THE DAY REPLAYED - In the end, a tournament full of surprises and late, late drama had a fitting conclusion. Serbia, playing in the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time as an independent nation, will leave as its champions. That is the remarkable outcome after an enthralling final day of action that thrilled a sell-out, 25,000-plus crowd at Auckland's North Harbour Stadium. Nemanja Maksimovic's decisive, 118th-minute goal settled the final 2-1 in favour of the delirious Serbians, and left five-time champions Brazil to settle for silver.
Mali will also return home with medals after edging an all-African third-place play-off with Senegal. That game's final tallies of four goals and two saved penalties give an indication, but only that, of the excitement and attacking football that both sides provided. Each head for home having provided fresh reminders of why they have been such favourites of the fans here in New Zealand. Mali's hero, Adama Traore, also headed the list of award-winners, picking up the adidas Golden Ball award as the tournament's best player. The Golden Glove and Golden Boot, recognising the leading keeper and top scorer, went to Serbia's Predrag Rajkovic and Viktor Kovalenko of Ukraine respectively.
Match for Third Place
Senegal 1-3 Mali
Brazil 1-2 Serbia AET
Goals of the day
Senegal-Mali, 1-2, Adama Traore (83)
When Adama Traore found the top corner with an inch-perfect, 25-yard free-kick, the thought that he would go on to top it - with just 16 minutes left to play - would have seemed ludicrous. But Mali and their richly talented No19 have made a habit of surprising us all, and today was no different. The three Senegal defenders who were surrounding Traore, ushering him down a blind alley, were more shocked than anyone when he suddenly turned 180 degrees to wriggle clear of them all. Then, they could only look on aghast as, somehow, with his weaker foot, he struck the perfect shot - flat, powerful and bound for the far corner from the minute it left his boot.
Brazil-Serbia, 1-1, Andreas Pereira (74)
Reclaiming Brazil's lost reputation for fantasy football has been a stated aim of Rogerio Micale's side, and goals like this will go a long way towards achieving that. Like Traore, Andreas Pereira seemed to be going nowhere but, similar to his Malian counterpart, he made light work of three pursuers. Milan Gajic, Andrija Zivkovic and match-winner Maksimovic were all left in his wake as the substitute capped a mazy, jinking dart in from the left with a clever change of direction and a delicious curling finish.
Dedication amid the deluge
They may be outnumbered by their rugby and cricket counterparts, but there is no doubting the passion of New Zealand's football enthusiasts. That devotion was definitely put to the test, as Auckland saved its worst weather of the tournament for the day when everyone had hoped the sun would shine. In a stadium with three uncovered stands and most of the fans open to the elements, the heavy, incessant rain that fell throughout the third-place play-off and returned late in the final was the most unwelcome of visitors. It was impressive, though, that Auckland's sodden supporters remained undeterred, sitting hardily through the downpour to enjoy their favourite sport. Fortunately, they were rewarded for that stoicism, with some thrilling on-field fare helping to make up for the conditions overhead.
Diarra, Traore help a friend in need
Falaye Sacko will return to Mali tomorrow as a hero, part of the side that broke new ground and brought home the bronze. But the midfielder will be as relieved as he is overjoyed at that status - for he could so easily have become a national villain. Missing one penalty was bad enough; conceding another at the other end just ten minutes later was positively calamitous. Fortunately for Sacko, he was bailed out by two inspired colleagues, with his errors all but forgotten due to Adama Traore's brilliant goals and Djigui Diarra's outstanding penalty save.
Coach knows best
Though Boschilia's U-20 World Cup has contained much to be proud of, his reaction to being substituted against Serbia - a bad-tempered booting of Brazil's dugout - was not his finest moment. And if the midfielder felt his coach had erred in replacing him, he was soon proved wrong. It took just eight minutes, after all, for his replacement to provide the magic that Brazil had been lacking. Fortunately, Boschilia's embrace with his coach after Pereira's strike told a story of a valuable lesson learned.
A fan-tastic final
In the red corner, we had horns, waving flags and bouncing, chanting supporters. In the yellow, whistles, drums, balloons, dancers and the unmistakable sounds of Samba. If New Zealanders wanted a taste of the atmosphere that only a football World Cup can deliver, this was it. The colour was dazzling, the noise near-incessant, and Kiwi neutrals were clearly - and rightly - enraptured. And while the Europeans were left delighted, the South Americans disconsolate, both groups of supporters contributed to a wonderful occasion.
118 - Nemanja Maksimovic's title-winning goal, scored two minutes from the end of extra time, is the latest ever seen in a U-20 World Cup final.
"I'm very happy to have sent a message in this tournament - a message of unity, of passion and playing with heart. And I hope we can help unite our people to live a peaceful kind of life after 20 years of struggle," Veljko Paunovic, Serbia coach.