THE DAY REPLAYED - Europe may have sent four representatives through to the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, but it was thus far and no further. Not a single European team will be present in the last four, as Africa and South America celebrated famous successes on 25 June. Nigeria earned a surprise win over the Dutch hosts in Kerkrade to set up a semi-final with Morocco, while Argentina got the better of fellow powerhouses Spain in Enschede and now face old rivals Brazil. Whatever happens now, the final will have a Latino-African flavour.
The Netherlands woke up to an unseasonable bout of rain on 25 June, perhaps an ominous sign of what lay in store for the host nation. Indeed, their FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 quarter-final could hardly have got off to a worse start, with John Owoeri adding the decisive touch after a scramble in the box to put Nigeria ahead with a mere 30 seconds on the clock. That was a bolt out of the blue for the Dutch, who found themselves trailing for the first time in the competition, and their fans watched incredulously as their team lost their bearings over the next ten minutes.
As so often, it was Hurricane 'Quincy' who put the wind back in their sails, ripping through the opposition but falling short of hitting an equaliser. Rick Kruys and Ron Vlaar fared little better with their finishing and, after both wasted clear-cut opportunities, the Nigerians looked to have survived the worst of it. They also threatened to steal the home side's thunder on the counter-attack, with Solomon Okoronkwo going just inches wide of netting his team's second. The Parkstad Limburg crowd looked on in silent disbelief as their heroes clung on.
A brief ray of sunshine
With impeccable timing, the sun returned to Kerkrade during the break, chasing away the gloom above the stadium and on the pitch for the nervous Oranje youngsters. With less than a minute gone in the second-half, Owusu-Abeyie drifted out to the right and sent in an immaculate cross that Vlaar turned in with an unstoppable header. For the first time in FIFA World Youth Championship history, a goal had been scored in the first 60 seconds of each half, but more importantly, this engaging match was back on a knife-edge. The noisy home fans were in full voice once again, and as they raised the temperature in the stadium, Foppe de Haan's charges perhaps should have tried to rain a few more chances down on their opponents' goal. The superbly athletic Nigerians were not about to let themselves be buffeted however, and the game headed into extra-time.
On paper, the additional half-hour looked to favour the Africans, victors all four times their encounters had previously gone into extra time at this event. For the Oranje this was virgin territory, as was the semi-final berth on offer if they could carve out a winner. In stark contrast, Nigeria were hoping for a third appearance in the last four, with history clearly on their side. And whether it was the weight of history or Ambruse Vanzekin's lucky charm, Nigeria ultimately swung the result in their favour, winning the longest penalty shoot-out ever held in a FIFA competition 10-9 (level with Paraguay against Uruguay at youth level in 1999). The Flying Eagles now face Morocco in the semi-finals, ensuring an African presence in the showpiece match on 2 July. Indeed, by the time the Netherlands waved goodbye to the tournament, the sun had long since left Kerkrade.
The atmosphere was a lot calmer in Enschede, as Argentina and Spain met in the much-anticipated evening kick-off. Real mainstays of the global youth event, both teams boast eleven appearances and share five titles between them (four for Argentina and one for Spain), not to mention nine quarter-final showings for the Iberians and eight for their South American rivals. And to really spice things up, many of the players already knew each other from their semi-final meeting in the FIFA U-17 World Championship in 2003.
Albiceleste deliver deadly sting
It was hardly surprising, then, that both teams got stuck in without the usual, early round of sparring. Turning the form guide on its head, it was the typically slow-starting Argentinians, rather than the imperious Spanish, who made the first impression. Lionel Messi wreaked havoc in the Furia Roja defence, but it was captain Pablo Zabaleta who opened the scoring, netting only the second goal Spain had conceded in the entire competition. Stung into action, Inaki Saez's boys did not take long to respond, and Zapater drew level again after excellent work from Llorente in his role as target man. The spider web-like organisation of both teams across the pitch was impressive to see from such young players, but while they excelled in tactical discipline, a certain amount of creative genius was sorely lacking.
The second half continued much in the same vein. Then, much as they had done against Colombia, the Albiceleste showed perfect predatory instincts to kill the match. Having lulled their opponents into a false sense of security, they struck, clinically and fatally. First Gustavo Oberman lobbed the ball home to round off a lovely move 20 minutes from time, and then, two minutes later, Messi scored a third to remove all Spanish hope.
With that goal, Messi, the most Iberian of Argentinians, bred if not born in Barcelona, had consigned Spain to defeat, and as a result, Argentina make the final four of the competition for the fifth time in six attempts. In the semi-finals they meet old rivals Brazil in a mouth-watering, all South American affair.