Understandably, a strong sense of disappointment hangs over the Ghana and Iraq camps at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013, as both came within a whisker of making the final but were stopped just short. For all that, the teams are now looking forward to their duel for third place in Istanbul on Saturday. That is because the bronze medal would still rate as a great achievement, and also a fitting reward for an excellent all-round showing by the surprise package from Asia and the 2009 winners from Africa.
It has been an extraordinary tournament for Ghana, who opened with two straight defeats, scraped into the knockout stages as the fourth best third-placed team, and then twice came from behind to reach the semi-finals. In the circumstances, the Africans will be more determined than ever to finish on a winning note, and are likely to go on the attack as soon as the whistles goes tomorrow. However, it has also been an exceptional effort by Iraq, who have gone through the tournament unbeaten in normal and extra time and marched into the last four for the first time at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. They too will be utterly focussed on emerging victorious from the third-place play-off and are likely to contribute their share to a potential attacking spectacle.
The ingredients are certainly in place for an absorbing and entertaining encounter. It is a meeting between teams who both favour a pacy attacking game, always looking for the fastest way to open up a shooting chance. Furthermore, both teams boast a bevy of hard-running, agile and highly skilled starlets. There is an intriguing subplot in the goalscoring stakes, with Ghana hitman Ebenezer Assifuah on five goals and Iraq striker Farhan Shakor on three. The leader in the scoring chart at the moment, Portugal's Bruma, scored his five goals in fewer playing minutes than Assifuah, but his team exited the tournament in the last sixteen, so the adidas Golden Boot is a tantalising prize on offer to the leading marksman on each side.
1 - The young Iraqis are the first team in the history of the FIFA U-20 World Cup to contest extra time in all three of their matches in the knockout stages. Hakeem Shakir’s team are certainly battle-hardened by now, although it remains to be seen whether the equivalent of one extra match has taken its toll on their stamina.
The player to watch
The midfielder with the long mane of hair provides silky inspiration from the centre of the park for practically every Iraq attack. Tareq’s undoubted footballing gifts have been superbly honed and developed, and for a youngster aged just 17, he boasts extraordinary vision and a remarkable instinct for the transition from defence to attack. He is also one of only five men in the Iraq squad to cover all of the team’s 630 playing minutes so far. The key factor against Ghana could be his ability to outfox the Africans’ similar midfield maestros, but whatever happens, the Al Quwa Al Jawiya FC gem is one for the future.
“Not many people expect us to go very far in this tournament, but I believe we can," Iraq coach Hakeem Shakir, who relinquished the position of senior national team coach last February explicitly to take over the talented U-20 squad, talking to FIFA.com during the group stage, and already sensing his team could be the surprise package of the tournament.
“I want my players to be happy, because that’s fundamental. They should enjoy themselves, but within reason," Ghana coach Sellas Tetteh, who led the Black Satellites to the trophy four years ago, explaining his philosophy to FIFA.com