The FIFA World Youth Championship Final in Abu Dhabi on 19 December pits six-time finalist Brazil against triple-event finalist Spain. A contest between two leading lights at youth level for many years now, this re-run of the 2003 U-17s final in Finland is sure to be a fiercely contested affair – with European and South American supremacy on the line.
While Spain’s vain attempts to win a major trophy at senior level are well catalogued, its undisputed strength across the various youth categories is less widely publicised. European U-19 Champions in 1995 and 2002, U-17 Champions in 1997, 1999 and 2001, World Youth Champions in 1999, U-17 finalists in 2003… the accolades claimed by the Furia Roja make the European outfit the most consistent performer since the early 1990s.
Brazil, meanwhile, has spread her impressive achievements over a greater time span, with three World Youth Championship triumphs in 1983, 1985 and 1993 and three World U-17 titles secured in 1997, 1999 and 2003. At continental level too, her appetite has been prodigious, devouring eight youth titles, six at U-17s.
Consequently, the World Youth Championship is pretty much devoid of any mystery for these two bastions of youth footballing excellence. Brazil, having taken part in 13 of the 14 tournaments staged, are yet to go out in the first round, while the Iberians have missed just four world tournaments since 1977.
It comes as some surprise therefore that the two titans have come face to face only three times at the World Youth Championship. Two of these meetings were in 1985, when the Samba Boys led the Spanish a merry dance, defeating them both in the group stage (2-0), then again in the Final itself (1-0). The latter game was a particular hard-fought contest, with Silas and Co. requiring extra-time to finish off the doughty Spaniards.
In 1999, the Furia Roja exacted belated revenge by downing the Brazilians (2-0) in the first round, before going on to trounce Japan by the biggest margin ever recorded in a World Youth Championship final (4-0). Interestingly enough, the team which has beaten the other has always gone on to lift the tournament. That will necessarily be the case on this occasion too, but which way will it go?
Europe versus South America
The two teams will not merely be playing to fill space in their trophy cabinets, but for continental supremacy. For of the 13 World Youth Championship tournaments held, all have been won by teams from either Europe or South America. The score so far stands at Conmebol 7, UEFA 6, so the Spanish will be seeking to haul their continent onto level pegging, while the Brazilians will be looking to take South America two steps ahead.
Mindful of the illustrious histories of both countries at this level, the two coaches remain circumspect, while believing in their chances. “The South American sides always have great players that we’ll have to watch like hawks,” acknowledged Jose Ufarte after his charges prevailed in the semi-final. “But my team is enthusiastic and very talented, so I believe the trophy can be ours, although we’ll need a bit of luck if we’re to do it.”
Marcos Paqueta, habitually taciturn on the subject of his opponents, clearly has great respect for the Spaniards. “At this stage of the competition, any team still in it must have real quality. But we are getting better and better with every game we play,” warned the Brazilian coach, who has already added the Iberians to his list of scalps with the U-17s.
But the time for “getting better and better” is almost over. Whoever wins it will have to be at their peak on 19 December.