THE DAY REPLAYED – Friday saw the remaining Round of 16 slots filled at UAE 2013, and no team sealed their place in more resounding fashion than Nigeria, who got back on track after their draw with Sweden by putting five goals past Iraq, officially eliminating the Lions of Mesopotamia in the process.
In the other match in Group F, reigning champions Mexico made life difficult for themselves, but finally set up a meeting with Italy by clinching a late victory over Sweden. The Scandinavians, meanwhile, can console themselves with having finished as one of the tournament’s best third-placed sides, and will now face Japan.
In the run-up to today’s fixtures, all four teams in Group E knew that qualification was still a possibility. Argentina needed just a point against Canada in Dubai to progress, but instead picked up all three in their first truly comfortable win of the competition. The South Americans are now likely to go into their duel with Tunisia full of confidence.
Across the country in Al Ain, Austria were aware that only a win would do versus Iran, but it was the Asian nation who emerged triumphant and booked a rendezvous with free-scoring Nigeria in the knockout phase.
Finally, today’s combination of results turned out to be good news for Russia, who squeezed through in third place in Group D, and will now lock horns with Brazil.
Strength through unity
The Nigerian supporters were present in large numbers in Dubai, and were rewarded with a display of attacking brilliance against Iraq. They clearly had no intention of waiting for the first goal to celebrate the Golden Eaglets’ achievements, as they could already be heard 45 minutes prior to kick-off. Initially spread throughout the stadium, they subsequently gathered together to form a united pack, singing their national anthem with great gusto, and seemingly inspiring their young heroes, who scored twice within the opening five minutes.
According to Iran coach Ali Doustimehr, around 50,000 of his compatriots live in Dubai and its surrounding areas. While not all of them came to cheer on their team on Friday, the size of the turnout was impressive nonetheless. Sprinkled around the stadium in groups, they encouraged their team by chanting back and forth with each other, creating a memorable atmosphere. “Without the fans, there wouldn’t be football. They’re the ones that make playing a match worthwhile,” added Doustimehr, who looked on proudly as his charges secured their qualification in front of their loyal followers.
Despite Canada’s 3-0 defeat to Argentina and their ensuing elimination from the tournament, one Canuck representative was the recipient of a consolation prize of sorts. In the 71st minute, with his team trailing 2-0, midfielder Mikael Cantave came off the bench to make his tournament debut and to play a few minutes of the U-17 World Cup on his 17th birthday. Only his coach, Sean Fleming, knows if his introduction to the game was a sentimental gesture.
The Russians are without doubt the most fortunate team of the day. After a terrible start to UAE 2013 which saw them lose their first two matches, the European champions gave themselves some semblance of hope by defeating Venezuela 4-0 in their final group fixture. As Dmitry Khomukha’s men were doubtless biting their nails in front of the television, their unlikely qualifying dream became a reality courtesy of Friday’s results, which enabled them to advance as one of the best third-placed sides.
15 – The number of matches that Sweden had gone unbeaten prior to their 1-0 loss to Mexico, including friendlies, European qualifying matches and their first two games in Group F. The Scandinavians are making their debut at this level, but with such impressive recent form, they could still cause a surprise or two in the knockout stage, in spite of today’s reverse.
“We’re not the kind of team that enjoys losing, so today’s result is not something we’re not happy about at all. But we’ve still made it through to the next round, and we hope to be able to show what we’re really capable of against Japan. I haven’t had much time to see any of their games, but we’ll be ready for them – I can guarantee you that,” Swedish striker Valmir Berisha, who had previously scored a brace against Nigeria.