Toulon tune-up for U-20 quartet
© AFP

Only a matter of weeks remain before the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 swings into action, and preparations for the big event are well underway. While some of the participants are locked away in training camps, others are gearing up by taking part in friendly competitions, such as the prestigious Toulon Tournament.

Four of them – Colombia, France, Mexico and Portugal – were among the eight sides on parade on France’s Mediterranean coast this year, with the South Americans warming up in fine style for their upcoming date with destiny by winning the coveted Toulon trophy for the third time.

Eduardo Lara’s players made no secret of their ambitions and wasted little time in fulfilling them. Pitched into a group also comprising Côte d’Ivoire, Italy and Portugal, Colombia held off their European rivals with a brace of 1-1 draws and then overwhelmed the Africans 4-1 to claim first place in the section. The determined Cafeteros then saw off Mexico 2-1 in the semi-finals before holding their nerve in the final against hosts France, the South Americans prevailing 3-1 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in normal time.

Voted the player of the tournament, Cafetero captain and midfielder James Rodriguez confirmed the progress he made during an exceptional season with Porto, and more than lived up to the expectations generated by his contribution to the Portuguese giants’ league, cup and UEFA Europa League treble by carrying Colombia to victory.

“The players know that the priority is to improve day by day and go into the World Cup with a team that can inspire the whole country to dream,” said coach Lara, understandably delighted with his team’s efforts even before their defeat of the French. “Victory over France would give our confidence a big boost before we meet them again at the World Cup."

The players know that the priority is to improve day by day and go into the World Cup with a team that can inspire the whole country to dream.
Colombia coach Eduardo Lara

That confidence booster duly arrived, although Lara’s men would be well advised not to read too much into their narrow victory over a side they will face in their Group A opener at Colombia 2011. The France team that lined up for the final contained only two names from coach Francis Smerecki’s squad list for the world finals: defender Loic Nego and centre-forward Yannis Tafer. Loaned out by Lyon to Toulouse this last season, Tafer failed to score in the league but was in excellent form in Toulon, having a big hand in tournament top-scorer Steven Joseph-Monrose’s haul of five goals.

Fellow Colombia 2011 contenders Mexico can be satisfied with their run-out in the south of France. Recovering well from a 4-1 mauling at the hands of the hosts, they posted successive 2-1 wins over Hungary and China PR before losing to narrowly to Colombia and then on penalties to Ciro Ferrara’s Italy in the match for third place.

While Erick Torres, Saul Villalobos and Carlos Orrantia all shone, the star of their show was goalscoring playmaker Ulises Davila, who impressed again after announcing himself to the world in the CONCACAF qualifiers for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. The Guadalajara man showed exactly what he can do in the win over the Hungarians, embarking on a long mazy run down the left flank before cutting in and curling a gem of a shot just inside the far post. Among the many observers taking good note of his sumptuous skills were Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino and former France international Willy Sagnol, who was on scouting duties for Bayern Munich.

Portugal, the last of the Colombia 2011 foursome on show in Toulon, failed to progress beyond the group phase, though they can take heart from the fact they went unbeaten and only missed out on a semi-final slot on goal difference.

Perhaps their most effective performer was goalkeeper Michael Domingues, who turned in a heroic display against Italy and was in solid form again in the matches with Colombia and Côte d’Ivoire. Honourable mentions should also go to tall team-mate Balde, who hails from Guinea Bissau and put his height to good use in scoring two of his side’s three goals in the competition, and striker Nelson Oliveira, whose elegance and touch have earned him comparisons with Brazil legend Rivaldo.