One of the teams was playing stylish, high-quality, modern football, expertly keeping possession, touching the ball the minimum number of times, and adeptly varying the pace. There were individual tricks, a wide range of skills, and evident confidence as players sought out one-on-one situations.
The meeting between Spain and USA in the Group A opener at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 was nothing if not entertaining. However, those of you assuming the team described above was La Rojita would be mistaken. In fact, said performance was came courtesy of the Stars & Stripes.
True, the overwhelming favourites from southern Europe ultimately recorded a 4-1 victory - not altogether surprising given the Spanish are currently setting benchmarks in global football at almost every level of the game. Nonetheless, the North American underdogs won over the fans with their attractive and courageous passing game, even when confronted by the undisputed masters of this style of play.
USA forward Luis Gil, scorer of his side's brilliantly worked consolation goal shortly before the end, insisted it was no surprise that his team acquitted themselves so well. “We know what we’re capable of. We're proud of the way we made our mark on the game even against the Spanish," the 19-year-old told FIFA.com. The man who plays his club football for MLS side Real Salt Lake names his idol as Andres Iniesta, and after watching the playmaker in action, it quickly becomes clear that Gil's choice of role model isn't only down to unconditional admiration.
“I think Cristiano Ronaldo is class as well," the player continued, “as he dominates everything around him. But I orientate myself more on Iniesta, because I think the way I play is closer to him." A bashful but meaningful smile crossed the youngster’s lips as he spoke, because the native of Garden Grove in California, who has represented his country at every level of the junior game and has already been linked with a handful of top European clubs, boasts abundant natural skill and instinct. Intelligently moving in the space between the lines, the ball seems glued to his feet at times, and he is a source of ideas and inspiration in linking the play between midfield and attack.
Gil ascribes these qualities to the inspiration provided by his father when he was still young. “My dad's Mexican, and when I was still a little kid, he was always taking me out to play football. It was wonderful. We took the ball with us time and time again, to parks and open fields," he recalled. “Later, I benefited from always playing with older kids. I was small so I had to hold my own using skill," he added.
The likeable playmaker is typical of coach Tab Ramos’s USA U-20 team, who have come to Turkey with their sights set high. He is by no means the only member of the squad with Mexican blood in his veins, as no fewer than four of his team-mates - Daniel Cuevas, Hector Joya, Juan Pablo Ocegueda and Joaquin Hernandez - play for pro clubs to the south of the Rio Grande. A new-found passion and commitment to a technically demanding style of football, and adopting the mentality associated with it, is an unmistakable component of the Stars & Stripes set-up in Istanbul. Gil’s eyes shine when he describes the mood in the camp: “It's a fantastic atmosphere. We’re always joking around, and we keep morale high with games of cards and other stuff to fill the time when we're not playing, training or in team talks. It's really awesome."
But that is far from the whole story. The Californian senses a new phenomenon in the making: “The likes of Spain are definitely a sort of template, but we have our own style. On the one hand, this team is driven by sheer enjoyment of our football, but on the other we still have the typical USA virtues of effort, the will to win, and the readiness to give everything for the team at all times." This admirable combination is a hallmark of a new American generation, because Gil is far from the only player who thrives on the mixture.
Coach Ramos, capped 81 times by his country and a veteran of three FIFA World Cups™ and one FIFA U-20 World Cup, has no doubt his team is headed in the right direction. “The way we play is identical with my vision of football. It's football that I like, and I hope it's our future," the 46-year-old informed FIFA.com. “We've reached a position where this kind of creative player is now available to us in the USA. The job now is to give them playing time as well."
The next hurdle facing Gil and company is France, as USA face Les Bleuets in Istanbul on Monday and need points to put themselves in a decent position in the race for a last-16 berth at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013. “There's no reason our heads should go down," declared Gil. “We're not feeling any pressure. We’ll approach the game with confidence, and we intend to show what we can do."