Three underdogs steeled themselves to challenge Italy, but at the end of the day, the European favourites lived up to their billing in Group F at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009. Korea Republic thrilled the Kaduna crowd with their sparkling attacking play, and Uruguay were rewarded for glimpses of technical finesse with a third place finish good enough to see them into the last sixteen. By contrast, Algeria left Nigeria with no goals and no points on the board.
The tale of the teams
Italy impressed, as had been predicted, due in no small part to their vastly superior experience. Three of the Italians have already been called up to the U-21 squad, and they were the players who came up trumps in critical situations for their team. In the opening match against Algeria, Fiorentina starlet Federico Carraro netted the late winner, just as a handful of his team-mates appeared resigned to a disappointing draw. Steely resolve was the key factor in a enthralling meeting with the Koreans, as the Italians were all but played off the park for an hour, only to come from behind and win with a double strike in the space of five minutes. Pasquale Salerno's troops also look to have the stamina for a good run in the knockout phase.
Korea Republic were as hard-working and disciplined as ever, but the Asians also caught the eye with a captivating blend of physical robustness and occasionally scintillating skill. A genuinely promising crop summoned up all their abundant potential in beating Uruguay 3-1, but a well-established issue raised its head against Italy, where Kwang-Jong Lee's team squandered a host of gilt-edged chances and came away empty-handed. The coach made no secret of his delight when the problem corrected itself in the meeting with Algeria, as his lads converted their first two openings and duly won the game 2-0. The Koreans really could be a team to watch.
"Our priority was to make the knockout round. Making the last sixteen was all we ever wanted," observed Uruguay coach Roland Marcenaro, realistically summing up the potential available to him. Uruguay only sporadically produced their best football, generally sparked by the silky skills of diminutive Atletico Madrid playmaker Sebastian Gallegos, responsible for two of his team's three goals in the group - the third being an Algerian own goal. The South Americans were always second-best against the Koreans, never looked in trouble against Algeria, and secured the point they needed in a goalless stalemate with Italy.
The likeable Algerians set off for home in despondent mood after losing all three games, conceding five goals and scoring none of their own. Their first-ever appearance at a FIFA World Cup finals for this age group was a painful learning experience for Otmane Ibrir's team, but the coach feels it can only make his lads stronger: "The Koreans were better than us, but against Uruguay and Italy, my lads showed they can hold their own at this level."
Moments to savour
Give and take
Two years ago, hosts Korea were eliminated at the group stage of the U-17 finals, but Nigeria went on to win the trophy. The locals in Kaduna decided a spot of grateful appreciation was in order. A hundred or so Nigerian fans, decked out in Korean gear, offered boisterous support at every match, forming themselves into a noisy and loyal fan club. These active proponents of cultural exchange are only likely to face a problem if their Golden Eaglets, who successfully marched into the last sixteen, happen to meet Korea Republic in the quarter-finals in Calabar, which is looking likely. "I really don't know who I'd support," 18-year-old Tanimu confessed to FIFA.com.
Candles and cake
Stephan El Shaarawy was in party mood the day after Italy's opening day victory over Algeria, less to mark his side's narrow win, more because it was the Azzurrini number ten's birthday. A huge and elaborate cake appeared from the kitchens of the Europeans' team hotel in Kaduna, where one of the chefs happened to specialise in Italian cuisine. Coach Salerno and his squad are now hoping to celebrate another birthday in Nigeria, as keeper Mattia Perin has his special day on 10 November - the day after the completion of the quarter-finals.
6 - The players wearing the number six shirt proved invaluable to all three teams to emerge from Group F. Uruguay stopper Bruno Marchelli and Italy's most junior player Lorenzo Crisetig both played every minute of every game. And impressive Korean schemer Jong-Kwon Lee was only substituted five minutes from time in the third match to allow him to savour a fully deserved ovation from the crowd.
"I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the people of Kaduna. They're treated us with incredible warmth and friendliness. Being here has been a fantastic experience for me and my players."
Otmane Ibrir, Algeria coach