Football – Africa And Europe Show Their Mettle
AFRICA AND EUROPE SHOW THEIR METTLE
Nigerian faces were smiling in September when the national team won a third FIFA U-17 World Cup title – again on Asian soil as had also been the case with both previous triumphs. Spain completed a less agreeable hat trick by losing in the world U-17 final for a third time. Third place was taken by a Germany team that included player of the tournament Toni Kroos.
Seoul. 7am on a rainy Sunday morning. Nigeria U-17 national team coach Yemi Telia sits down to breakfast. At the same time, his players are working up a sweat on the training pitch, while their next opponents, Spain, are still lying in bed at the same hotel alongside Gimpo airport.
Not only is the scheduling of the Nigerians’ training session noteworthy but also its intensity. The youngsters are sprinting as fast their legs will carry them, puffing and panting along the way — and it is just twelve hours until the kick-ofF of the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007.
Once again, Telia has confounded the experts and his opponents. “We’ve come to Korea to take the world title back to Nigeria,” the small, lean man had confidently said before the tournament. He kept his word.
Nigeria won the U-17 world title for the third time — with each victory coming in Asia: in the People’s Republic of China in 1985, Japan in 1993 and the Republic of Korea this year. “It seems like this continent is lucky for us,” said Telia, who was as calm and composed in the team’s moment of triumph as he had been throughout the whole tournament. “Smile! You’ve won the World Cup!” someone called out to him. “Thanks,” he murmured as a grin briefly flickered across his lips.
TRIUMPH FOR CREATIVITY
While the Nigerian players with their gold medals hanging around their necks and their wonderful supporters celebrated the victory at the Seoul World Cup Stadium with some traditional folk dancing, the losing Spain team sat on the ground dejected, tears rolling down their cheeks. The exciting, entertaining final before a 36,125 crowd had ended goalless after 120 minutes, before the Nigerians ultimately emerged 3-0 victors in the decisive penalty shootout. Following on from 1991 and 2003, it was the third time that the Spaniards had reached a U-17 World Cup final and fallen at the final hurdle. “We can still be proud of ourselves and our performance,” said Spain coach Juan Santisteban with good reason.
The final – and also the play-off for third place in which Germany beat Ghana 2-1 thanks to an injury-time winner – epitomized the basic philosophy that the vast majority of the teams had shared during the tournament’s previous 50 matches. Their first objective was to score goals and not to avoid conceding them. And so it was that attacking football triumphed over defence. The tournament saw 165 goals in all, at an average of 3.17 per match, and the Germans emerged the most potent team with a haul of 20 goals.
The stand-out players in Korea were neither goalkeepers – in fact, many were disappointing – nor combative, strong-heading defensive rocks. Instead, tactically astute, creative, attacking players were the stars of the show, like Germany’s outstanding midfield maestro and five-time scorer Toni Kroos (who has already appeared for Bayern Munich in friendly matches), Spain’s striker of Serbian origin Bojan Krkic (who trains regularly with the likes of Ronaldinho, Thietry Henry, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o at Barcelona) and the tournament’s top scorer, Macauley Chrisantus, whose days with Nigerian second division club FC Abuja might soon be over.
HOME TEAM DISAPPOINTS
The appeal of the 12th FIFA U-17 World Cup, the first ever with 24 teams as opposed to the previous 16, was not limited to fabulous football, glorious goals and silky skills either. The sportsmanship of the players, coaches, team assistants, officials and spectators inside and outside the stadiums in the eight venues was equally exemplary.
However, some elements of the tournament did not draw quite such glowing praise. For example, New Zealand as Oceania’s lone representatives were outclassed in football terms and will have returned home crestfallen after failing to score and conceding; 13 goals in their three matches. “Everything went a bit too quickly for us,” confessed coach Colin Tuaa. “We are heroes in our region, but we still have a lot to learn at world level.”
The progress of Asia’s five representatives was also disappointing. The host nation could manage no better than 18th place overall and did not reach the knockout stages, thus contributing, at least in part, to the low attendances (see inset). The Japanese fared little better and also failed to progress from their group. Meanwhile, Korea DPR and the two Asian debutants in the tournament, Syria and Tajikistan, were knocked out in the last 16.
That was the round that also marked the end of the road for one of the tournament’s supposed favourites, Brazil, and Lula – a player touted by many in his homeland as the new Ronaldinho – failed to live up to his billing. Nevertheless, team-mate Fabinho produced one highlight for the Brazilians by opening the scoring in his nation’s 7-0 group phase win over New Zealand after just nine seconds, thus breaking the record for the fastest ever goal in the final competition of a FIFA event.
CONMEBOL’s other three representatives had just as little to celebrate. Colombia were also knocked out in the last 16, and Argentina and Peru could make it no further than the quarter¬finals. With CONCACAF’s three teams in the tournament also failing to impress (the region’s most successful representatives were Costa Rica, who finished 14th in the final ranking, losing 2-0 to Argentina in the round of 16), Europe and Africa were the top performers in the Republic of Korea with two semi-finalists apiece.