Victory for football and Brazil in New Zealand
For the second time in a row, Brazil have won the Under-17 World Championship. Facing the surprisingly successful Australian team in the final, they were held to 0-0 even after extra time and then just squeezed their way to the title, 8-7 on penalties. The tournament in New Zealand produced some exciting and good quality football.
The final itself was not the best of the 32 matches that were played in the course of this 8th FIFA U-17 World Championship, which was held in New Zealand from 10 to 27 November. What the crowd of almost 23,000 got to see in this game was a tense and hard-fought battle. The Aussies did not allow the hot favourites from South America to develop the game the way they wanted to, and even though they were outplayed from the technical point of view they made up for this deficit with their compact play and their fighting spirit.
Only during the last ten minutes of extra time, when a "golden goal" would have brought the decider, was there really any exciting action near goal, as both teams began to tire after their marathon encounters. Both semi-finals had also gone to the penalty-shooting stage, Brazil beating Ghana in one match and the Australians coming out on top versus the USA in the other. And for a dramatic decision on penalties, this final would be hard to surpass; it needed 17 attempts before the verdict fell - until that stage only one player on each side had failed to convert.
Brazil, as one would expect from the team that were the defending champions and winners of this competition too, put out a team that was physically strong as well as containing some technically brilliant players, such as Leo. Nonetheless, they failed to stamp their mark on the tournament, in the way, say, that Spain did in the World Youth Championship in Nigeria last spring. Yet when it came to the crunch of penalty shooting, the South Americans kept their nerves better than their opponents and were in the end worthy winners of the title.
The amazing Australians
In retrospect, the semi-final between Brazil and Ghana will probably be regarded as the high point of the competition. In this dramatic match in Auckland, the African team were trailing 0-2 at half time, but managed to harness their strengths in the second half and draw level, the score remaining that way until the penalty-shooting finale tipped the balance against them. This re-play of the 1997 final was a match of such high quality for players of this age that the Chairman of the FIFA Committee for Youth Competitions, Jack A. Warner of Trinidad and Tobago, stated the next day that he would send a video of this superb game to every member association of FIFA.
The major surprise of the tournament was provided by the Australians, who according to all reports had arrived for the competition under-prepared, and yet still managed to reach their first ever final in a FIFA event. During the group games they showed that they were a compact side, and although they lost 1-2 to the eventual winners at this stage it was a rather unlucky defeat, and the Brazilian coach would have been happier if his team had not had to play the same opponents again in the final.
The US team also made a positive impression, both in their play and in their overall behaviour, hoping that this would be the time that they would make it through to a final. But they were unlucky at the penalty stage against Australia. The team had had a budget of over USD 1 million at the disposal of coach John Ellinger and his assistants and they had prepared intensively for months for the competition. In the play-off for third place, Ghana proved to be the team that had more energy left and ran out 2-0 winners over the Americans.
Two other unusual happenings marked this competition. Number one was that for the first time since 1985 all the European teams were eliminated after the group games. Spain had looked promising in their first match, where they held co-favourites Ghana to a 1-1 draw, but then they lost their last match against Mexico and that meant an early flight home. Germany played out two 0-0 draws, against Mali and Brazil, but lost against Australia, and for the second time this year - the U-20 team suffered the same fate in Nigeria in April - the Germans failed to reach the second round.
Poland had a chance of getting through, needing to beat New Zealand by at least two clear goals in their final group game. But all they managed to do was hit the bar or the uprights three times and they were out too. In fact, the brave host team, previously having gone down 1-2 against the USA and 0-5 against Uruguay, went on to win this encounter, marking the second notable event of the tournament - it was New Zealand's first-ever victory in the final round of any FIFA competition.
After the group games, every confederation, with the exception of Europe, still had at least one representative left in the competition, the line up being: South America (Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay), Central America and the Caribbean (Mexico, USA), Oceania (Australia), Asia (Qatar) and Africa (Ghana).
This good spread shows how well balanced world football has become, and not only balanced, but at a high level too. Only Thailand and Jamaica had to go home without a point, and their goal difference of 1:17 and 0:10 respectively show that they were the only two teams to be outclassed.
In the quarter-finals, two of the matches found CONMEBOL and CONCACAF teams drawn against each other, and while Brazil had little trouble disposing of Paraguay (4-1), the match between the USA and Mexico was very closely contested (3-2). The quarter-final stage also saw the only golden goal of the competition, which earned Ghana victory over Uruguay, when Ishmael Addo netted in the 107th minute. In addition to this success, Addo scored another six goals and so walked off with the trophy for top goal-scorer, ahead of Waleed (Qatar - four goals, one assist) and Brazil's Leonardo (four goals).
Even though the USA did not reach their objective of the final, they had the distinction of seeing two of their individual players receiving honours. Striker Landon Donovan, under contract with Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, was voted best player of the tournament, with his team-mate Damarcus Beasley, a fast and technically skillful midfielder, in second place. There was another "first" at this FIFA tournament too - as part of the FIFA campaign against doping two players were chosen from each team after every match to undergo testing - the encouraging result being that every test proved negative.
Charles J. Dempsey weeps for joy
Charles J. Dempsey had tears in his eyes. Nearly 23,000 spectators turned out to watch the final in the North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, an attendance figure than had not been seen at a football match in New Zealand since 1982, when 22,500 watched the national team play the English club Watford in Christchurch.
Dempsey's emotion was understandable. Australia, an Oceania team, had reached the final and Dempsey has been working energetically for many years as President of the Oceania Confederation (OFC), it being largely due to his persistence that New Zealand was able to host its first ever FIFA tournament. The land of the Kiwis is an out and out rugby country, where the All Blacks, the rugby team, are the pride of the nation, while the All Whites, the footballers, rank fourth or fifth in the sporting popularity list.
But for once the rates came close to being reversed. While a large part of the rugby world was still lamenting New Zealand's defeat against France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final, the 16 teams of talented teenage footballers brought New Zealand a real taste of the game. Surprised by the quality and the attraction of the football, the media found themselves forced to pay attention and to devote an unusual amount of space and time to this competition. Even a couple of the die-hard rugby and cricket correspondents had to admit that while what they had expected to see was a few school-age youngsters kicking a ball around, they were surprised by the level of play that was demonstrated. Following the Brazil-Ghana semi-final the headlines even ran to superlatives, with this match being rated as the best game of football ever played in the country.
The host association, New Zealand Soccer, and its Organising Committee ran a perfect tournament, with their volunteer helpers receiving no material compensation but certainly lots of emotional reward. For the first time, football has been taken seriously in the country.
In Auckland the average attendance was over 10,000, and in the other venues between 4,500 and 5,000. Impressive figures. The Auckland Kingz, who currently play in the Australian League by special arrangement, would be happy to see 10,000 at one of their matches. The LOC director Bill McGowan was naturally pleased to see such a positive response from the public, which was well above the budgeted level. The tournament brought the game to a new level of general attention in the country, and this is viewed not as an end but as a starting point - the association's officials now hope to carry this momentum forward.
The success of this competition has seeded the thought in the minds of Soccer New Zealand that they might like to apply to host another FIFA tournament some time in the future, and take a step up the ladder at that - maybe the Youth World Championship or the Confederations Cup.