From Canada to Thailand: Rapid years of growth
Almost directly on the other side of the world from the inaugural FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship in Canada two years ago, Thailand 2004 has most certainly exceeded the former tournament in terms of the quality of football. While the best sides have gone from strength to strength - three of the four semi-finalists were the same as in 2002 - the skill and tactical levels of the challengers grew by leaps and bounds.
With a drop in goals scored from 101 in Canada 2002 to 95 in the 26 matches this year, the games were more competitive than ever. One need only look at the narrowness of the groups to see that and the fact that no teams went through to the final with a perfect record -- a feat the U.S. and Canada pulled off previously. Inexperienced hosts Thailand were the only team truly out of their depth, and they were the only team not to pick up a point. In fact, all but two of the 12 sides won a contest, with Italy managing just a single draw.
Big improvements all round
Female footballing powerhouses the United States, Germany and Brazil repeated their spots in the last four, with China replacing last tournament's hosts and losing finalists Canada. Despite the Canucks' quarter-final defeat to the Steel Rosebuds, those five teams continued to prove themselves amongst the world absolute best at all age groups.
Champions Germany deserved their title, producing an all-around performance as dominant as the United States in 2002. Their professionalism, teamwork and sturdiness were an example to all those they faced. Championship-winning head coach Silvia Neid told FIFA.com that the overall level kept up with Germany's obvious improvements.
"Tactically the teams have worked on defence and this has improved in terms of organisation from 2002 without a doubt," said the smiling boss. "It's a gradual, continuous incline. Conditioning, skill, understanding is getting better with every year and will continue to do so."
Experience and leadership
With players like Kara Lang, Angie Woznuk, Marta, Brittany Timko and others already 'veterans' of the last U-19s, the level of coolness and proficiency went up by leaps and bounds. There were clear leaders on almost every team and a cohesion unseen by the largely still wet-behind-the-ears girls of Canada 2002.
adidas Silver Ball and Bronze shoe winner Woznuk, all of 18 years old, told FIFA.com how she saw part of her role as an imparter of wisdom to the younger players.
"Since I'm a veteran my role is to help the younger players as much as I can mentally," she said. "I try to help them be prepared with the loud crowds and the pressure in an intelligent way."
Development and skill
Generally speaking, the progress of the women's game has been widespread at all levels. The U-19s have brought out the best not only in traditional youth hotbeds of women's football, but also in 'middle-tier' nations like Nigeria, Brazil, Russia as well as Spain and Italy. Neid sees the whole boat being lifted by the rising water.
"There are now very, very good players from all over the world, and they have improved in leaps and bounds in recent years," she said. "The game is developing so rapidly in many places. The teams have become very close to each other, so the key to success is to keep improving in terms of spirit and organisation -- these are the only difference makers."
"Women's football is without a doubt improving," said knowledgeable Australia coach Adrian Santrac.
"The quality of fitness and the strength of the defences are definitely better than two years ago. I think there has been a fantastic quality of football here -- it's definitely improving at a quick rate."
The last word goes FIFA's prestigious Technical Study Group. TSG member, one of Sweden's all-time great players and experienced coach, Pia Sundhage, was in awe after the third-place match and final of Thailand 2004.
"I must say that I have been completely blown away by the level of skill and quality football on display in Thailand," she said on FIFA.com. "The players have performed fantastically, and both matches today at the Rajamangala were evidence of tremendous improvement on the horizon in women's football."