Swiss take their place in history
© AFP

Outsiders Switzerland stunned everyone on their maiden appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, beating the best sides on the planet to secure the country’s first world crown. In doing so, the deserving Helvetians denied tournament hosts and defending champions Nigeria the chance to make a little history of their own by surpassing fellow three-time winners Brazil and lifting the trophy for the third time.

Despite the support of 60,000 vociferous fans at the Abuja National Stadium, the venue for the final, the Golden Eaglets had to be content with the runners-up slot, the place occupied two years ago by Spain, who grabbed some consolation for their semi-final exit by pipping Colombia to third place.

Switzerland’s unexpected triumph was made all the more impressive by the fact that they overcame a host of tournament favourites before seeing off the powerful Nigerians just for good measure.

Yet, when the draw for the group phase was made, more than one observer tipped the central Europeans for an early exit from a fiercely competitive section that also contained Brazil, Mexico and Japan. Undaunted, Dany Ryser’s side went on to win all three of their matches, displaying no little steel in doing so and plenty of flamboyant football as well. To prove that was no fluke, they then knocked out neighbours Germany and Italy en route to the final.

Switzerland’s main asset was to be found on the bench, however, with coach Ryser giving his side the confidence to go out and make a mockery of their pre-tournament status as underdogs. “People saw us as makeweights in our group at the European Championships and yet we finished top. Playing the role of the already-doomed team suits me just fine,” he commented before the finals got under way, mindful of his side’s unfulfilled potential.

An inspired tactician and motivator, Ryser helped his side overcome all the challenges put to them by the best sides in the world. Dovetailing to perfection up front were club team-mates Nassim Ben Khalifa and Haris Seferovic, who were ably supported by a solid backbone consisting of midfielder Paitim Kasami, captain and defender Frederic Veseli, and Benjamin Siegrist, who was rightly voted the best goalkeeper of the competition. With such talents at the disposal, the Swiss would appear to have a very bright future ahead of them.

Beaten finalists Nigeria can also be proud of their efforts. Forced to rebuild his team just a few weeks before the tournament following MRI age testing of his squad, Eaglets coach John Obuh managed to put together an impressive outfit that belied their lack of experience with some exceptional performances. 

The hosts showed their strength of character in their opening game, fighting back from a three-goal deficit to force a 3-3 draw against Germany. Buoyed by the goalscoring exploits of Sani Emmanuel and Stanley Okoro, they then embarked on a seemingly unstoppable run before seeing their impressive six-year unbeaten record in the competition come to an end against the Swiss.

Colombia on the up
Arriving in Nigeria to very little fanfare, Colombia summoned up the strength and spirit to go all the way to the semi-finals. Kicking off with a win over Netherlands, they came home second in their group behind Iran, which meant a Round-of-16 meeting with old rivals Argentina. Trailing 2-1 with just minutes remaining, Ramiro Viafara’s side seemed to be heading out of the tournament before two inspired substitutions helped them stage a thrilling late comeback and snatch a 3-2 win. Three days later they pulled off another unlikely revival against a formidable Turkey side, forcing extra time with a goal in the final seconds, scored by yet another supersub, before prevailing in a penalty shootout.

The Colombian subs were not the only ones to impress from the bench. Nigeria’s secret weapon Sani Emmanuel played such a vital role whenever he came on that he won the adidas Golden Ball despite making only one start in the whole competition. Ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice, the Nigerian livewire made the most of his 221 minutes of playing time, scoring five goals to earn the adidas Silver Shoe. It was somewhat ironic, then, that he ended the final goalless despite being given a rare start.

Switzerland front man Nassim Ben Khalifa and Nigeria midfielder Ramon Azeez also featured strongly throughout the tournament and collected the adidas Silver and Bronze balls respectively, while the adidas Golden Shoe went to Borja of Spain. The Rojita striker finished level on goals with Emmanuel, Uruguay’s Sebastian Gallegos, the winner of the adidas Bronze Shoe, and Seferovic, but claimed the title of the tournament’s top scorer having made one more assist than his rivals.

Brazil fall flat
During the course of an unpredictable tournament there were several surprise eliminations, chief among them Brazil’s shock first-round exit. Three-time winners of the competition and perennial candidates, A Seleçao tripped up at the first hurdle despite the presence of the highly rated duo of Coutinho and Neymar. The Brazilians began brightly enough with a win against Japan but slumped to successive 1-0 defeats to Mexico and Switzerland, prompting coach Luis Nizzo to tender his resignation before they had even boarded the plane home.

Fierce rivals Argentina fared little better as they once again failed to win the one piece of silverware still missing from their trophy cabinet. Jose Luis Brown’s young hopefuls can at least take some comfort from a fine first-round showing, although they had hopes of going much further until an untimely sending-off and a late loss of concentration condemned them to defeat against Colombia.

A highly rated Germany side had a similar story to tell. After letting leads slip against group opponents Nigeria and Argentina, they scraped into the last 16 with victory over Honduras. Yet, waiting for them in the first knockout round were the Swiss, who put paid to German hopes with a sensational 4-3 win after extra time.

Mixed bag for Africa
Much was expected of the African challenge at Nigeria 2009, especially with the continent playing such a big part in the football calendar in 2009 and 2010, staging the next FIFA World Cup finals, not to mention the FIFA Confederations Cup last June as well as the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup.

And though the host nation flew the flag by almost following up Ghana’s U-20 success with another African triumph, the fact is that the rest of the continent’s challengers failed to last the course. Perhaps the most creditable performance was that of Burkina Faso, who took second place in Group D before going down 4-1 to Spain in the next round. Newcomers Malawi and Algeria failed to do themselves justice, losing all three of their games, while reigning African champions Gambia were undone by a string of red and yellow cards and some sloppy defending.

The Asian quartet showed all the qualities associated with sides from the East, producing plenty of fluid, technically brilliant and attractive football but failing to convert it into goals at decisive times. Japan thrilled everyone with some delicious football but bowed out early without collecting a single point. Korea Republic fared much better, reaching the last eight before paying for a similar inability to take their chances, while Iran and UAE both emerged from their groups only to pay for their lack of experience against Uruguay and Turkey respectively.

Last but not least, New Zealand scaled new heights when they secured three draws in the group phase to reach the second round of a FIFA competition for the first time.

Participating nations
Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Costa Rica, Gambia, Germany, Honduras, Italy, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic Malawi, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay

Ranking
1. Switzerland
2. Nigeria
3. Spain
4. Colombia

Host cities and stadiums
Abuja (National Stadium), Bauchi (Abubakar Tafawa Balewa), Calabar (UJ Esuene), Enugu (Nnamdi Azikiwe), Ijebu-Ode (Gateway International), Kaduna (Amadu Bello), Kano (Sani Abacha), Lagos (Teslim Balogun)

No. of goals
151 (an average of 2.90 goals per game)

Top scorers
5 goals: Borja (Spain), Sani Emmanuel (Nigeria), Sebastian Gallegos (Uruguay), Haris Seferovic (Switzerland)