The scenes at the stadiums after the semi-finals in Guadalajara and Torreon were strikingly similar. While Mexican and Uruguayan players wildly celebrated reaching the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Brazilians and Germans spilled bitter tears, walking around in a daze and wondering where it all went wrong.
“The disappointment is big,” said Germany’s Emre Can curtly, large headphones around his neck, to FIFA.com near the underground car park of the Estadio Torreon. Team captain and the only German player willing to talk to gathered media, Can very nearly won the game for the junior Nationalmannschaft with an outstanding individual goal in the 60th minute. The big man powered past three defenders to slide home a stunner and take the lead 2-1. It was not quite enough, however, as the impressive Mexicans stormed back to win a dramatic last-four clash for the ages.
While he pondered the situation and routinely answered the questions put before him, Can’s coach Steffen Freund came over and grabbed the tall midfielder, engulfing him in a bear hug and lifting him off the ground. With a mistiness welling in his eyes, Can returned to the next question: what went wrong? “I really don’t know. We worked so hard to come back from a goal down,” he continued, the disappointment reading on his face and in the shaking of his head and voice as he spoke. “We conceded goals on two set pieces which is a very difficult thing to swallow. It’s a shame, really, and we are very sad.”
Mexico’s three goals on the night must have been a shock to the Germans, who had conceded only three in their five previous games, leading many commentators and pundits to tip them as heavy favourites to lift their first world title in the U-17 category.
We gave our best, but we just couldn’t find a way through. But we have faith in ourselves that we can finish with a win here in Mexico.
It is always difficult for a player, after months of preparation, hardship and sacrifice, to look ahead to the bitter-sweetness of a third-place play-off after missing out on a place in the grand finale. But the big German is determined to leave Mexico on a positive note, even if it is only on the under-card at the Azteca on 10 July. “We wanted to end our tournament in the big final,” added Can, scorer of just one of Germany’s 20 goals at these finals. “But now it will be our aim to win the little final and go home with a medal from our time here in Mexico.”
Brazilian ace 'shaken'
Standing in the Germans’ way will be none other than fellow one-time favourites Brazil, who were shocked by regional rivals Uruguay 3-0 in their semi-final in Guadalajara. “This match [third-place] is still important for us. We want to end the tournament with a victory,” said Lucas Piazon, one of Brazil’s shining stars here in Mexico, surely ruing missing out on the final at one of world football’s true cathedrals. “It won’t be easy for us, but we will give everything because leaving Mexico with another loss would be too tough on us.
“Of course we were shaken at the final whistle [of the semi-final],” the Chelsea-bound player went on. “We gave our best, but we just couldn’t find a way through. But we have faith in ourselves that we can finish with a win here in Mexico.”
While they had once dreamed big dreams of battling it out for a world title in the shadow of the famous Estadio Azteca, world football powers Brazil and Germany will have to take a back seat on the big day. Even so, the spirit of a champion always persists when the whistle blows and pride is always on the line.