“That’s football,” said Brazil captain Lucas in conversation with FIFA.com after the cruel penalty shootout defeat against Mexico in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in UAE.
It was football, and a little more besides. The central defender was referring to the wide range of emotions that arise at the end of 90 minutes (or a little more in this case) in this incredible sport. For the young Brazilian team, defeat in Dubai was quite simply devastating, and it will take some time to get over a 10-11 loss on penalties.
But even in the midst of despair there is room for optimism. One just needs to glance at the ages of these youngsters to see that even if they can no longer win this world title, they still have everything to play for. “We talked about this in training, how it is all a learning process. Some days you win, some days you lose," reasoned Lucas. "You go through difficult times and sad times, but of course there are also happy times. Now we’ve experienced this we can get on with our careers. It’s just the beginning.”
Brazil made a fantastic start to the competition, breezing through the group stage and qualifying with nine points, scoring 15 goals and conceding only two. It was by far the best campaign of any team in the opening phase, and in the Round of 16 against Russia, after a tricky opening 45 minutes, they turned on the style in the second half and won 3-1.
Against Mexico, however, Alexandre Gallo’s team could not repeat the trick. The absence of Boschilia was sorely felt, not just his goals, which had put him in the race to be the competition’s top scorer, but also his link-up play. But perhaps not even the Sao Paulo player would have made a difference against a well-organised Mexican team that battled hard and defended resolutely throughout the game. After all, Nathan’s life-saving equalizer came just five minutes from the end.
“We tried everything, and we made Mexico work hard. We deserved the win,” said Gallo. “But they deserve credit too. They did a good job of closing us down. When you catch people’s eyes during a competition like we’ve done, then the games suddenly become more difficult.”
During his post-match interview the Brazil coach made it clear that he was more than satisfied with the way his team played. “With all due respect to the other sides, we were the best team in the competition,” he said. “But football is exciting because it’s so unpredictable. It’s the only sport in the world where the best team doesn’t always win.”
Under Gallo’s command, this U-17 generation has played 29 games without defeat. There have been 22 victories and seven draws – even though the most recent of those feels like the worst kind of loss imaginable. On the other hand, the coach’s pride in his team is one reason why these young players can feel optimistic about the future. “That was the mood in the dressing room. We should be proud of what we achieved, of our campaign so far,” said Lucas. “It was a positive experience, and it will help us in the future.”
The majority of his team-mates will now change age category; only midfielder/winger Thiago Maia and goalkeeper Gabriel Bubniack were born in 1997 and so are young enough to continue at this level. The good news for the “graduates” is that as coordinator of the CBF youth divisions, Gallo may well promote some of them straight to the U-20 squad, as he himself has hinted.
Some of the players might soon be able to aim even higher, according to Gallo. After all, the coach has the ear of a certain Luiz Felipe Scolari, for whom he worked as a scout during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, analysing Brazil’s potential opponents. Gallo revealed that Scolari sent his assistant Flavio Murtosa to Abu Dhabi to observe the youngsters up close.
"Felipao and I have talked a lot about these players. We are keeping an eye on a number of them. In fact Murtosa came to watch one of them in the first game," he said. "Brazil has a tradition of bringing players through early, and of giving youngsters a chance, with an eye on World Cups to come. In football, anything can happen.”