When Brazil and Nigeria dazzle us at the U-17 World Cup, there is a collective shrug of the shoulders. We expect big things from these teams, these three-time champions and perennial powers. They’re in the business of placing the talent of tomorrow on the global production line early. It makes the underdog stories here at UAE 2013 that much more striking, with a prime example the cheerful, homespun tale of Honduras and Sweden.
One of these nations, thousands of physical and cultural miles apart, will book a place in the semi-finals after they face off in the last-eight in Al Ain on Friday night. Sweden are playing in their first FIFA U-17 World Cup, while Honduras failed to earn even a point in their two previous trips to the junior showpiece. Both fall somewhere outside the anointed ring of traditional powers
“We can go very far at this tournament; it’s something I know,” Valmir Berisha of Sweden told FIFA.com after scoring twice in a draw against Nigeria in the first round. It seemed just a bit of bluster from a young and boisterous player, but it was more than that. No other team has kept Nigeria from winning here in UAE, not even defending champions Mexico. “People call us ‘little Sweden’ but we’re not so little,” he added.
The Swedes, with their bright yellow shirts and positive, direct football, have brought something special to these finals. Coach Roland Larsson has coaxed together a team that believes in itself, no easy task with a debutant side. “You don’t play football with history,” the plain-talking coach laughed off Sweden’s newbie status from the start. “You play it on the pitch.”
Berisha and Gustav Engvall have scored six of the team’s nine goals and their link-up play with creative midfielder Elias Andersson and winger Anton Saletros has been impressive, something beyond the stereotypical sturdy Scandinavian style. The clear fondness the players have for each other, and the general friendliness in the camp is a welcome addition to the U-17 cast, where the pressures of winning, or being seen by a scout from a big club, can sometimes cause stress and strain among the players.
“We’re getting better all the time. We work it and work it and work it in training, and we’ve managed to go far, and we just want to keep on going,” said Andersson, who calls himself, jokingly, the team’s 'assist king'. Seletros, pensive and quiet, has a message for the world: “Our young players are coming up too. It’s not just Nigeria and the other countries,” said the player, whose face lights up when he talks about the pride of wearing his national colours. “People should remember this.”
Honduran wave swells
But the Central Americans are also riding the crest of a wave. And they will not be overly impressed with Sweden’s camaraderie and pleasant nature. Their road to the quarter-finals hasn’t been without its bumps, but reaching the last-eight is a feat no-one pulls off by accident.
Honduras is a country with its share of social problems and challenges, but its young football stars here in UAE are just the latest in a recent line of ground-breakers. And they’re spinning a happy tale for the folks back home.
The senior team recently qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, a second straight appearance, even beating Mexico at the Azteca along the way. It followed fast on the heels of an impressive run to the quarter-finals of the London Olympics, where they nearly beat Neymar’s Brazil. “We’ve watched this game on DVD three times already here in UAE,” admitted midfielder Rembrandt Flores. “It’s a great example for us.”
Having suffered heavily in their two previous appearances on this junior stage, Honduras are looking lively and self-assured. Their successes in reaching the knockout stages, where they beat ten-man Uzbekistan to push on to the quarters, are supported wildly back home. “Everybody’s watching us on TV in Honduras,” said coach Jose Valladares, who runs the rule over a hard-working and pacey side. “We want to keep up the good work so we don’t let them down. When we arrived in UAE, the goal was to reach the Round of 16, because it would be a first. But from here forward, everything is a first, so why not start thinking about the final?
There's history on offer for the Catrachos, who Flores believes will be able to unlock the tactically astute Swedes with their sizzling speed. “This match against Sweden is just another step toward the final for us,” the coach went on. “We have great ambition and we want to keep making history for the people back home.”
Both the debutant Swedes and the fast-rising Hondurans harbour the same dream of reaching the rarefied air of a World Cup last-four, but only one of them can realise it. There will be tears for one and joy unconfined for the other. Watch this space on Friday to see who ends up with what for their efforts.