In the build-up to the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, the names of all the usual suspects were being proffered as favourites. The likes of Brazil, Uruguay, Ghana and the Netherlands kept cropping up, but very few observers saw fit to mention Mexico.
Yet right from their opening match when they convincingly saw off a Uruguay side so dominant in the South American qualifiers (2-0), the Tricolores looked the finished article at this level. In the same game, Carlos Vela opened the goalscoring account into which he would make regular deposits throughout the tournament, resulting in an adidas Golden Boot, or "Pichichi", as it is known in Latin America.
The Mexicans' dream passage through the tournament continued with a second decisive victory over Australia (3-0). Their place in the quarter-finals assured, they briefly took their foot off the pedal against Turkey, the competition's other great revelation. That 2-1 defeat was of little importance though, and at the quarter-final stage, the Mexicans began firing on all cylinders again.
Trailing in Piura to a plucky Costa Rican side who knew their opponents' game by heart, the Tricolores kept on plugging away. Jésus Ramirez tinkered with the tactical system no less than four times during the game, with the result that his players finally found the breakthrough with two minutes left on the clock. The way his young colts proceeded to demolish the Ticos in extra time (3-1) proved portentous of things to come.
In the semi-final at Chiclayo, the Mexicans literally tore apart the Dutch, scoring four times (4-0) and completely dominating the encounter. Their system was built around the "baby" of the team, Giovani Dos Santos, a near faultless striker/playmaker on the books of Barcelona whose remarkable vision and stunning technique testify to his Brazilian roots and make him an obvious candidate for future greatness.
There now remained a sole but sizeable hurdle on the Mexicans' path to glory: the Brazilian giants in the final. The young Mexicans were anything but intimidated. Superior in speed, technique and efficiency, they breached the reigning world champions' rearguard three times for no reply. This comprehensive 3-0 triumph equalled the record margin of victory in an U-17 final (recorded by France in 2001).
"My players form a complete unit, which was what made all the difference," declared Ramirez. And it is certainly true that this is a team without flaws. From accomplished goalkeeper Sergio Arias to ace striker Carlos Vela, by way of defender Efrain Valdez and midfielder Cesar Villaluz, everyone performed his duties to perfection, orchestrated by the young wizard Dos Santos. That Mexico finished not only as tournament top scorers (16 goals) but also with the meanest defence (3 goals conceded) is evidence of this. Sombreros off to them!
Past masters come unstuck in final
There can be few occasions when a finalist has fallen so far short of expectations. After all, the Brazilians were appearing in their fifth final in six tournaments and won the title in 1997, 1999 and 2003. When you have a record like that, coming second ranks as a major disappointment, but Brazil nonetheless played some great football in Peru.
Admittedly, they made a disastrous start with a surprise defeat at the hands of Gambia (3-1), but the Auriverde machine was soon ticking over nicely. Victorious over the Netherlands (2-1) and Qatar (6-0), they eventually outmanoeuvred the lively Koreans (3-1) in the quarters, before defeating gallant Turkey in the semi-finals after an epic encounter. But in the final against the awesome Mexicans, the absence of Renato and Anderson proved too great a loss to overcome.
As always, the Seleçao showcased a clutch of rare talents who will surely make names for themselves over the years to come. The first to come to mind is Anderson, the playmaker with a seemingly inexhaustible box of tricks, closely followed by rangy forward Ramon, fox in the box Renato and Celso, the midfield metronome. Suffice to say that the Brazilian well of talent shows no sign of drying up...
In a tournament deemed very open from the start, a few sides still managed to surprise everyone. The first of these, Gambia, were also the most unlucky. African champions at this level and drawn in what looked like the most difficult group with Brazil, the Netherlands and Qatar, the Young Scorpions were on a steep learning curve, but after two victories in as many games, they looked capable of graduating with flying colours.
The powerfully built striker Momodou Ceesay showed real talent and could well go on to great things. However, just as the Africans were looking to rubber-stamp their quarter-final place, defeat in the last group match against the Dutch proved fatal, as they were eliminated from the tournament on goal difference despite their six-point tally.
Another great surprise came in the shape of Korea DPR. Having already created a sensation by reaching the Asian Championship final, the Koreans started slowly in Peru, but once they warmed up made a superb impression. In doing so, they humbled Côte d'Ivoire (3-0) and sent Italy packing (1-1), before going down with quite a fight against Brazil (3-1 a.e.t). The secret of their success? Speed, skill and seamless teamwork.
Last but not certainly not least in terms of surprise packages come Turkey. The maturity evident in their play was on a par with that of Mexico and augurs well for the future of Ottoman football. Within a side that seemed to tick over like a Swiss clock, a few components glinted brightest. First there was Caner Erkin, a tireless right midfielder. then Tevfik Kose, a clinical striker, but most prominent of all was Nuri Sahin, their splendid no. 10, whose future at the top level of the game looks assured.
As the icing on the cake, the Turks served up what will no doubt go down as the finest game of the tournament, their 4-3 semi-final defeat by Brazil, in which Sahin struck a goal of stupendous quality. The latter stages of their tournament may not have gone exactly to plan, but it is clear that this team has a dazzling future ahead of it.
Africa drops off the pace, CONCACAF growing in power
At continental level, a few interesting trends can be detected from the Peruvian event. The first amounts to the continued decline of the African sides who for so long ruled the roost in FIFA's junior competitions. In 2003, none of them managed to reach the quarter-finals, and that scenario was repeated again this year. Ghana may not have lost any games, but their lack of inspiration was a big letdown. Côte d'Ivoire, despite having some good individuals, came unstuck due to excessive naivety. At least Gambia have a legitimate case for blaming bad luck.
Asia, in contrast, performed excellently, providing two of the quarter-final constituents (Korea DPR and China). Let the world take note: Asian sides are no longer mere makeweights. Europe, meanwhile, once again emerged creditably from the first-round encounters, but then failed to stay the course during the second phase. Having said that, the Turks and Dutch both showed that youth football is thriving in Europe. But the real sensation came from the North, Central American and Caribbean Confederation, whose trio of representatives all reached at least the quarter-finals (United States, Costa Rica and Mexico). Displaying impressive maturity, they no longer have cause to envy the world's "big" sides.
*Australia, Brazil, PR of China, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, United States, Gambia, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, The Netherlands, Peru, Qatar, Korea DPR, Turkey, Uruguay
Stadiums and cities:
Elías Aguirre stadium (Chiclayo), Max Augustin stadium (Iquitos), Nacional stadium (Lima), Miguel Grau stadium (Piura), Mansiche stadium (Trujillo)
*111 (average: 3.47 goals per game)
*5 goals: Carlos Vela (MEX)
4 goals: Nuri Sahin (TUR), Tevfik Kosé (TUR)