Fiji, managed by oddball Aussie Frank Farina, not Fifa, managed by slimeball Swiss Sepp Blatter, were the four letters which, nearly shook the football world this weekend. Sadly, however, their opponents in the Under-20s World Cup on Sunday were the “jammy dodgers” qualifiers for the last sixteen of a so far absorbing, occasionally thrilling tournament. Uzbekistan, for it was they, qualified in second place in Group F, even though their record wouldn’t have qualified them AT ALL as one of the four best third-placed teams (New Zealand, Senegal and Mali all had four points, Hungary had three points and a better goal difference).
Fifa’s website made much of the Uzbeks coming second despite being bottom of the group without a point after two games. This was as much of a statistical freak as Guatemala in 2011, who made it to the knock-out stages after two unsightly hammerings and a “one of those days” one-nil victory over Croatia. But it also came from the Uzbeks’ ambitionless anti-football against group winners Germany – see the chapter in the tournament football qualification manual headed lose to Germany by less than the others. And it was made possible by Germany hammering everyone in the group while everyone else beat everyone else.
To be fair to Uzbekistan, it would have needed a whole week of “those days” for them not to have beaten Fiji. It was 0-0 at half-time and Fiji’s Saula Waqa squandered a midway-decent chance to keep the Bula Boys’ dream alive amidst the one-way traffic. But one goal would have been enough after Honduras started conceding regular second-half goals against the Germans. And it was always coming. Sadly, it was a tragi-comic affair, Fiji’s previously octopus-hands” keeper Miswani Nairube all-but-throwing in Eldor Shomurodov’s header, which may not have even reached the goal otherwise. It was 2-0 a minute later and 3-0 by the end, a less embarrassing return for, eeek, FORTY efforts on goal. The Uzbeks showed enough attacking flair against Honduras and enough patience against the South Pacific Islanders to merit a last-16 place more than some scuffers in past tournaments. And 3-0 against Fiji was probably about right. However, their second round tie with Austria (see previous article) is unlikely to be filed under “mouth-watering prospect” beforehand or “humdinger” afterwards.
Of the four best third-placed teams, only Mali in Group D managed it without the help of victory over a group whipping boy. But not entirely without help at all, a cynic might think. The goals in the 1-1 draw with Uruguay which got both sides through had a high stupidity factor, especially Uruguayan keeper Gaston Guruceaga’s handling of what would have looked an obvious backpass on radio. And the euphemism-heavy official match report noted “the fact that a draw was enough for both was evident in the sides’ safety-first approach.” The result left both sides with identical records on all relevant measures and having to draw lots to decide second place. Uruguay’s “win” landed them a last-16 tie against Group E winners Brazil rather than Group B winners Ghana. However, Uruguay beat Brazil in qualifying and improving Ghana have been at least as good in New Zealand as the sometimes stuttering Selecao. So it might yet be a win.
Hungary were a distant second to a Nigerian side beginning to live up to impressive underage teams in previous competitions, an improvement which needs to continue as Germany await in the second round. Thus have the Magyars qualified for the last 16 with two wins (over Israel and North Korea) and four defeats in six qualifying and finals’ matches. That sound you hear is NOT their last-16 opponents, Group D winners Serbia, quaking in their boots. Senegal “only” had to beat the dismal Qataris to ensure at least third place in Group C, but they made the heaviest conceivable weather of it, even conceding a goal against the previously shot-shy “future of world football” (copyright some Fifa official at some stage, probably). They look the least threatening and least likely to advance further of the African quartet, as Group A winners Ukraine appear to have got all their rustiness out of their system since the ghastly tournament opener.
Portugal and Brazil qualified with maximum points, the former looking the better outfit. Brazil struggled for far too long to break down North Korea in their final group match, Marcos Guilherme hitting the post from six FEET during a goalless first half and the Selecao only breaking the deadlock on the hour with a horrible deflection on Jaja’s long-ranger. Colombia may lack the quality of recent under-20s teams (the Quintero in this side is a defender) but Portugal were quite impressive in dismantling them 3-1, even if Colombian goalkeeper Alvaro Montero was a key contributor to goals two and three as they went three-up three-quarters of the way through the game.
After the “golden” and “silver” generations (the latter in 2011, apparently), it remains to be seen what precious metal will attach themselves to this Portuguese team. And second-round victory over New Zealand probably won’t give us any more idea. I’m ruling out osmium for the moment, though. The Colombians will, however, fancy their chances against a thus far disjointed United States who have been memorable almost as much for centre-half Cameron Carter-Vickers’ name than any of their football. “Sounds like a law firm,” noted British Eurosport’s Gary O’Reilly, possibly aware that American justice is not a popular concept around Fifa at the moment. “Splendid,” he concluded.
Against Ukraine, Jordan Allen produced the joint-worst dive of the tournament to date, which was hilarious for the fraction of a nanosecond before the referee pointed to the spot. Emerson Hyndman missed the penalty, which would have made it 1-1. They lost 3-0. Justice, American-style. Again. Allen’s unsolicited sprawl was matched by Mali’s Souleymane Diarra, which got Mexico’s Oscar Bernal dismissed for a second booking and produced howls of Mexican outrage when it was replayed on the big screen at Dunedin. Thankfully, such outrageously bad acting at Fifa events this month has mostly been limited to the film United Passions.
British Eurosport’s intermittent coverage has left judgements in this article over-reliant on extended highlights from variable-quality streams and Fifa’s own occasionally ludicrous mini-highlights of each game, 10% of which include superfluous crowd shots and, for particularly bad games, snippets of pre-and post-match handshakes and national anthems. It has, though, been an entertaining first round of matches, as demonstrated by the goals-per-game ratio remaining, pardon the Andy Townsend-ism, “in and around” three-and-a-half throughout. And it would be a wee bit more but for some shocking penalty-taking.
There’s been no shortage of spectacular net-busters for any potential goals montage. The eliminated Panamanians contributed two of the best. Jharnal Rodriguez gave one 25-yarder a satisfying thump against Argentina and Fidel Escobar‘s toe-poke against Austria deserved to be more significant than it eventually proved. Ghana’s Clifford Aboagye aided Argentina’s exit with a fine finish after an even finer break by Samuel Tetteh. Serbia’s Andrija Zivkovic curled in a Messi-esque 25-yard free-kick against Mexico, matched by Portugal’s Nuno Santos against Colombia. The sweetest strike to date was Kingsley Sokari’s driller for Nigeria against North Korea. And Bence Mervo’s flying shot-on-the-run for Hungary against Brazil would have been a tournament best except that it didn’t cross the bloody line!!
Ukraine’s goal-glut midfielder Viktor Kovalenko is a prime player of the tournament contender, alongside the afore-mentioned Zivkovic, after pre-tournament favourites for the role have either already gone home (Argentina’s Angel Correa) or slightly disappointed (Brazil’s “Manchester United star” Andres Periera, the afore-mentioned Carter-Vickers of Tottenham and, in fact, most of the EPL’s representatives in New Zealand…odd, that). My personal favourite is Uruguayan centre-back Mauricio Lemos, more for the Marouane Fellaini hair-do than his football…well…entirely for the hairdo, to be honest. I probably shouldn’t get a vote in this category. I’ve also warmed to the afore-mentioned Magyar Mervo, whose goals, over the line or not, have been accompanied by a celebration which he pretends to forget immediately after scoring. That level of meticulous preparation deserves an acknowledgement of sorts.
Sadly, the noisiest fans, the Mexicans, are going home, their team the “victim” of the Mali/Uruguay stitch-up draw. Crowds elsewhere have rarely filled even the smaller New Zealand’s grounds, for which stadia seems too grand a word, and TV pictures suggest that the “official” capacities are generous estimates…or New Zealand fans are very small. Of course, some have been so heavily-populated with kids that misses have brought screams more reminiscent of a One Direction concert. I would imagine. And the empty seats have meant that TV effects microphones have picked up rather too many expletive deletives, New Zealand keeper Oliver Sail’s “fucking hell” echoing across continents after he let in the fourth goal in their four-nil loss to the US. Playing four games each day, whilst limiting the live TV coverage, has ensured that the tournament will last a manageable three weeks and also ensured that by the time some of you read this, the fate of at least half the following predictions will be known.
The tournament looks destined for a quarter-final line-up of Ghana, Serbia, Colombia, Ukraine, Germany, Portugal and either Austria or Uzbekistan (depending on who can stay awake the longest) and Uruguay or Brazil (depending on when, not if, Uruguay lose their discipline). Then, via potential Portugal/Brazil and Germany/Ghana quarter-finals, both of which should be semis at least, we get a Portugal/Germany final. Check your Gary Lineker cliché book for the “inevitable” outcome of that. All of a sudden, with my forecasting prowess, the US look a decent each-way bet.
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