THE DAY REPLAYED - The intercontinental double-header between Africa and South America in Sharjah this Saturday ended one-apiece, concluding the quarter-final stage of the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013.
In the first game, Argentina scored after just six minutes to unsettle the sturdy defensive system that Côte d'Ivoire have displayed throughout the tournament, before running out 2-1 winners. Then Nigeria overcame Uruguay 2-0 with two goals from Taiwo Awoniyi, who went off in pain near the end. Victory and a place in the semi-finals was reason enough to celebrate for the Golden Eaglets, who had scored an average of 4.5 goals per game in their first four matches.
The semi-finals are now confirmed with Nigeria meeting Sweden on one side of the draw, and Argentina against Mexico on the other. One African, one European, one South American, and one North American team representing four football confederations are thus still in with a chance at the trophy.
Argentina 2-1 Côte d'Ivoire
Uruguay 0-2 Nigeria
And the winner of the ‘Group of Death’ award is...Group F!
Impressively, this group provided three of the four semi-finalists in the United Arab Emirates, with section toppers Nigeria joined by Mexico and Sweden in the last four. It is the first time in the history of the competition that one group has supplied three semi-finalists. Only Argentina, winners of Group E, crashed the party. Now back home watching on TV, the brave Iraqis must be imagining what might have been if they had been drawn in a different pool.
The game of fear
Ten players took to the field in the clash between Argentina and Côte d'Ivoire a yellow card away from suspension – six from the South American side and four from the Africans. This was the same number as the Brazil v Mexico and Sweden v Honduras games combined. A single yellow card would be erased for the semi-finals, but a player with two yellow cards to his name would be suspended. As a result, Argentina coach Humberto Grondona will now be without Rodrigo Moreira and Matias Sanchez for the next game. It was potentially even worse for Uruguay coach Fabian Coito, who had eight players on a yellow card. With four from Nigeria, that made 12 players in total who were a card away from suspension. As it turned out, the Golden Eaglets won, and Akinjide Idowu is the only one who will miss out on a semi-final due to suspension.
Argentina and Côte d'Ivoire had met three times previously in FIFA competitions, so today's win made it four from four for the land of Maradona and Messi. The three previous encounters had come at the 1992 FIFA Confederations Cup, the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and the Olympic Football Tournament of 2008. Argentina have therefore completed a clean sweep against Côte d'Ivoire in all age categories. The Golden Eaglets' win over the young Charruas was some revenge for Nigeria's two 2-1 defeats against Uruguay earlier this year, in the FIFA Confederations Cup and the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
One Africa, two cultures
"We need to acquire more experience at this level if we are to reach this stage of the competition more often, like Nigeria do," said Baby Elephants coach Ibrahima Kamara after the match. The Nigerian fans, who were out in greater numbers than the Ivorians, also showed maturity by noisily cheering on their boys from the outset, in contrast to the Ivorian supporters who only really got behind their side in the second half. One Golden Eaglet fan even produced a replica of the FIFA World Cup Trophy, perhaps in support of the Super Eagles who look on course to qualify for Brazil 2014. In the end though it was the Nigerian U-17 side who were given a heroes' reception by their adoring fans.
12 – The number of times Argentina (5) and Nigeria (7) have reached the semi-finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. This is the second time both sides have simultaneously reached the last four of this competition. The last time, at Trinidad and Tobago 2001, Nigeria went on to finish second and La Albiceleste finished fourth. Argentina have never won the FIFA U-17 World Cup, while the Golden Eaglets have triumphed three times.
"That was a fabulous win over a great team. We were consistently good and well-intentioned throughout, but in the second half Côte d'Ivoire upped their game," Argentina coach Humberto Grondona.
Semi-finals - Tuesday 5 November
Argentina-Mexico (Abu Dhabi, 17:00 local time)
Sweden-Nigeria (Dubai, 20:00 local time)