificently in recent years. Fiji ambushed an unsuspecting Honduras 3-0 in 2015 and the world double-took in 2017 at ‘Germany 3 Vanuatu 2,’ after Vanuatu lost 3-2 to Mexico in the 94th-minute.

New Zealand’s procession to the Oceania under-19s final last August included a 14-0 win over Tonga, who had actually won their qualifying group. Tahiti were a far sterner proposition (they could hardly not be), especially as they hosted the final stages, losing 2-1 to the All Whites in their group game and 1-0 in the final itself.

Neither Brazil nor hosts Chile made South America’s qualifying quartet. A punishing, all-round-robin Under-20s event format, two five-team groups and a six-team final group, forced nine games in 25 days on teams with top-four ambitions. Ecuador were first-time champions, beating Argentina twice on the way. Uruguay and Colombia followed those two in that order. Chile didn’t make it to the last six. Brazil lost to Colombia on goal difference, stoppage-time defeat to Uruguay proving fatal. And Venezuela impressed early on but blew qualification by losing their last two games.

Asia’s under-19 event, last October, provided a precursor to the shoe-based tensions between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the senior competition three months later. Qatar, the UAE and hosts Indonesia beat each other and thumped Chinese Taipei to finish on six points in their group. The UAE had the best goal difference. But the top two was determined by the non-Chinese Taipei results, which dropped the UAE to third, despite their 2-1 win over Qatar.

This knocked them out, as the 16-team event went straight to a last eight, where Indonesia joined Qatar instead, after losing SIX-FIVE to them in their group game. This was financially handy. Indonesian games drew tens of thousands (60,000 at their quarter-final loss to Japan). But nine games drew…tens, with only 35 able to tell their grandchildren “I was there” when Japan beat North Korea 5-2. Football Keystone Cops Qatar beat Thailand SEVEN-THREE after extra-time in their quarter-final, which qualified them for Poland, with fellow semi-finalists South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia, who beat South Korea 2-1 in the final.

Concacaf’s entire membership hit Florida for three weeks last November; six qualifying groups, two ‘final’ groups of three, with the top two in each, USA, Honduras, Mexico and Panama off to Poland. The US beat Mexico 2-0 in the final to win their second consecutive and second-ever Concacaf under-20 title. The goals-per-game average was a superficially sensational 4.56. But this was artificially boosted by jelly-mould defending from the US Virgin Islands (40 goals conceded in five games) plus Sint Maarten and Saint Martin (64 in ten), the Dutch and French shares of one Caribbean island.

The prevalence of such tiny teams has recent-historic roots in the repugnant Jack Warner’s desire to increase his (and I mean ‘his’) Caribbean Football Union’s (CFU’s) Fifa and Concacaf electoral block vote. “The Ugly Game,” Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s excellent book on Qatar’s “plot to buy the World Cup,” said “the joke was that every time a tiny atoll pierced the warm blue-green waters of the Caribbean, Warner would give it a football federation.” Warner’s playbook, it seems, is still in use.

Africa’s fab four were February’s African U-20 Cup of Nations’ final four. Mali won their first title, with Senegal, South Africa and Nigeria the other progressors. All four are well-versed in pressured penalty shoot-outs, too, as the final, third-place match and the Mali/Nigeria semi-final were level after two hours. In contrast to the Americas’ marathons, the Under-20 AFCON, in Niger, was an eight-team event, done-and-dusted in a fortnight-and-a-day, a far more sensible schedule for late-teens. Qualifying was straight knock-out too. So the teams will be fresh and ready for penalties.

The smart money might be tempted by these fresh, penalty-practiced faces. While Qatar’s odds range from 66 to 200-1. As Asia’s senior champions are on a footballing roll, even 66-1 seems silly, screaming “great each-way bet” even to a veteran non-gambler like me. But the actual money is on France, with Argentina third favourites, seemingly on past reputation, as they are some way above Ecuador who, remember, not only beat Argentina to the South American title but beat them twice on the way.

Tahiti v Senegal starts the show, 5pm Thursday. Can’t wait.