The Under-20 World Cup: Ukraine If You Want To

by | Jun 22, 2019

Mark Murphy’s tip as Under-20s World Cup finals dark horses, Qatar, lost only 1-0 to the eventual tournament winners. But that is as far away from telling the story of that tournament as any of his predictions…

Under-20s World Cup finals don’t always produce winners to match the quality or entertainment on offer. For every ‘England in 2017,’ there’s a ‘Serbia in 2015.’ And the 2019 edition certainly didn’t do that, as a ‘workmanlike’ Ukraine side won an event which was far more expansive and enjoyable than they were. There was, though, ultimately little argument about the merit of their victory.

Apart from a nasty encounter with Nigeria, and the hearts of those who saw them play, Ukraine won everything. Their 3-1 defeat of Korea Republic in a decent final was their best performance, and not only because they conceded a (clears throat) ‘controversial’ opening goal after five minutes, two of which were wasted waiting for the VAR to give player-of-the-tournament Lee Kang-In’s penalty.

Vladyslav Supriaha’s double, shortly before and after half-time, restored tournament order as Ukraine began running lanes through the Korean defence; although his 34th-minute equaliser was a scrabbly affair, more in-keeping with his team’s general demeanour, as he toe-poked the ball home after Ukraine won a game of penalty-box pinball.

His second goal, on 53 minutes, was a lovely finish from Victor Konoplia’s pinpoint pass, after Konoplia had been given a guard-of-honour by a Korean defensive midfield line which appeared allergic to tackling. And as full-time approached and the lanes through Korea’s defence got wider, Georghi Tsitaishvili had a dual carriageway to himself for half the length of the pitch before making it 3-1 in the 89th-minute, though he showed a previously unheralded speed and dynamism on his way to goal.

Korea Republic had their moments. But keeper of the tournament (both inside my head and officially) Andriy Lunin had one of his when he tipped Lee Jae-Ik’s 70th-minute header from a Kang-In corner onto the bar. And it should already have been 3-1 by then, Victor Kornyenko gifting the Koreans a goalkick after he’d been gifted a clear sight of goal by Kim Jung-Min’s crackpot clearance.

Ecuador deserved third place, after previously useless sub Richard Mina netted the only goal, a minute before half-time in extra-time in their 1-0 win over unlovely-to-the-end Italy in the ‘bronze medal match’; though it is unclear whether this had the historic significance attached to it by commentator Paul Dempsey.

There was no doubting the game’s competitive edge, despite both sides giving run-outs to ‘squad players.’ Previously regular Italian starter Luca Pellegrini was especially ‘competitive’ when brought off the bench if you define ‘competitive’ as ‘being a constantly irritating pain in the arse.’ And visibly agonising defeat couldn’t have happened to a better fellow.

And in its own way, victory couldn’t have happened to better fellows than Campana, luckless in front of goal but, yes, ‘plucky’ to the end, and goalscorer Mina, who looked like he’d been brought on by mistake after being asked by a ‘proper’ Ecuador sub to “just sit here while I go for a piss, we’re doing well, we won’t be making any subs for a bit.”

Mina was stood in a miles offside position when he side-footed the ball home. But any VAR check would have revealed that the ball came to him off an Italian head. And so irritating had the Italians been by then that you wouldn’t have put it beyond a VAR to doctor the video to make it look that way regardless.


The tournament goalscoring average was three short of three goals-per-game, very impressive in the ‘modern’ game and an entirely fair reflection of on-field events. It would have been two short but for the one truly bad VAR decision, wiping out Gianluca Shamacca’s last-seconds semi-final ‘equaliser’ for Italy against Ukraine. And the preponderance of “big lads up front” was the most surprising on-field development…I would say innovation but something so retro could hardly be fled in that column.

Some proponents of the ‘art’ were a reminder of why the position fell so far out of fashion for so long at the top level. Ecuador’s Leonardo Campana, Senegal’s Youssouf Badji, and, one fleeting VAR-destroyed moment aside, Shamacca had ‘difficult’ finals despite their teams being semi-finalists, the latter pair living down to the first syllable of their last name. But Italy’s Andrea Pinamonti, ‘Argentina’s Adolfo Gaich and Korea Republic’s Oh Se-Hun were effective targetmen in teams whose tactical flexibility gave them a role in their attacking strategies.

Future senior stars will likely include Mali’s Sekou Koita, Ukraine’s Lunin and Korean Kang-In. And one last mention for Norway’s Erling Haaland. Nine goals against Honduras to clinch the Golden Boot before the groups finished…which was handy as Norway didn’t get out of them.

VAR attracted attention to the end. And this tournament provided some first glimpses of football’s new rules, which are adding SOOOO much to the entertainment at the Women’s World Cup.

The major area of misuse still appears to surround penalties. Final referee, Ismail Eifath took an age to give Korea Republic’s penalty, which surely proved that his error in not giving it in the first place was not ‘clear and obvious.’ Indeed, the replays shown on TV did not make it clear or obvious whether Danylo Beskorovainyi tripped Kim Se-Yun in or outside the box. Beskorovainyi’s tackling foot clearly and obviously landed on the penalty-box line. Everything else was as unclear as whether or not he handled the ball on said line a second earlier.

And the previously scandalously ignored issue of keepers leaving their lines on penalties was applied with tyrannical vigour by the referees in Poland in a dictionary-definition display of overcompensation. If you thought Nigeria were sawn off against France on Monday, you’d be right and understand New Zealand under-20 keeper Michael Woud’s frustrations at being denied a third shoot-out penalty save, which in turn almost certainly denied the Junior All Whites an historic quarter-final place.

If video assistance is needed to determine such an offence, it is just as hard to see what advantage any ‘guilty’ keeper would gain. And one suspects that, as a wiser man than I tweeted on Monday, the “problem is” that “this is a change to the rules, so they’re watching goalkeepers on their lines like hawks at the moment” and it is unfair to be “blaming VAR for this.”

Indeed, it is generally unfair to be blaming VAR itself for the majority of problems with decisions which are video-assistance-based to any significant extent. The system, when worked properly, works properly. This under-20s tournament demonstrated that, as VAR became just part of the game for almost the first time. And its English Premier League introduction this August will more likely expose the English insularity which led to such slow take-up, and general mistrust, of the system…an insularity in which this nation is currently taking so much pride.


It is great to have British Eurosport back for the UK’s African Cup of Nations coverage. Nothing in the tournament’s later stages changed my initial instinct that Free Sports TV is barely worth the money you aren’t paying for it. The FS football roster is impressive. CONCACAF (central American) Gold Cup live and Copa America ‘as live’ coverage currently dominates its schedule. But Eurosport is back. And that is even better news than that combination of words has ever been before.