Fully in line with the official slogan, 'Building bridges for future stars', a high-quality FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 threw the global spotlight on a number of teams and a host of talented players. The broadest smiles at the end were on French faces, as Les Bleuets claimed the U-20 crown for the first time after a nail-biting victory in the final. It also means France are the first nation to win all five FIFA tournaments in men's 11-a-side international football.
After normal and extra time failed to produce a goal in the final, a 4-1 penalty shoot-out victory over Uruguay meant it was France captain Paul Pogba who hoisted the most prestigious trophy in junior football into the Istanbul night sky. In the match for third place, 2009 winners Ghana overcame surprise packages Iraq 3-0 and went home with the consolation prize of bronze. The top four places at the finals were thus filled by teams from four different confederations.
Tight contests, quality football
Overall, the tournament was as tight and evenly-matched as seldom before, partly due to some notable absentees. Argentina, the most successful nation at this age group, holders Brazil, and European heavyweights Germany, Italy and the Netherlands all failed to qualify.
During the finals, fancied trio Spain, Portugal and Colombia were eliminated prior to the semi-finals. In the knockout stage, no fewer than four matches were decided on penalties, with seven games going to extra time. Overall, 33 of the 52 matches either ended in stalemate after 90 minutes or with the sides only a single goal apart.
“We've seen some tremendous games. The teams have laid on fantastic football with last-minute goals and penalty shoot-outs,” reflected Jim Boyce, chairman of the Organising Committee for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. “The coaching staff have definitely encouraged their players to put on a show for the fans and play great football. It means football is the big winner at this World Cup. The quality was very high,” he summarised.
Starlets favour attack over defence
In general, the crowds were treated to attractive attacking football and goals galore. The games in the seven host cities of Antalya, Bursa, Gaziantep, Istanbul, Kayseri, Rize and Trabzon produced a total of 152 goals, the fourth highest total since the expansion of the starting field to 24 teams: the players were only more prolific at Egypt 2009 (167 goals), Malaysia 1997 (165) and Nigeria 1999 (158).
The adidas Golden Boot for the top scorer went to six-goal Ghana striker Ebenezer Assifuah, with the adidas Golden Glove for the best goalkeeper won by Uruguay's Guillermo De Amores, who was only beaten three times in the entire tournament.
However, the standout personality at the finals was Pogba. The French schemer, strong in the tackle and boasting exceptional stamina, displayed a remarkable ability to read the play and dictate the pace. He led his team-mates from the front, and was first to get them back on their feet after mishaps.
The midfield general in the making impressively spearheaded Les Bleuets’ march to the trophy, earning Pogba the adidas Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament. “I'm really happy. We're all delighted it's ended this way. It's exceptional," the player told FIFA.com immediately after the final.
Thrilling stories, indelible memories
Coach Pierre Mankowski’s young French team emerged as the most disciplined and mature of all 24 contenders in Turkey, combining physical robustness with superb individuals in the wide positions. The French made a modest start with a draw against USA and defeat to Spain in their group, but improved with every passing match after that, finding an extra gear at the start of the knockout stage and binding their strong individuals into a tight unit.
As a whole, the tournament was characterised by no end of stories and anecdotes. Ghana, urged on by their ever-present, colourful and raucous fans, earned themselves the label of ‘comeback kings’ after starting with back-to-back defeats and ultimately sneaking into the Round of 16 as the fourth-best of the third-placed teams in the group stage. Having made the knockout rounds, they came from behind to beat Portugal 3-2, before doing exactly the same against Chile in a thrilling 4-3 extra-time victory.
Surprise packages defy expectations
Iraq's performance will also go down in the history books, as they reached the semi-finals at the tournament for the first time thanks to their abundant skill, tireless running and tactical flexibility. Furthermore, their uncompromisingly direct attacking style won the hearts of the Turkish public, and also prompted an outbreak of joyful celebration back home. Together with the unexpectedly strong Uzbeks and a well-drilled Korea Republic, they formed a trio of Asian representatives in the last eight, defying most pundits’ pre-tournament predictions.
Among many surprise results, one of the biggest was South American champions Colombia losing on penalties to the South Koreans in the first knockout round. It meant an premature farewell to prodigiously gifted playmaker Juan Quintero, already a classy footballer and glorious proof that the classic ‘No10’ role has not entirely vanished from the present-day game, and might even be set for a renaissance.
Strong South Americans
As for Spain, their outstanding strikeforce led by Jese Rodriguez and Gerard Deulofeu ran up against the brick wall of Uruguay's unyielding defence; the European giants were knocked out in the quarter-finals. The Portuguese and five-goal Bruma lost to Ghana a round earlier, while hosts Turkey also fell at the first knockout hurdle. Driven on by their frenetic home fans, the local heroes did defeat El Salvador and Australia in their group, but were ultimately outclassed by eventual champions France in the last 16.
It was left to Uruguay to uphold South American pride at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, as CONMEBOL supplied a finalist for the seventh time in a row - it had always been Brazil or Argentina in the past. However, despite their near-impenetrable back four complemented by the individual class of skilled duo Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Nicolas Lopez, La Celeste ultimately fell by the tightest possible margin to Pogba and company.
The nerve-shredding shootout provided a final highlight but somehow also an appropriate end to an exceptionally close, high-quality and evenly-matched junior tournament.