THE DAY REPLAYED – The first day of last-16 action from the FIFA U-17 World Cup in UAE saw Sweden, playing in their first junior finals, edge Japan to reach the quarter-finals. There they will face off with Central American underdogs Honduras, who shocked Uzbekistan in Sharjah. The Central American Catrachos must be loving life here in the Emirates, where they are through to the last-eight after having failed to earn even a single point in their previous two involvements in the U-17 World Cup.
Mexico recovered from their terrible start to the tournament - a 6-1 loss to Nigeria - by knocking out Italy, and they will meet Brazil in the quarter-final round in what promises to be a mouth-watering contest between holders and three-time champions.
Round of 16 – Day One
Italy 0-2 Mexico (Abu Dhabi)
Japan 1-2 Sweden (Sharjah)
Brazil 3-1 Russia (Abu Dhabi)
Honduras 1-0 Uzbekistan (Sharjah)
Close shave helps Swede cause
The sight of Valmir Berisha poking home like a predator from close range isn’t exactly unusual here at UAE 2013. His 11th-minute opener against Japan was his third of the tournament, but it was his first with a shaved head. The assist came from winger Mirza Halvadzic, with three lines shaved into the front of his skull. Berisha – who models his game after renegade countryman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and says Sweden can go “very far” at these finals – celebrated with his provider, the two of them running their fingers through their freshly shorn hair. One wonders who brought along the clippers in the Sweden camp and what new hairdos we’ll see when they meet Honduras in the quarter-finals.
Japan run out of luck in Sharjah
The Japanese were the only team in action on the first day of last-16 play that didn’t have to change venues. Up to now, the sleepy city of Sharjah – on the outskirts of Dubai – had proven a happy hunting ground for the Asians as they’d won all of their Group D matches there. It all came to a screeching halt in this first knockout stage, however, as they were overrun by the direct approach of Sweden, who were playing their first game away from their home-base of Al Ain. Happily for the Scandinavians they will return to their home away from home in the desert for the quarter-finals. The famous oasis city is 150 miles inland from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, giving it a cooler climate with less humidity. It’s the closest the Swedes will come to the frigid temperatures of Stockholm in balmy UAE.
Mexico’s pinball wizards
There was an odd moment in Mexico’s game against Italy, when a little bit of back-and-forth brought a collective giggle from the Abu Dhabi crowd. Mexican keeper Raul Gudino tried to punch the ball out of danger, but it went straight to Antonio Romano, who headed against the post with his first touch from the edge of the box. When the ball bounced back out again, Luca Vido tried to tap it home, only for Gudino to recover his wits and push the ball wide. One wonders what Bora Milutinovic, who coached Mexico’s seniors when they hosted the FIFA World Cup™ in 1986 and was watching from the stands, must have thought about this impromptu game of pinball that broke out on the football pitch.
Keeping it casual in Abu Dhabi
The earlier game in Abu Dhabi saw both coaches dressed for success. Raul Gutierrez of Mexico and Italy’s Daniele Zoratto were resplendent in fashionable, well-tailored suits. The second game, however, had a far more casual feel. Brazil’s Alexandre Gallo and Russia boss Dmitry Khomukha both looked comfortable in their shorts, track bottoms and polo shirts. In the end, and predictably, it was the Brazilians who prospered more from the casual approach, winning out 3-1 despite brave resistance from Russia.
14 – the number of consecutive FIFA U-17 World Cup games in which Mexico have scored. They hit the net in every one of their seven games on route to the title on home soil two years ago and they are inching their way toward the all-time record, held by Ghana, who scored in 21 straight games.
“I told my players: this is the uncertainty of football. But there is one thing that is certain: despite this defeat, this painful experience will end up being useful for them. They will come to know how and why in five, maybe ten years from now and they will know the lesson for the whole of their careers.” Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake, whose rotation policy in UAE was enough to make you dizzy, on the harsh lessons his players will take with them down the road.
Round of 16 - Day Two
Uruguay-Slovakia (Ras Al Khaimah, 17.00)
Morocco-Côte d'Ivoire (Fujairah, 17.00)
Argentina-Tunisia (Dubai, 20.00)
Nigeria-Iran (Al Ain, 20.00)