It's never easy saying goodbye, especially when you'd been hoping to stay for longer. But there is no escaping the facts, and after the group stage at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 in Turkey, eight of the hopefuls must pack their bags and set off on the unwanted journey home, watching the rest of the tournament unfold from afar. And the unhappy eight include a couple of teams who certainly weren't expecting to be boarding the plane home just yet. FIFA.com spoke to some of the players and coaches involved.
Drama and disappointment
Egypt are among the teams most surprised by their early exit, but it arrived after a roller-coaster ride for the reigning African champions. After narrow 2-1 defeats to Chile and Iraq, there was the sweet consolation of a 2-0 victory over England, although it was soured by the bitter taste of knowing the three points were purely academic. Unsurprisingly, feelings in the camp were mixed. “Fortune didn't favour us in our previous matches, but luck was on our side against England," mused coach Rabie Yassin. "And the fact one of our goals came in the last minute shows the players were always up for it."
The situation was arguably even more frustrating for the Three Lions. Yet again, England head for home without a victory and are now winless at the FIFA U-20 World Cup since 1997 in Malaysia, when Michael Owen scored to seal a 1-0 group stage victory over Mexico. In the wake of the defeat to Egypt, coach Peter Taylor tried to find some positives: “We can be a little bit disappointed today because we didn't play well. But competing at a U-20 World Cup is a fantastic experience for everyone."
As for New Zealand, the Kiwis left Turkey without a point to their name. The Oceania champions, perennially cast in the role of underdogs, have sprung the odd surprise in the past, including two draws in the group stage at Colombia 2011. Defender Storm Roux analysed his side’s 2-1 defeat to Croatia with refreshing honesty. “We're disappointed," he said. "We were aiming to fly home with at least one point. But we've given it our best shot, and we’ve finished empty-handed. At least we always had the right attitude throughout all three matches. We never gave up right until the final whistle."
It was a different story for Mali, as the team supervised by eccentric and charismatic coach Moussa Keita won over the fans with their unceasing and enthusiastic attacking football, and now head for home satisfied after two draws and a defeat. “I'm really happy we were able to be here," said the coach, who added: “We've had an excellent tournament, and I'm very proud of my players even though we've been knocked out. We fly home with our heads held high."
Cuba will also look back on an unforgettable adventure. The first-timers at this level failed to take a point in Group B, but there was still a moment to treasure, which is likely to remain etched in the collective memory forever. Maykel Reyes handed his side the lead after seven minutes of the first match against Korea Republic, and although the game finished 2-1 to the powerful Asians, the Cubans at least had the honour of scoring the first goal of the tournament. “It's an important goal for the nation, for the people watching our matches, and also for the players. We've made huge sacrifices," commented the goalscorer.
Midfielder Luis Saez was already looking to the next challenge: “We'll be back together again as we prepare for the Pan-American Games. I'm convinced our experience here will help us for future tournaments."
The El Salvador camp was taking a similar approach. The second of the three newcomers to the FIFA U-20 World Cup - of this trio, only Greece made it through to the Round of 16 - faced a nail-biting wait to see if they might qualify after all as one of the four best third-placed teams, only for their hopes to be dashed. However, coach Mauricio Alfaro’s team did have the comfort of returning home with a historic win. “The feeling when the referee blew for full-time was like touching heaven with my hand," playmaker Diego Coca said after the 2-1 victory over Australia.
“Playing at a World Cup stays with you for life. You dream of it as a kid, and being part of it is a goal for every player," declared striker Jairo Henriquez. “It was great to realise this dream, but we were hoping to go through and it's sad we didn't make it. The main reason for that was our lack of experience."
Tactical evolution comes at a price
Australia also set out on the long flight back Down Under with equally mixed feelings. The technically excellent football they produced at times proved insufficient to avoid the wooden spoon in Group C behind Colombia, Turkey and El Salvador. “The way we play our football now is different compared to Australian teams of the last 20 years. We want the ball on the ground and the pace high," midfielder Jackson Irvine explained to FIFA.com. “But we know it takes time to change a nation's playing style and footballing culture."
The Australians had the minor consolation of taking their solitary point in a 1-1 draw with group winners Colombia, who won both their other matches. Irvine felt there were more positives than negatives: “It's an experience we’ll never forget. It will push us to keep working on ourselves, because you never know when you might take part at another World Cup. Maybe next year in Brazil... nothing’s impossible. I'm convinced some of the players at this tournament in Turkey will feature for their countries next year at the senior World Cup. And hopefully, a couple of the Young Socceroos will be there too."
The Australians were not the only nation entering new tactical and technical territory. USA surprised fans and experts alike with a cultured short passing game and a clutch of skilled individuals. Coach Tab Ramos’s side ultimately failed to win a match, but it was against Spain, the benchmark and gold standard in terms of short passing football, that the North Americans really shone. “They pushed us to the limit and played a courageously complete game. There were times when they deserved a better result," acknowledged Spain boss Julen Lopetegui following his side's 4-1 victory over the Stars and Stripes.
Due to the high calibre of the group, which also included France and Ghana, Ramos’s team came away with just a single point from a draw with Les Bleuets. The coach lamented his team’s mixed displays: “I’m disappointed we let in nine goals in three games. Unfortunately, the result in two of our matches didn't reflect our true performance. But we kept our heads up and matched our opponents."