Just a few days remain for the teams competing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 to perfect their routines ahead of the big kick-off. Now is the time to fine-tune moves and address weaknesses, but six of the hopeful sides will also be completing their preparations with fresh experience of tournament football. Colombia, USA, Mexico, Nigeria, Portugal and Korea Republic all took part in this year's edition of the prestigious Toulon Tournament with a view to maximising their chances of success on Turkish soil.
The French excursion certainly suited Colombia, who will compete in Turkey as South American champions after recovering from a shaky start in qualifying to emerge with the continental crown. Los Cafeteros carried on where they left off in that competition to hit the ground running in Toulon, seeing off group stage rivals Korea Republic 1-0, USA 2-1, France 3-1 and Congo DR 1-0. That earned them a place in the final against Brazil, who triumphed 1-0 but will be absent from this summer's U-20 global showcase.
Despite their excellent results, Alberto Restrepo's side nonetheless had to dig deep to secure their showpiece berth, coming back from behind to beat France and USA before requiring a late penalty to see off the Congolese. "The fact that we're South American champions changes the attitude of our opponents, making them more motivated than usual," commented Restrepo, who travelled to Toulon with two goals in mind. "First of all, we wanted to promote the image of Colombian football. That's a big responsibility because the Toulon Tournament has a huge influence. Secondly, it's the ideal preparation for the World Cup."
USA focus on positives
Korea Republic no doubt travelled to Toulon with the same intentions, and they too seem to be on the right track. Although they kicked off their bid with a loss to Colombia, the Asian champions then held hosts France to a goalless draw before finishing their campaign in style with a 2-1 win against Congo DR and a 1-0 success versus the Stars and Stripes.
USA themselves experienced a more testing time on the Cote d'Azur, with their 1-0 victory against Congo DR the only high point to sit alongside a trio of defeats. Downbeat but not dismayed, coach Tab Ramos was at pains to highlight the positives before his squad head to Istanbul, where they will face Spain, France and Ghana in the group stage. "We're happy to have finished the tournament without any big injuries to the players," he explained. "Any way you look at it, this competition was an excellent preparation for us, and it helped us to see all the players in action and get a better idea of their abilities. We leave the competition with a fair amount of certainty about the names that we'll include in our squad for the World Cup."
In Group B, reigning Toulon Tournament champions Mexico were unable to retain their title but had plenty to be pleased about as they departed France. Scorers of two goals against Nigeria, three versus Portugal and another against Belgium, their attacking potential was particularly striking, confirming the talent of the sides who won the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup and the 2012 Men's Olympic Football Tournament. El Tri will be keen for more of the same from one player especially as they aim to add the FIFA U-20 World Cup crown to that list, Jose Abella having finished joint top scorer on three strikes along with Brazil's Araujo and Portugal's Aladje despite being a defender.
Two of Abella's efforts came in the tournament's highest-scoring match, a 3-3 draw with fellow Turkey 2013 hopefuls Portugal that bodes well for the main event. Overall, 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup runners-up Portugal experienced mixed fortunes, however, defeating Belgium 2-0 but losing by the same scoreline to Brazil before overcoming Nigeria 2-1 at the end of the group stage. That seemed as if it would be insufficient to earn them a spot in the third-place play-off game until Belgium's last-gasp goal against Mexico scuppered the North Americans' chances, but Portugal were ultimately denied a podium finish by France.
The team with the most need for improvement are Nigeria, who exited Toulon without a single victory. Beaten 2-0 by Mexico and 2-1 by Portugal before a 1-1 draw with Belgium, John Obuh's side ended on a high all the same by holding eventual winners Brazil 1-1. "We're taking away the positives from this tournament, and we really enjoyed ourselves on the pitch despite everything," said assistant coach Yakubu Maigaji, who also emerged with a clearer idea of what the Flying Eagles must work on before Turkey 2013. "With the World Cup approaching, we need to improve in front of goal. The team is creating chances but isn't scoring from them, or at least not from enough of them."
While the tournament patently served as an excellent dress rehearsal for the players, it also kept the healthy crowds enthralled, with some familiar faces among the most attentive onlookers. Former Portuguese international Rui Barros and erstwhile Arsenal midfielder Gilles Grimandi made sure not to miss a single exploit, for example. "I'm here to observe the players in general as the interest of this tournament is to search for a rare gem and let yourself be surprised by the talent of these youngsters," said Rui Barros. "This is the place to be at this time of year," added Grimandi. "It's the best tournament for youngsters you can find. It's perfect for discovering or continuing to follow promising young players." In turn, as scouts for Porto and Arsenal respectively, their presence no doubt gave the players even greater motivation to shine.