So, farewell then, World Cup warm-ups. Italy’s mad match against Brazilian club side Fluminense – almost certainly the most entertaining of the thousand or so recent preparation games – brought SKY TV’s live match coverage to a temporary end and we can now let the real games begin. Here, Mark Murphy nominates his “ones to watch” over the next month-and-a-day. Not that he’s let slip his international football research since the World Under-20s Cup finals last year…oh no…
In two related senses, World Cup finals genuinely aren’t “what they used to be.” The point has been made by a number of commentators that there aren’t the surprise player discoveries of old, given the congregation of almost all the world’s best players in Europe and, specifically, the vast numbers of TV cameras pointing at the Champions and (outside England certainly) Europa Leagues.
And since about 2002, a common complaint about the football fare on offer at World Cup finals has been its “homogenisation.” It was a word I first heard after Senegal’s surprise one-nil win over France that year, as the well-drilled, organised Lions of Teranga snuffed out Les Bleus weary-looking challenge.
My initial instinct was to dismiss this as a complaint about the lost opportunities for commentators to use regional stereotypes to cover the cracks in their international football research. After all, these Senegalese could hardly have been labelled “happy-go-lucky” or “naïve at the back.”
Elsewhere, “Latin temperaments” are less obvious from Uruguay, Argentina et al. The Brazilians haven’t been truly “Brazilian” since 1986, although their “European phase” in 1990 side is long over. East Asian players aren’t as supposedly mysterious as the North Koreans were made out to be in 1966. And England aren’t as workmanlike, predictable and…ah… That said, the concentration of leading talent among one continent’s clubs did lead to a certain homogenisation.
And the adjacent advent of satellite/cable TV has familiarised football fans with all the biggest names, which in turn has exposed the disdain in which many international underage tournaments are held by domestic broadcasters and authorities alike (think back to ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley’s ignorance of Chile – runners-up in South American qualifying).
As a result, some of the stars of the last two Under-20s World Cup finals, in Colombia (2011) and Turkey (2013), will still be new-ish faces about whom Alan Shearer, Andy Townsend et al can offer ill-informed generalisations.
Fifteen of the 24 nations in Turkey are also in Brazil. And, as those of us watching last summer were reminded every nineteen seconds, Brazil and Argentina weren’t among them. Sixteen of the 24 in Colombia are also in Brazil (including South America’s “big two” this time). So there are plenty of new names and faces with the talent and international experience to shine as brightly in Brazil as the expected names of Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and…er…Ricky Lambert.
I have therefore drawn my ten “ones to watch” exclusively from these competitions. Some are household names, even in British households. Some aren’t. Some have household names – including my favourite name of the tournament. And one…the first one…isn’t actually a player at all but…
…The Spray. Not a nickname for Nigeria’s back-up strike force, despite their lack of proverbial “shooting boots” against Scotland recently. However, it is THE tactical innovation of the 21st century to date. The referee simply sprays round the ball when it is placed for a free-kick, measures out ten yards from the ball and sprays a line on the pitch. If any player defending said free-kick crosses that line, he will be booked. The circles and lines disappear within about a minute. This is perhaps not the most urgent disciplinary requirement in modern football. But it scores astronomically on the “simplicity-to-effectiveness” ratio.
Recent World Cup Finals have been used, ludicrously, to introduce disciplinary “innovations” which have led to too many early red cards before referees learn how to apply discretion and common sense to these directives. Surely, SURELY, players won’t be daft enough to transgress this rule to that ruinous extent.
The best-known actual footballer, to me anyway, is almost as famous for being an Alex Ferguson “mistake” – Ferguson’s biggest until Moyes – Paul Pogba. This fame is largely due to Pogba himself, of course, who missed many more opportunities in front of goal for France’s Under-20s than he has of moaning about his time at Manchester United, from whom Juventus signed him in 2012.
I always had the sense that Pogba was not at full-throttle in Turkey. But he captained the winning French team, opened the scoring in the penalty shoot-out in the final and was named player of the tournament. So what do I know? As little as United in 2012, it would seem. And current reports suggest that if United want him back, which Moyes supposedly did, they’ll have to find £60m. Good job they don’t owe anyone else £350m…oh…wait…
Despite an impressive second place in South America’s qualifying competition (are you reading, Clive Tyldesley?), Colombia are no-one’s tip for success in Brazil, not even as a “dark horse” – a label Belgium have monopolised, making them the brightest “dark horse” in the history of international sporting clichés. But their squad contains one major star from each of the last two Under-20s finals (neither of which Belgium reached).
James Rodriguez just about lived up to the huge hype in Colombia’s own tournament in 2011, and Juan Quintero did likewise in Turkey. Rodriguez has been considered the Colombian’s star man since striker Radamel Falcao’s injury. But he has spent most of his career successfully following in Falcao’s footsteps, so that should be no bother to him.
And he will be the “number ten” in Brazil, which may cramp Quintero’s style. At times in Turkey, Quintero looked capable of ANYthing. And when the pressure was on, he delivered, pinging in a last-kick free-kick to take their second-round tie into extra-time. It was the worst extra-time in international football history…and Colombia lost on penalties. But that shouldn’t diminish Quintero’s contribution.
If Colombian boss Jose Pekerman can accommodate the pair of them, they’ll be “two to watch.” But that might be a bit like the problems successive England managers had fitting Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the same team. Only far, far, FAR more entertaining if it works.
Despite England’s distaste for the World Under-20s, Ross Barkley is one of the likeliest of last year’s players to repeat or surpass his impact – and not just because he was in a team in Turkey which failed to emerge from a group including Egypt and Iraq. England were, as I wrote at the time, much better than that sounds – Iraq got to the semi-finals and were never as second-best as they had been in the first hour of their game against England.
England’s 2011 team was virtually a third-string for any number of reasons…all of which were “Premier League clubs didn’t give a monkey’s about the competition.” But last year’s side nearly produced three of the Brazil squad, with Jon Flanagan and John Stones among England’s “stand-by” players, all of whom will genuinely be standing by given the almost daily “injury scares” emanating from England’s camp at the time of writing.
Barkley looks an international “natural,” in much the same way as Gascoigne and Rooney before him. And his tournament experience in Turkey last year will surely stand to him, even if he is the most experienced player in the squad in exiting tournaments at the group stage.
Given the list of talent which graced Spain’s Under-20s in both Colombia and Turkey, it is a huge surprise that only Atletico Madrid’s Koke, a 2011 veteran, is in Brazil. Or at least it was a huge surprise to me as I’d expected to be able to compile a list of ten players to watch from Spain, Brazil, Colombia and Barkley.
It is tempting to attribute Koke’s selection ahead of Real Madrid’s Isco to Atleti’s (rightful) position as European flavour of the year, despite Real’s eventual Champions League triumph. But he has battened down a regular first-team slot with the Spanish champions, unlike Marc Bartra, Cristian Tello, Sergio Roberto, Gerard Delofeu and many, many more Under-20 internationals of recent vintage.
Koke has been through the ages with Spain, making his international experience enormous – he was even one of the least-terrible Spanish footballers in the 2012 Olympics. And while he played over 30 games before scoring his first European club competition goal, it was the Champions League quarter-final winner against Barcelona. He wears number six and has four letters in the name on his shirt. Spain might not miss Xavi if Koke hits form.
Oscar and Neymar are not on my list because they are such obvious names and because Neymar missed the 2011 finals injured, having top-scored nine goals in the South American championships. While other Under-20s stars that I expected to include…erm…include Philippe Coutinho (Brazil 2011), Erik Lamela (Argentina 2011) and Amino Balde (Portugal 2011).
OK, maybe I made those last two up. But it is disappointing that Portugal’s 2013 star Bruma isn’t in Brazil. This is because of his thrilling displays in Turkey, where he was the tournament’s second-top scorer despite the team’s second-round exit, and not because he would be a very potential call-up if a certain C. Ronaldo esq was to cry off…oh no, not at all, honest…
So it is that Nigeria and Costa Rica complete my list instead. Nigeria because Ahmed Musa and Uche Nwofor have genuine opportunities to star in Brazil; Musa excelled in 2011 and Nwofor top-scored in that year’s qualifying competition. Costa Rica because of “Arsenal’s Joel Campbell,” a hero to many English fans this year after his Champions League goal for Olympiakos, where he is on loan, against Manchester United.
And Costa Rica again because Brazil 2014 is a tournament in which (Birmingham City fans, look away now) Honduran striker Carlos Costly does not have the stand-out name. Step forward Yeltsin Tejada. Yeltsin. I’m guessing his first words were not “thanks, Mum.”
But hey, enough of my yakking. There’s a whole World Cup to watch. Enjoy.
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