There will be a strong sense of déjà vu in Thursday’s opening semi-final when Belgium and Mali meet for the second time at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015.
Although the pair played out a goalless draw when they crossed swords in their opening game two weeks ago, the African champions squandered an array of chances that day. Their 26 shots on goal compared to the Belgians' two, prompting even the latter's coach, Bob Browaeys, to admit: “This is not the correct result”.
Euphoria in Chile and at home
One decisive factor in this opening stalemate was Red Devils goalkeeper Jens Teunckens, who is relishing a reunion with their African rivals after being forced into action time and time again during their first meeting. “It’s just incredible,” the 17-year-old beamed in a FIFA.com interview. “It’s not every day that you get to play in a semi-final. We’ve all got to relax now and then concentrate fully on the job in hand.”
The euphoria within the Belgian camp in the wake of their unprecedented success at the FIFA U-17 World Cup is a new experience for those both in South America and back at home. As the team celebrated their 1-0 quarter-final win over Costa Rica in the dressing room after the final whistle, Teunckens’ family called to congratulate him and the entire squad. His team-mates could later be seen milling around the catacombs of the arena, smartphones in hand or clutched to their ears, receiving messages from well-wishers thousands of miles away. “The match was broadcast live on Belgian TV and they all stayed up to watch it,” said the goalkeeper. “That’s just amazing.”
There’s no bigger motivation than the chance to play in a World Cup final.
Teunckens, who has yet to concede a goal in the knockout stages, once again kept his team in their game against Los Ticos with a string of outstanding saves, often putting his body on the line in the process. Despite being on the receiving end of two crunching tackles from opposition strikers, he was able to continue after receiving some brief treatment. The youngster’s tally of 19 saves in his five World Cup matches is the best of the four remaining goalkeepers in the competition.
As if that was not enough, Club Brugge’s third-choice custodian is also considered a penalty killer, a tag he justified in Belgium’s game with Korea Republic. While Les Diablotins have the weakest record compared to their fellow semi-finalists when it comes to statistics such as goals conceded and goals scored, this does not worry Teunckens, who knows all four teams have earned their place in the last four, “including us”.
Pulling out all the stops
The Belgians know all too well that the line between progressing to the next round and going home is a fine one, having qualified for the Round of 16 as the best third-place group finishers despite being defeated by Ecuador in their final round-robin match. Now the Europeans are ready to go toe-to-toe with the African champions once more after beating Korea Republic 2-0 in the Round of 16 and edging their encounter with Costa Rica.
“Although Mali were extremely good in the first game, we can learn a lot form that,” explained the 17-year-old. “We’ll analyse everything very closely, see what we did wrong and draw the necessary conclusions. We’ll be ready,” added the self-confessed fan of Belgium’s No1 Thibaut Courtois before daring to contemplate what lies beyond the last four. “Playing in the final would be mind-blowing. There’s no bigger motivation than the chance to play in a World Cup final, and we’ll pull out all the stops to get there.”