The coaches of the four teams based in Ras Al Khaimah privately agreed on at least one thing: they were disputing one of the most difficult groups of the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013. The feeling was based not just on the footballing tradition of the countries involved, but also on their opponents’ records in international tournaments.
The fact that Italy had already qualified meant that not all the teams were caught up in the drama of the final round of fixtures. But the coaches had already been proved right on the pitch, with many games filled with end-to-end action and the points often hanging in the balance until the final whistle. The only exception was Uruguay’s 7-0 massacre of New Zealand in the opening match.
Early front-runners Uruguay had been overtaken by the Azzurri, but ended up reclaiming top spot in their last game. Côte d’Ivoire were more defensive, but also had their chances in the group. In the end, they settled for a place in the Round of 16 as one of the best third-place finishers.
And after a disappointing thrashing in their first game, the New Zealand players didn't let their heads drop. Despite going home without scoring a goal, they improved after some tactical adjustments, and battled on bravely.
In tight matches the smallest details can make all the difference. So when Italy goalkeeper Simone Scuffet saved a penalty from New Zealand’s Monty Patterson in the second round of games, it was to prove crucial.
The save came 18 minutes into the match, when the Kiwis were pushing Italy hard and even looked the more dangerous side. It seemed as though they were finding their feet in the tournament, and might even put the Azzurri’s qualification on ice, but Scuffet’s save banished such fears.
Earlier on the same day, Franco Acosta’s life-saving equaliser for Uruguay in the last minute of their game against Côte d’Ivoire was also decisive.
The leaders have had a number of eye-catching performers up front, such as the ruthlessly direct group of Leandro Otormin, Franco Acosta and Kevin Mendez. For Italy, Luca Vido has displayed both talent and opportunism, though the team’s star so far has been Scuffet.
Alongside two giant team-mates, Kouame N’Guessan seems even smaller than his 1.62m frame, but opponents underestimate him at their peril. Most of Côte d’Ivoire’s best moves have started with a touch from his gifted right foot.
Finally, even though New Zealand centre-forward Stuart Holthusen did not manage a goal, he kept defences on their toes throughout with his rangy runs on the counter-attack.
194 – the number of minutes that Italy went without conceding a goal in Ras Al Khaimah, until a header from Uruguayan centre-back Joel Bregonis breached their defences.
“Scoring the first goal of the tournament was really motivating and really important for us. It opened the door and calmed everybody down, after all the pressure that comes with playing for Uruguay in a tournament like this,” Uruguay attacking midfielder Kevin Mendez, who scored the first goal of the tournament three minutes into his country’s game with New Zealand.