The fans present in Chiclayo for the opening match in Group C of the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 will long remember the titanic encounter they witnessed on 17 September. No fewer than seven goals were shared between Italy and Côte d'Ivoire, including three in the last four minutes, as the hugely-entertaining clash finally swung in the European side's favour. It was a bitter outcome for the Ivorians, but they have many reasons to remain optimistic after a display of superb technique, and they must now confirm their potential against Korea DPR on 20 September. As for the Italians, they will be brimful of confidence as they prepare to face the USA.
In true South-American style, and due no doubt to the early kick-off as well, the Elías Aguirre stadium was slow in filling up on Saturday morning. The latecomers will have been chiding themselves, however, as the eagerly-awaited game wasted no time in springing to life. And with the physically powerful but supremely-organised Italians ranged in one corner and the masters of rapid one-touch play from Côte d'Ivoire in the other, it was hard to imagine the sheer opposition of styles producing anything other than a fascinating 90 minutes.
Nevertheless, the first real surprise came with the announcement of the starting elevens. In the Ivorian camp, François Bohé opted to leave out right-wing livewire and revelation of the African qualifiers Ismael Fofana, but his Italian counterpart Francesco Rocca proved to be just as unpredictable with his decision to bench playmaker Andrea Russotto. "Fofana wasn't physically ready to play from the start. But when he came on he showed us all his talent straight away," said Bohé after the game.
With a chill in the air, it was the Italians who began the strongest, making good use of their physical presence. And after two unsuccessful early corners (4' and 5'), they took a well-deserved lead thanks largely to their duo of 'shaven-headed' giants'. Standing 1.92m tall, Salvatore Foti played a telling ball through to Christian Tiboni (1,89m) , and the Atalanta Bergamo striker beat Ikossie Tahourou with a shot fired into the far corner (0:1, 21').
That goal roused the Ivorians into action and, developing their fast, technical game with increasing success, the Baby Elephants were soon putting the well-oiled Italian machine under pressure. On the right, the diminutive Koffi Kouassi toyed with his marker and unleashed a probing cross, but Alassane Diomande's diving header fizzed just wide of the upright (24'). The warning signs were there, though, and three minutes later Diomande collected Pacome Kouassi's pass and looped a clever lob over Italian goalkeeper Enrico Alfonso (1:1, 27').
The Squadra soon restored their advantage, however, as the two sides seemed content to respond tit-for-tat. Once again, Italy's famous attacking duo were heavily involved, and this time Foti fed Tiboni from the right, leaving his partner the straightforward job of slotting past Tahourou from point-blank range (1:2, 32'). "I am delighted to have scored two, but the important thing is that the whole team worked well together," said the modest goalscorer after the game. The tempo of the match began to subside a little but there were to be more fireworks before the end of the half as Foti launched a missile from 25 metres out that the Ivorian goalkeeper needed to be at full stretch to intercept (41'). Italian No 1 Alfonso was then given his own chance to shine as he kept out a beautifully-curled effort from Serge Kouadio from a distance of 20 metres (43').
Fofana on, Russotto off
Clearly on the same wavelength, the two coaches seemed to reach the same conclusion during the interval. As a result, Bohé brought on Fofana after the break, while Rocca sent Russotto into the fray, but it was the former who made the quickest impression with some dazzling skill on the left wing. His finishing left a little to be desired, though, and Côte d'Ivoire would need a set-piece to draw themselves level for a second time. They had been working through a number of corner routines all match, and one finally paid off when Fofana received the ball 22 metres from goal and let fly with an unstoppable strike (2:2, 53').
Full of belief now, the Baby Elephants began to take a stranglehold on proceedings. The excellent Koffi Kouassi and Fofana had a hand in every danger they created, and were it not for some wastefulness in front of goal, they would have made their disoriented opponents pay. Alonso proved to be a frustrating obstacle as well, and denied Diomande the pleasure of lobbing him twice with a save after the Ivorian had outfoxed two Italians (69'). Irénée Kouakou then tried his luck from afar, but without success (74').
In the Italian dugout, a furious Rocca lost his patience with Russotto's pale contribution and brought him off again to be replaced by another shaven-headed giant, Marco Dalla Costa (1.88m). The prodigy from Treviso was far from impressed with his punishment, but Rocca's curious gamble was soon to pay dividends. "Russotto is a very good player. But some days he is great and other days he is out of sorts. Today was one of those days," Rocca explained after the match.
Putting the seal on a brilliant collective move, substitute Dalla Costa cut the ball back to Matteo Mandorlini, who buried his shot past Tahourou to the joy of the Italian bench (2:3, 86'). Their elation was exceedingly short-lived, though, as Koffi Kouassi found himself unmarked at the near post to fire in an equaliser almost straight from the kick-off (3:3, 87'). Incredibly, there was more drama to come, and Mandorlini served it up with a fantastic through-ball to Foti on the left side of the area. The Italian forward knew exactly what to do and he calmly sounded the last and decisive note of a thrilling match (3:4, 89').
Disappointment was running high in the African camp after the game. "I think we deserved a draw. We knew that physically we'd be up against it. At the end we gave away the ball when we shouldn't have but we gave them a run for their money," said an upbeat Bohé.
Rocca, normally not known for praising his troops, had the following to say: "Today at times we were good and at other times less good. They had us on the back foot occasionally. Our three man defence looked vulnerable at the start. But I think it was a very good game of football."