Finland 2003: Brazil axe opposition in Finnish forest
Brazil claimed their third crown in the past four editions of the U-17 tournament with a mixture of the same ingredients that have seen them re-emerge as the dominant footballing nation at senior level: steely defence, physical endurance, technical proficiency and the one thing they can always rely on - audacious skill.
But the young Selecao were just the winning actor of arguably the most dramatic junior tournament to date. The Finnish stage showcased the greatest (goals, hat-tricks), the wondrous (a 60-yard goal), the thrilling (a comeback from 5-0 down), the ruthless (a 9-1 thrashing of the hosts) the comical (a high number of own goals), and, of course, a few exceptional performers. And all this with ten of the 32 matches played on artificial turf.
Sublime and stingy Brazil
After conceding a goal to Cameroon in the 5th minute of the opening match, goalkeeper Bruno, incredibly, went the rest of the tournament, 535 minutes plus stoppage time, without having to pick the ball out of his net. He was in no small part helped in defence by Leonardo and majestic captain Joao as well as wing-backs Leo and Sandro. With midfielders Jonathan, Junior and Arouca doggedly disturbing their opponents' rhythm, it was left to the attacking trio of Ederson, Evandro (adidas Silver Ball winner) and Abuda to supply the creative and sublime. Once they had got the misses out of their system in that opening encounter, the three blossomed within the Finnish forest and took turns to be lords in the wins versus Portugal (5-0), Yemen (3-0), USA (3-0), Colombia (2-0) and against Spain in the Final (1-0).
While other coaches chopped and changed, Paqueta chose the same 11 - all from different Brazilian club sides - throughout the finals. At their adopted home in Tampere, on the road in Turku and in the Final in Helsinki, Brazil's familiar footballing rhythm was exposed to yet another land, drumming up more faithful followers and highlighted by the numbers of golden shirts that sprouted up on the terraces.
Santisteban breathes fire into the Furia
Without question, Spain were the most entertaining side in Nordic Finland. After an extraordinary opening match against a just-arrived Sierra Leone team in which they led 2-0 within 15 minutes before needing a goal from Xisco six minutes into stoppage time to grab a point at 3-3, they continued to amaze Finnish crowds with their pure, beautifully crafted football. They proved too hot for Korea Republic (3-2), USA (2-0), Portugal (5-2) and Argentina (3-2) before being tamed by a determined Brazil, perfectly balanced side with Sisi on the right and either Silva or Oskitz on the left, they had two creative, goalscoring midfielders - Real Madrid's Jurado and Barcelona's Cesc (adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe winner) in their ranks, and were led in attack by the irrepressible Xisco. With an added dose of determination and courage, Juan Santisteban's class of 93 lit up the finals.
Advantage South America
With three nations from each confederation and one from Oceania competing, the junior world championship has often been described as the most democratic of FIFA tournaments. This has been underlined by the fact that countries from Asia and Africa have gone on to win the trophy five times in its nine editions. But Finland 2003 definitely confirmed the swing back in favour of the traditional continental superpowers of Europe and most significantly South America, who were represented by three of the four semi-finalists. Brazil were accompanied by a strong Argentinian squad - only pipped in the semi-final by an incredible Spanish comeback - and a high-scoring, free-flowing Colombian team, that had the temerity to stick nine past the hosts Finland.
If Conmebol was up, CAF and Africa, who have not claimed the U-17 crown since Japan 93, were most certainly down. Although their three representatives did not disgrace, the facts - three first round knockouts - speak for themselves. Debutants Cameroon, in one of the most incredible matches ever, failed to make it to the quarter-finals by a goal and the way they were going - scoring five goals in the final 20 minutes to come back from 5-0 down in the make-or-break match against Portugal - by minutes.
Fellow first-timers Sierra Leone were just as unfortunate. Having swapped blow for blow with Spain in their opener, they fell to another last-minute sucker punch when USA's jewel in the crown Freddy Adu struck late and great. They resisted stoutly but tiredness crept in during their final group encounter against Korea (2-3).
However none of the African teams were unluckier than Nigeria. Not for what took place on the pitch but for that behind closed doors when they chose the short straw and had to step aside and allow Costa Rica into the quarter-finals. Despite their runners-up spot in Trinidad & Tobago, the Golden Eaglets never really ruffled any feathers before flying home early.
Turf luck on the Finns
The experiment of playing on an artificial pitch - the first of its kind in a FIFA finals tournament, -was viewed by one and all as a success. Backed by the generous Finnish public, the Vintiot or Rascals lived up to their name in the opening two matches (2-1) and (0-2) but found their defence playing truant in the third with their attacking instincts clinically exploited by the classy Colombians 9-1. The hosts bowed out with heads held rather low as the South Americans found the Töölö turf to their liking.
Since it was age upgraded twelve years ago and with young stars seemingly maturing earlier, more eyes have been cast in the direction of the U-17 tournament. This year's yield will certainly have a few scouts as well as senior national team coaches licking their lips. Still 16 but with a fighter's will, Spain's Cesc will surely go on to make more of a name for himself. Two important goals in the all-Iberian European Final rematch against Portugal and two more, including the 117th-minute golden goal winner in the semi-final versus Argentina, point to a potentially wonderful career for the midfielder.
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, China PR, Colombia, Costa Rica, Finland, Korea Republic, Mexico, Nigeria, Portugal, Sierra Leone, Spain, USA and Yemen.
Töölö stadium (Helsinki), Ratina stadium (Tampere), Kupittaa stadium (Turku) and Lahti stadium (Lahti).
No. of goals: 117 (average/game: 3.66)
5 goals: Cesc (ESP), Carlos Hidalgo (COL), Manuel Curto (POR)
4 goals: Abuda, Evandro (BRA), Freddy Adu (USA)