As the only unbeaten team, Spain won the 1999 World Youth Championship in Nigeria. In the final in Lagos, they gave Japan no chance and took a FIFA title for the first time in their history.
If a world championship is supposed to be representative of the world, the final four of this tournament could hardly have fitted the bill more suitably: one team from South America, one from Asia, one from Africa and one from Europe. Analysts may maintain that this reflected an even spread of strength across the continents... but others would say, quite simply, that these were the four best teams in the competition.
Spain met Mali in Kaduna and, despite an early lead, were obliged to survive a second half onslaught that saw the Africans come so close to taking the match to extra time. Instead of getting the equaliser, it was Xavi who claimed a third goal in the closing stages of the game to put the issue beyond doubt. But despite Mali almost causing another upset, the young Spaniards impressed with their ability to weather the storm.
In Lagos, Japan provided a performance that was, perhaps, the revelation of the entire tournament. In the first half they produced a display of sublime passing football, moving the ball around with exquisite poise and confidence, a class ahead of their South American opponents. Two goals up at half-time, the Asians then came under the cosh from a Uruguayan backlash that demanded the ultimate of a team generally regarded in the past to lack substance - but despite conceding one goal, the Japanese stood firm to merit a notable victory and to claim the first FIFA final place ever for a team from their country.
Best balanced team
Mali took on Uruguay for the bronze medal and their composure prevailed, playmaker Seydou Keita demonstrating not for the first time why he was subsequently to be elected best player of the championship with a free-kick goal that settled the game in the first half. It was Mali's greatest achievement ever on the world stage.
Deprived of their captain and midfield organiser, Shinji Ono, suspended after a second yellow card in the semi-final, Japan started like a ship without a rudder and found themselves a goal down after only six minutes of the final, Barkero pouncing to punish a hesitant Japanese defence. When Pablo added a second barely a quarter of an hour later, the game was effectively beyond Japan's reach. Pablo's second goal (which took him to the top of the goalscorer standings) and a second half strike from Gabri was a brutal reflection of the difference between the two teams, the Spaniards' European league expertise taking its toll on the less worldly, if no less gifted Japanese.
So Spain, for decades in the group of the world's elite football nations, claimed their first-ever FIFA title, the 20 year-olds emulating the Olympic team of 1992. Of the 24 teams on display in Nigeria, this was certainly the most accomplished, the best balanced, and ultimately the most effective.
The strengths of the Spanish side had become clear right from the start, when they left Brazil behind them and took top spot in Group F unchallenged. Also impressive were above all the Africans, doubtless favoured somewhat by the climatic conditions. With the exception of Zambia, who never seemed likely contenders for a place in the second round, they all got through. In Lagos, hosts Nigeria disappointed with nothing better than a victory over Germany, a draw in the first game against Costa Rica and defeat against Paraguay, the group A winners. Germany did beat Paraguay, by a surprising margin of 4:0, but that was not enough to get them into the last sixteen.
Argentina squeeze through
Ghana won Group B convincingly in Kaduna, ahead of newcomers Croatia and defending champions Argentina, who only squeezed through into the next stage as one of the best third placed teams. The other WYC debutantes in the group, Kazakhstan, were left well behind with no points and a goal tally of 1:9.
Mexico dominated Group C in Ibadan with two wins and a draw, followed by a strong Irish team. Australia, the only team from Oceania, and Saudi Arabia went out. But with a 1:1 against Mexico in their last game, the Saudis salvaged some prestige.
Mali made a surprisingly strong showing in Enugu in Group D, which they won ahead of Portugal and Uruguay, the defeated finalists in 1997. Korea went out here, but managed to beat Mali 4:2 in the final match.
The most even group proved to be Group E in Kano and Bauchi, with Japan, the USA and Cameroon all earning six points. The big surprise here was Japan, who won the group, and only lost 1:2 in the opening game against Cameroon to a last second goal. England were a major disappointment, the team from the traditional home of football unable to earn any points and having a score sheet of 0:4.
Finally in Group F, it was Spain who dominated, ahead of Brazil. While Honduras were clearly eliminated with no points and 4:10 goals, Zambia got 4 points, but even that was not enough to get them through.
The second round was full of drama, with no fewer than three of the eight games going into a penalty shoot-out, plus Mali beating Cameroon 5:4 with the only Golden Goal of the tournament. Hosts Nigeria, who by that stage had dismissed their coach, met Ireland in Kano. With the score at 1:1 after 120 minutes, Nigeria had better luck in the shoot-out and won 5:3. In the all-South American duel, Paraguay-Uruguay, it was 2:2 as they went into penalties, and then a real cliff-hanger saw Uruguay come out on top 10:9. The Japan-Portugal match was another 1:1, with Japan edging through at the penalty stage 5:4. The teams who got into the quarter-finals during regular playing time were Ghana (2:0 versus Costa Rica), Brazil (4:0 versus Croatia) and Spain (3:2 versus the USA), plus Mexico who knocked out Argentina 4:1 in a superb match.
So the last eight comprised two teams from South America, three from Africa and one each from Europe, Central America and Asia. Unluckily, the draw lined up two matches in which teams from the same continent would have to meet each other, Uruguay against Brazil and Mali against Nigeria. Uruguay somewhat luckily beat their continental rivals 2:1, while Mali eliminated the mighty Nigeria more clearly 3:1. Japan gave Mexico a bit of a lesson as their superb football carried them to a 2:0 victory, and only Spain had to go the full distance, finally winning 8:7 on penalties. This match was their toughest hurdle on the way to the title.
Spain goes down as the seventh nation to have won the U-20 trophy. Brazil and Argentina have each recorded three wins, Portugal two, with the former USSR, Germany and the former Yugoslavia one each. From the continental point of view, Europe has drawn level with South America with 6 titles apiece.
2001 in Argentina
Like the last tournament two years ago, this one produced mostly good and some excellent football. The majority of the games were fair, and the number of goals scored was almost as high as the last time. This time the total was 158, or an average of 3.04 per game, compared with 165/3.17 in Malaysia. With 16 goals each in seven matches, Mali and Spain were the most prolific scorers, followed by Brazil (13 in 5 games) and Japan (11 in 7 games).
The next World Youth Championship in two years' time will be held in Argentina, but the exact dates have not yet been confirmed.