Tourists flock to the Finnish capital every August for the charming Helsinki Festival. But in the eighth month of 2003, the masses descended on the Nordic nation for another festival – a football one.
The tenth FIFA U-17 World Cup certainly lived up to their expectations. Spectators were treated to implausible comebacks (Sierra Leone recovered a two-goal deficit to hold the mighty Spain, and Cameroon, 5-0 down after 70 minutes, sensationally drew with Portugal), emphatic victories (Colombia won 9-1, USA 6-1 and Brazil 5-0 in the group stage), and breathtaking goals from Freddy Adu, Yosimar Arias, Ederson and Vieirinha, whose lobbed effort was from all of 55 yards! Furthermore, the neutrals got what was billed, pre-tournament, as the dream final: Brazil versus Spain.
The South Americans had gone 445 minutes without conceding en route to the decider – a statistic indebted to centre-backs Joao and Leonardo – and relied upon Ederson, Evandro and Abuda for flair. The Iberians boasted an imperial midfield of Jurado, David Silva, Sisi and Cesc Fabregas, who was one of the youngest players at the tournament but arguably its most impressive performer ahead of his fellow final participants and the likes of Lucas Biglia, Fredy Guarin and John Obi Mikel.
Spain swiftly imposed themselves with slick, one-touch passing, but their concession of a seventh-minute free-kick, 25 yards out, proved very costly. Joao’s superb curler came back off the post, but his defensive partner Leonardo was on hand to turn home the rebound and put Brazil ahead. It saw Finland 2003 equal Egypt 1997 as the highest-scoring FIFA U-17 World Cup in history.
It almost got worse for Juan Santisteban’s team moments later. Ederson’s stinging half-volley was parried by Javier Mandaluniz into the path of Abuda, who, with the goal at his mercy, smashed the ball against the crossbar.
That second wake-up call spurred Silva, Sisi and Jurado into life. Despite all their trickery, however, they struggled to unlock the Joao-directed Brazilian rearguard for the remainder of the first half.
After the restart, however, the chances began to fall to the boys in red. A long-distance Jurado piledriver went inches wide, before Bruno somehow saved Xisco’s back-post header just after the hour. Evandro should have doubled Marcos Paqueta’s side’s lead from a rapid counter-attack, but that was a momentary respite from the Spanish siege. Fabregas, Xisco, Silva and substitute David all had opportunities, but Bruno was equal to everything until the final whistle sounded, making it 535 minutes without leaking a goal.
Brazil had become the outright record winners of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, surpassing two-time champions Nigeria and Ghana. Spain had made it two defeats from two finals and failed to shed their bridesmaids’ reputation.
“It was Spain who played like Brazilians,” rued Santisteban post-match. “We had so many chances in the second half but just couldn’t put the ball away – that’s football. I hope some of these players can now go on to become the stars of tomorrow.”
That they did, with Silva and Fabregas, who pocketed the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Shoe awards as Finland 2003’s best player and top scorer respectively, going on to help Spain’s seniors definitely shed their bridesmaids' reputation.
Evandro, the adidas Silver Ball recipient, said: “Spain are a wonderful side with fantastic attacking players, but we believes in ourselves, worked very hard and produced this great performance. His coach added: “It was not our best performance of the finals – perhaps we scored too early. But today the result was more important than the show.”
Paqueta may not have felt the champions’ crowning performance was a show, but nobody doubted that the 17-day Finnish spectacle had been an electrifying exhibition.