The European contingent arrived at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 with lofty ambitions. At the 2003 tournament in the United Arab Emirates, the giants of the Old Continent were below strength as clubs retained key players for the busy November and December programme, but this time all the most promising starlets were on hand. However, the dreams have crumbled to dust as all the European contenders failed to make the last four.
Germany: Brazil pushed all the way
The Germans huffed and puffed their way through the group stage before suddenly hitting the gas in the round of sixteen. Opponents China had earned plaudits after three victories on the trot, but coach Michael Skibbe's men showed tremendous resolve to recover from going behind twice before finally dispatching the powerful Chinese 3-2 courtesy of Marvin Matip's last-gasp header. Reigning champions Brazil provided the quarter-final opposition and the Germans responded with a battling display.
The Europeans took the lead and were just eight minutes away from a shock victory, but the South Americans' equaliser spurred the defending champions to complete an ultimately deserved triumph. Skibbe rated the tournament a positive experience: "We've pushed Brazil all the way, and we've offered proof that German youth football has returned to world-class standards. The lads have been worthy representatives of their country." Germany were appearing in the last eight for the first time since 1987. "We might have achieved even more with our first-choice line-up. We were missing the threat posed by Podolski and Gomes up front," Skibbe reflected.
Italian nerves falter at the death
Italy appeared to have found their feet after recovering from two early defeats to beat Canada and the USA and reach the last eight. However, the skilled Moroccans made life tough for the Squadra Azzurra for long periods, before coach Paulo Berrettini's men were forced to complete the energy-sapping extra-time period a man down after Canini received his marching orders.
The Italians played courageously and their best player in the Netherlands, striker Graziano Pelle, pulled the score back to 2-2. However, the young Italians buckled under the penalty shoot-out pressure as Morocco keeper Mohammed Bourkadi held the first two spot-kicks to set up the North Africans' sudden-death triumph. Berrettini bemoaned his side's fate afterwards: "Somehow, Italy always get knocked out in penalty shoot-outs. We were subdued at the start, but there was only one team in it after the break. This was definitely one of the best matches I've seen at this World Championship."
Netherlands: Hosts devastated after penalty drama
Hosts Netherlands increasingly looked a good bet for the trophy after improving from match to match in the course of the tournament. The Dutch followed up maximum points at the group stage with a 3-0 success over Chile in the round of sixteen, and a path to the last four appeared a formality. However, technically and physically gifted Nigeria provided stern opposition in the quarter-finals.
The Oranjes fell behind from the very first move of the match, but levelled right at the start of the second period to usher in a thrilling end-to-end contest. The penalty lottery finally required to separate the sides developed into a nerve-shredding event in its own right. The shoot-out took no less than 45 minutes to complete, before Nigeria defender Taye Taiwo sank his second spot-kick to deliver the hosts a savage knockout blow. Dutch coach Foppe de Haan appeared dazed by the penalty drama as he addressed the post-match news conference. "I've never experienced a shoot-out like that. Overall, we turned in a good display, but we created far too little by way of chances. That's what's cost us the match at the end of the day." Nonetheless, the Netherlands have offered convincing proof of their world-class credentials at youth level.
Spain: Messi magic makes the difference
U-19 European champions Spain underlined their trophy ambitions with four clear-cut victories in four matches, culminating in a conclusive 3-0 demolition job on Turkey in the round of sixteen. But perhaps coach Iñaki Sáez' men could have done with a stiffer challenge before facing the increasingly impressive Argentines.
The South Americans were forced to pull out all the stops in a tight 2-1 victory over Columbia in the previous round, and appeared to surprise the Spanish with a hard-running, high-tempo start. The Europeans recovered to cancel out Argentina's first-half opener and even briefly assumed control in the second period, but Barcelona starlet Lionel Messi ultimately made the difference for a compact and disciplined Argentina. The striker provided a perfect lay-off for Oberman to restore his side's lead, before Messi himself hammered the final nail into the Iberian coffin. "We've made mistakes, and it's not something you can always explain," Sáez confessed afterwards. "We looked nervous throughout the match. Argentina deserved to win because they wanted it more than we did."