Group C of the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 looks evenly balanced, with little to choose between its American, Italian, Ivorian and North Korean constituents. With a few hours to go before the start of the action on the morning of Saturday 17th September, we examine the team's main strengths in the company of the four coaches.
Côte d'Ivoire - Italy: a promising clash of styles
The most striking feature of this opening morning match (10:00 local time) could well be the teams' contrasting styles. Between the dynamic attacking play of the Africans and the powerful physical presence of the Italians, it is difficult to predict who will gain the upper hand. The Ivorians will be at full strength for the game, although Martial Yao, nicknamed 'Makelele' on account of his tireless midfield spadework, is carrying a slight injury. Up front, Serge Kouadio will lead the line and attempt to create openings for chief marksman Alassane Diomande, while on the right flank, Ismael Fofana, one of the stars for the Africans in qualifying, is sure to give the solid azzuri defence plenty to think about. "We are first and foremost a really tight unit. The lads play at a high tempo, know how to retain possession and are well prepared physically, which has been our main shortcoming in the past," acknowledges coach François Bohé.
This new-found resilience will have been enhanced by the month spent preparing in Brazil, where they played no fewer than eight friendly matches. "The training camp was centred on physical and tactical preparation, as we knew they were our weak points," the coach adds. In one sense, the Junior Elephants have an added incentive to do well, as all of Côte d'Ivoire will be looking to them to bring a little cheer after the immense disappointment of the senior side's recent home defeat by Cameroon in a vital 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ qualifier. "But that doesn't mean we'll be under any pressure. As long as we keep the lads focused on the only thing that matters, football, we have nothing to fear in that respect," insists Bohé.
Although less in the media spotlight than their opponents, the Italians are proving a big hit with the local children at their hotel in Chiclayo. As they sign autograph after autograph and dole out T-shirts, they seem amused by the enthusiasm of the Andean ninos. But their coach Francesco Rocca, known as a taskmaster, makes it clear that entertaining the public is not his personal priority. "For me, the most important thing is discipline. A good athlete observes the rules and conducts himself impeccably. Discipline is the main attribute of my team," he asserts. The Azzuri arrived in Peru before everyone else, almost two weeks ago, "in order to get used to the artificial pitch, the jet lag, the people and way of life here," Rocca explains. Within a traditional 4-4-2 formation that is flexible according to the circumstances, undoubtedly the most talented individual - but also the most unpredictable - is Andrea Russotto, the playmaker on the books of Treviso.
Rocco sums up the rest of his side as follows: "six of my players come from Atalanta, the champions of Italy in this age group. I've mainly based my squad on two fundamental aspects of modern football: speed and physical power." Although not afraid of the Ivorians, he is aware of the qualities of the African outfit. "They are physically tough and well prepared technically, so we'll have to be careful." But the target of this no-nonsense character, who combines the roles of coach, physical trainer and goalkeeping coach, is crystal-clear: "the last four. No team that qualifies for a competition is content to be knocked out in the first round…," he adds matter-of-factly.
Korea DPR - United States: the long path to Peru
Neither of these sides can claim to have had insufficient time to prepare themselves. The Koreans began bonding in March 2004, getting together four times a week, while the Americans are at the end of a three-year process, the home straight of which consisted of a 90-day sojourn in Brazil and Holland, before a brief return to the United States. A further point in common is that both sides are well acquainted with artificial pitches, as the Koreans use them regularly back home, while for the last month, the Americans have been practising on this type of surface four or five times per week. A final less happy coincidence is that both experienced somewhat unsettling trips to Peru: the Americans were stuck in Miami to start with before finally arriving in Lima for a first training session which took place in a restaurant! The Koreans, meanwhile, traversed the world on route to South America. "We went via Beijing, then Amsterdam, before landing in Lima. This twenty-hour journey was an ordeal for my players, who still haven't totally got over it," admits the Korean coach Jo Tong Sop.
Among the ranks of the Asian outfit, humility is second nature. "My players are inexperienced at this level. I am satisfied with their physical condition, but most importantly, their mentality is spot on," the Korean technician continues. On the subject of his opponents, he admits that he is "not overly familiar with the way they play." The avowed objective is to get through the group stage, after which anything else will be regarded as a bonus. Within what is a solid unit, the outstanding individuals are probably Ri Hung Ryong, their most consistent goalscorer, and Choe Myong Ho, a playmaker with impeccable ball control.
In the American camp, coach John Hackworth has left nothing to chance. "We're ready. We've played a lot of games over the last two years, against Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Gambia and also China recently. Their style is similar to the Koreans, who we've watched on video. We are well prepared, but in football, you never know what's going to happen!" Without a doubt, Hackworth will be pinning his main hopes on the physical prowess and mental strength of his charges, who should be at full strength for the encounter. "Each of my boys knows exactly what his job is. We are extremely well organised and disciplined. Playing in the morning on an artificial pitch in windy conditions is no problem, as we know how to adapt, so there will be no excuses from us. We are mentally very strong." Bullishness is very much the order of the day, but not to an excessive extent. "We don't come from a traditional footballing country, so we have to work hard constantly to make up for this shortcoming. The fact that all the American sides are doing increasingly well in international competitions is very important for our confidence. When we're on our game, we have no reason to feel inferior to any team," Hackworth asserts.
One American player definitely worth watching is Quavas Kirk, who recently came back from injury. An effective and physically imposing attacker (1.86 m, 80 kgs), Kirk is also a natural leader, who burst into the limelight at the start of last year after being drafted into Major League Soccer by the LA Galaxy. His future in the game secured, the boy from Aurora has been playing with great freedom, clocking up 16 goals in 15 games with the U-17s. He will be out to continue in the same vein in Peru, so no doubt the Koreans, as well as the talent scouts, will be keeping a close eye on him this Saturday…