Four teams, four continents
The semi-final line-up for the FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand underlined the fact that in youth football, the worldwide playing field is more level than ever before. While Ghana and Brazil are traditional powerhouses, the performances of USA and Australia reflect the game?s remarkable development in corners of the globe where football is not necessarily the most high-profile sport.
Both matches were action-packed, pulsating affairs which delighted the fans and displayed all the characteristic exuberant skills and never-say-die attitude of the U-17 category. In the end, both encounters required penalties to settle them.
The first semi-final kicked off in Christchurch where, in keeping with past performances, the USA conceded an early goal. The Australians then soaked up the pressure, aiming to strike through counter-attacks, and one such breakaway led to their second goal.
However, the American ?Comeback Kids? stayed in touch with a swift reply, clinching the equaliser shortly after the break and looking to settle the game in their favour.
The resilient Aussies held on to finish the second half the stronger team, continuing their superiority into extra time but unable to grab the winner.
A nail-biting penalty shoot-out ended when USA captain Cutler missed the decisive shot to send Australia through to their first Final of a FIFA competition.
In Auckland, the other semi-final saw over 12,000 spectators watch the clash between pre-tournament favourites Ghana and Brazil. The game fully lived up to its billing as fortunes swung first in favour of the South Americans and then the Africans.
Despite heavy rain, the Brazilians found both their footing and their shooting boots early on.After half an hour they were two goals ahead, thanks to some lax defending, the predatory instincts of their strikers and a Ghanaian own goal.
However, the second half belonged to Ghana as the West Africans turned on the exuberant, hard-running style one associates with their football.
Despite several chances, the scores remained unchanged through to the end of extra time. After another tense penalty shoot-out, the South Americans made it three finals in a row.
So now to Auckland on Saturday where Australia will take on champions Brazil in a rematch of their Group C encounter. The Aussies have already made a piece of footballing history by reaching the Final ? can they now go on to cause the biggest upset of all? It promises to be a fascinating and explosive encounter...