Argentina the champions, Ireland the sensation - and football the real winner: the 9th FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia was a success in every way.
In the preview of the World Youth Championship, the June edition of FIFA Magazine posed the question "Who can break the Latin dominance?".
The answer, after the 9th FIFA/Coca-Cola Cup, which took place between the 16th of June and the 5th of July in Malaysia, seems to be "Nobody". In a stirring match in front of a record 62 000 spectators in Shah Alam, Argentina won the all-South-American final against Uruguay 2-1. Even before the final game, it was clear that the tradition of Latin winners would carry on in a competition in which only three non-Latin countries have made their mark: USSR (1977), West Germany (1981) and Yugoslavia (1987). The only question left open was whether Argentina would win for the third time after the successes of 1979 in Japan and 1995 in Qatar, and draw level with Brazil, or whether Uruguay would celebrate its greatest triumph since the World Cup 1950 in Brazil. More than 655 000 spectators watched the matches in the six venues; matches which were characterised by fine technical and tactical football, and by a fairness which was almost exemplary. The tournament took place in an open, friendly atmosphere, and confirmed the attacking approach of all teams which was seen in Qatar two years ago, with an almost equally high average number of goals per match - in both instances more than 3. Fair play, attacking football and Latin dominance: these three elements could be seen as the outstanding characteristics of this World Youth Cup.
It was the first time that 24 teams had taken part in this event, and the increase from 16 had raised the question of whether or not the level of the competition could be sustained. First and foremost, the increase was justified on the sporting front, even if one could maybe think differently looking at some of the results (in particular, Brazil's 10:3 win over Korea Republic in the group match, and the 10:0 win against Belgium in the second round). These record scores, however, should be looked at and analysed carefully, for an automatic conclusion regarding the inferiority of these clearly beaten teams cannot be deduced from a straightforward comparison of single results. And on the other hand, the final stages of the competition are there to gain experience and to learn from. The performances of the United Arab Emirates are proof of how quickly this can happen. In their first two matches they lost both times 0:5 against England and Mexico. But in their last group match, against the Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), who had previously drawn 1:1 with Mexico, they won 2:0, and so reached the second round.
The outstanding features of the group matches were, first, that all the favourites reached the second round, and, second, that Malaysia, automatically qualified as the host country, despite a notable expenditure on their preparations, had to accept that they are not yet quite ready for this level of international competition.
The make-up of the quarter-finals according to continents - CONMEBOL 3 (-1), Europe 3 (-3), CAF 1 (-3), AFC 1 (-4, including Malaysia) - show that Oceania's only representative (Australia), and all four CONCACAF representatives (Mexico, USA, Canada and Costa Rica) had been eliminated. But it would be wrong to conclude from this a general falling off of these continents. Australia, for instance, sensationally beat the eventual winners, Argentina, 4:3 in their last group match in Kangar. As a result of this, Argentina finished second in the group, and came up against their arch-rivals Brazil in the quarter-finals (2:0). Another example is Mexico, who fought an exciting, well-balanced duel with the European Champions, France, in the second round match in Kuching, the match going in favour of the Europeans only through a fortunate long-distance shot in the final seconds.
The biggest surprise of the tournament was the Ireland Republic team. All over the world, when people talk of the boys in green and white, they speak of their rustic, old-fashioned kick-and-rush type of game. This prejudiced view must now be revised once and for all, especially after their sensational third place. Brian Kerr's team turned out to be a combative one, but they were most of all a compact and strong unit. The eventual winners Argentina felt this strength in the semi-final match, which they only won with difficulty.
In the end, however, the defending champions won again, and that was no coincidence. The Argentinians were, all things considered, the most mature technically- and tactically-prepared team.
And that is undoubtedly to be put down to the work of coach José Nestor Pekerman, who achieved the remarkable feat of retaining the title he had helped to win two years ago.