'Three is a magic number' goes the old song and FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 winners Nigeria are unlikely to disagree. The tournament has now been held three times on Asian soil and, having scaled the heights at China 1985 and Japan 1993, the Africans will now leave the continent with their third global crown. No doubt less than enamoured with the number three, opponents Spain have now reached three finals and tasted defeat in every single one.
Yemi Tella's Nigerians appeared potential candidates for the main prize right from the off, and were certainly not lacking in confidence. "We'll take the trophy back to Nigeria," announced the African champions' coach, and those words seem more than a little prophetic now. France, Japan, Haiti, Colombia, Argentina and Germany all fell by the wayside, unable to cope with tireless captain Lukman Haruna in midfield, technically-superb duo Rabiu Ibrahim and King Osanga and goal-scorer extraordinaire Macauley Chrisantus.
Fearsome going forward, Nigeria proved against Spain in the final that they are also rock solid at the back. And while it was their forwards who took most of the plaudits in the earlier rounds, it was goalkeeper Oladele Ajiboye who emerged as the hero when it mattered, following 120 minutes of goalless football and a penalty shoot-out. Asier Illarramendi missed the target altogether, but Ajiboye denied both Fran Merida and Iago, which meant successful attempts from Matthew Edile, Daniel Joshua and Ganiyu Oseni earned the Golden Eaglets their third title to equal Brazil's record.
In the Spanish camp, some will no doubt wonder what could have been if Bojan had been leading the line. The FC Barcelona striker was in scintillating form until the semi-finals, only to miss out on the showpiece match through suspension, and Juan Santisteban's side were certainly weaker without his experience, technique and vigour. As a result, they end the tournament as runners-up, just as their predecessors did at Italy 1991 and Finland 2003.
Germany take bronze, Kroos takes gold
Back on the global stage after an eight-year absence, Germany touched down in Korea without too much fanfare. They are generating plenty of noise now, though, proud and suitably content with their excellent third-place finish after starting the competition as unknowns. Indeed, coach Heiko Herrlich was only appointed two months before the festivities began, but he was able to assemble a team that thrilled spectators with heavy doses of skill and suspense.
They kicked off with a mouth-watering 3-3 draw with Colombia, swept past Trinidad and Tobago 5-0 and took top spot in Group F with a 3-2 win over Ghana, before star man Toni Kroos powered them to a 2-0 Round of 16 victory over the USA and a 4-1 demolition of England in the last eight. Nigeria proved too strong in the semi-finals, but their reunion with Ghana in the match for third place produced a 2-1 success and a place on the podium.
They also boasted the tournament's top player in Kroos, who picked up the adidas Golden Ball ahead of Nigeria's Chrisantus and Spain's Bojan. Scorer of five goals, the talented midfielder took his team to another level thanks to a combination of exquisite technique, outstanding vision and deadly set-pieces. And in a typical demonstration of his worth, the Bayern Munich playmaker capped his stay in Korea with a sumptuous free-kick strike plus a late assist in the match for third place.
Chrisantus took the adidas Silver Ball, but the deadly marksman is hardly wanting for awards of the golden variety. Aside from his gold medal as part of Nigeria's victorious team, he collected the adidas Golden Shoe as top scorer with seven strikes. As for Bojan, the Spaniard lived up to all the rave reviews heading into the tournament and will long regret the second yellow card he picked up against Ghana in the semi-finals. Having just fired in the winner, the Barça ace denied himself a place in the Final and perhaps even the adidas Golden Ball itself when he received his marching orders during stoppage-time.
On the eve of Korea 2007, three of the sides involved looked to be in a league of their own. Three-time winners Brazil, Bojan's Spain and impressive qualifiers Nigeria all stood out from the rest and many experts expected the Final to feature two of them. That meant one of the trio falling short, of course, and ultimately it was Brazil who tripped up first. Still, few could have anticipated them losing to Ghana in the Round of 16, especially not after commencing their bid with a crushing 7-0 victory over New Zealand and a similarly stark 6-1 score-line in their game against Korea DPR.
Their last-gasp defeat at the hands of England ought to have served as a warning, but Lucho Nizzo's charges seemed to freeze instead, failing to make their numerical advantage count against ten-man Ghana. The disappointment is sure to be immense back in Brazil, though players like Alex, Tales, Lulinha and Fabio all provided glimpses of an exciting future.
The USA also arrived with dreams of taking the top prize, yet losses to Tajikistan and Tunisia in their first two outings left them hanging by a thread. Triumph over Belgium in their final group game assured passage to the knockout stages, however they were powerless to stop a well-organised and clinical Germany side in the Round of 16.
In a similar vein, France and England set their sights on campaigns to match their standing in the global game, only to come unstuck in the quarter-finals. The English shone brightly in their first four matches before bowing out to Germany 4-1, while Francois Blaquart's Bleuettes came tantalisingly close to upsetting Spain. Leading 1-0 at one stage, they missed their chance to snatch victory in extra-time and consequently left themselves at the mercy of penalty kicks to decide a winner. The 2001 world champions did well to turn things around against Japan and to see off Tunisia in the Round of 16, but Spanish custodian David De Gea eventually stopped their adventure in its tracks.
Newcomers thrive, hosts disappoint
Two of the hot favourites may have contested the Final, but Korea 2007 was also notable for some encouraging performances from the newcomers. Debutants England reached the quarter-finals as mentioned earlier, while Syria and Tajikistan both qualified from the group stage on their first-ever appearances at this level. The Tajiks even sprung the first shock of the tournament when they beat the USA 4-3 in their opening fixture, and Syria had a win of their own to celebrate when they overcame Honduras 2-0, having already played out a goalless draw with Argentina and lost 2-1 to Spain. Honduras, Belgium and Togo were not able to progress, on the other hand, but each of them will have learnt valuable lessons and gained priceless experience.
Rank outsiders Haiti had a tournament to remember too, despite falling at the first hurdle. With an entire nation behind them, the islanders performed with gusto in Group D, one of the toughest in the competition, and their high point was an emotional draw with former colonial rulers France. The triumphant welcome reserved for Jean-Yves Labaze and his players bore witness to the buzz the team's displays stirred back home.
At the other end of the scale, Korea Republic's bid was a letdown from the very start. Beaten 1-0 by Peru in the opening match and then 2-0 by Costa Rica, the hosts can only look back at their 2-1 success over Togo with any fondness. In spite of that result and the support of their loyal fans, the Taeguk Warriors failed to advance in their very own FIFA U-17 World Cup. Neighbours Japan fared no better, meanwhile, and for all the efforts of talented forward Yoichiro Kakitani - scorer of one of the competition's finest goals - the Blue Samurais came away with losses to France and Nigeria and a consolation victory over Haiti.
Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Tunisia, Japan, Korea DPR, Korea Republic, Syria, Tajikistan, Germany, England, Belgium, Spain, France, Costa Rica, USA, Haiti, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru.
Cities and stadiums:
Changwon Main Stadium (Changwon), Cheonan Sports Complex (Cheonan), Goyang Stadium (Goyang), Gwangyang Soccer Only Field (Gwangyang), Jeju FIFA World Cup Stadium (Jeju), Seoul FIFA World Cup Stadium (Seoul), Suwon Sports Complex (Suwon), Ulsan Complex Stadium (Ulsan).
165 (average per match: 3.17)
7 goals: Macauley Chrisantus (NGA)
6 goals: Ransford Osei (GHA)
5 goals: Toni Kroos (GER), Bojan (ESP)