Four teams and one dream
The FIFA U-17 World Championship enters its decisive phase this Thursday with two hotly anticipated semi-final encounters. Chiclayo will be the setting for what is sure to be an intriguing and full-blooded showdown between Mexico and the Netherlands, while Trujillo will host an equally enticing duel between Turkey and Brazil. The winners go through to the grand Final on 2 October in Lima, while the vanquished will have to make do with a playoff to see who joins them on the podium in the Peruvian capital. Read on as FIFA.com gives you a taste of what to expect when the reigning world champions and three pretenders to their crown go into battle later today.
Mexico-Netherlands, duel of the debutants in Chiclayo
The Estadio Elías Aguirre will be the setting for today's first semi-final (16:00) between Mexico and the Netherlands, both making their first appearance at the last-four stage of a FIFA U-17 World Championship. The Latin American side booked their spot with an extra-time win over Costa Rica in the quarters, while the Dutch got the better of the USA in regulation time in their last-eight encounter.
Speaking earlier to FIFA.com, the ever cordial Mexico coach Jesús Ramírez was adamant that his side would not be at a disadvantage simply because the Netherlands had wrapped up their quarter-final in 90 minutes: "Playing extra-time has not affected the players. They trained rigorously for this competition and are in great shape physically. The boys are fine. A few of them have minor complaints, but nothing that will stop them from playing."
Naturally, the game will be decided by a lot more than stamina. Chucho, as the coach is known in his homeland, has overseen Mexico's best ever performance in this competition and is confident that breaking new ground will not be a problem for his players, given the "strength and enormous motivation" in the side. "We don't feel pressure because we know we're capable of winning," Ramírez remarked. So just what can we expect when they go head-to-head with the Europeans. "A fascinating duel between two sides of great potential. We'll try and play the best football we can. After that, it will be down to the team that shows the most desire," answers the coach.
As for the Dutch, who are also in uncharted waters in this category, their strategy appears to be to play down the task ahead in order to minimise the pressure on their young players. "The pressure was in the first phase because we were in an extremely tough group. Now that we've come through that, we're proud and delighted. Tension is probably the best word to describe what we're feeling ahead of such a huge game," Ruud Kaiser tells FIFA.com. The loss of his two central defenders to injury and suspension respectively is also a blow to the coach: "Losing Jordy Buijs and Dirk Marcellis was tough, but I came to Peru with 20 players and have the utmost confidence in all of them. Nonetheless, the team will miss their regular captain (Marcellis)," Kaiser adds.
Before sending his young charges out to face Mexico - a team he describes as "a great footballing side without obvious weak points" - Kaiser confides in us what his final rallying cry will be: "I'll tell them the same thing I've told them since our first game: that we've trained two years for this, that I love working with them and that I want it to continue. I'll urge them to keep doing what they have been doing so that we can finish what we've started and lift the World Cup."
Turkey-Brazil, a 'final' in itself
Two of the pre-tournament favourites square off in today's late game in Trujillo (19:00), when the host city will be performing its last act of Peru 2005. In many respects, it is a game worthy of the Final itself, featuring as it does, the meeting of the reigning champions Brazil and the only team with a 100% record in the tournament, Turkey.
Nuri Sahin, who has been the outstanding figure in Abdullah Avci's side, is aware of the challenge awaiting them in the semi-final: "It's not every day you get the chance to play against Brazil, the number one team in world football. We can't wait to take them on. We respect them, of course, but they hold no fear for us," he tells FIFA.com. His coach Avci also insists that Turkey need not fear their rival: "What we need to do is just focus on our strengths and play as we know we can. I can't tell you how many goals you're going to get, but what I can promise is a feast of football. I can also guarantee that, despite the time difference, the whole of Turkey will be glued to their TV screens following our every move."
However, Avci is not convinced that Brazil's extra-time exertions against Korea DPR will work to his side's advantage, saying: "At their age, recovering from an extra 30 minutes should not be too much of a problem."
The last time Brazil and Turkey met in the semi-final of a FIFA competition was at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, with the South American giants holding sway on that occasion. Could this be their chance to exact revenge? "We certainly hope so, as we remember that game only too well. We want to make our mark on history," says Sahin.
Meanwhile, in the world champions' camp, the mood is one of calm confidence as they prepare for what will be their seventh semi-final in the history of the tournament. So much so in fact, that the coaching staff spent almost two hours playing football yesterday against the staff of Brazil's technical commission, much to the enjoyment of the watching players. Coach Nelson Rodrigues explains the staff's motivation: "We take every opportunity to bind the squad even closer together. The atmosphere is one of concentration, but also one of fun and laughter. You have to be united to become champions."
So what can we expect from the big game in Chiclayo? The coach says his side are well aware they will be facing "a great team who have yet to show any weak points". "They deserve our respect, but I'm still confident we will beat them," he tells FIFA.com, while playing down the loss of the injured Renato: "It should not affect us too much as we have a very talented squad of players."
In spite of the over-riding confidence emanating from the Brazilian camp, Rodrigues is conscious that the opposition will be at least as stiff as some of the teams that asked questions of them on the way to the last four. "At no time did I think we would have an easy ride here. We were drawn in the toughest group, but we prepared for it and we came through. We mustn't change our mentality now," the coach insisted.