The sun dropped behind the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains that surround Pachuca and set on French hopes of reaching the FIFA U-17 World Cup final at the fabled Azteca on 10 July.
While Mexican celebrations echoed through the Estadio Hidalgo's tunnels and corridors, France’s young players moped around the team bus. Some wiped away tears, others sent somber text messages back home across the Atlantic, but speedy right-back Jordan Ikoko steeled himself for an interview.
“We did our best against Mexico, and through the whole tournament here,” he told FIFA.com, leaning against a metal barrier that separated his lonesome figure from the throngs of smiling Mexican players, all laughing and obliging a hungry local media, smiling for the television cameras. “Our best wasn’t enough and this is football, so there’s a lesson to be learned. Mexico is a very good team,” he went on grudgingly.
Ikoko and his mates leave Mexico after an inconsistent overall performance, but one peppered with moments of brilliance and style. After hammering Argentina in their opener, they managed only a pair of draws against Japan and Jamaica. It was enough for a place in the round of 16, where they dug deep to best tournament top-scorer Souleymane Coulibaly and the Ivorians, coming back from two goals down to win a thrilling contest 3-2.
“This was surely the highlight of the tournament for us, beating an amazing team from Côte d'Ivoire” said Ikoko, who scored against Mexico after his side went down a goal early again. In the end, they couldn’t muster another dramatic fight-back, losing out 2-1. “But we can’t hang our heads forever. We played some very good games at this tournament and we showed that we can play football with style and passion.”
The French were stylish indeed. Along with Ikoko, whose sizzling runs up the right side and pure pace were a constant delight, France boasted some of the competition’s true entertainers. Yassine Benzia is destined for big things with his vision and trickery with the ball at his feet and Abdallah Yaisen, who was stretchered off against Mexico with an injury, was one of Mexico 2011’s inspirational playmakers.
“Some of our players are already on professional contracts with top-flight clubs in France,” added Ikoko, one of five players in the side who line up for the youth side at capital giants Paris St-Germain. “Now with the experience of this World Cup it could be an even bigger boost for us. I don’t think you’ve seen the last of the players in this team. We have some special ones.”
Fidgeting and shuffling his feet, Ikoko glanced at the Mexican players as they basked in their success and the adulation that comes with it. “Now we go home,” the defender said, the sadness in his voice shifting to something like quiet pride. “But just being selected to represent France at a World Cup was the true highlight for me. There were special moments here. It’s a shame we couldn’t go a step further, but what can you do?”