The backdrop for the next FIFA U-17 World Championship to be staged from 13 to 30 September 2001 is the exotic islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Will France, who are treading virgin ground at this level, soon be able to settle their accounts?
When you first touch down on the tarmac of Tobago's tiny airport after flying over the narrow slice of sea separating Tobago from its big sister, Trinidad, you immediately think that paradise must be just around the corner. A kaleidoscope of sparkling colours, clusters of coconut palms, the sound of the waves mingling melodiously with the steel bands playing traditional music with a rhythm that beckons you to escape. And, more often than not, everything is sweltering under a golden sun. And there is a ready smile on the faces of the local people.
But in a few weeks, this eldorado mirage will have to be locked up in the dressing rooms so that everyone can concentrate entirely on another activity equally replete with passion - football. It is the first time in the history of FIFA that such a small country will be organising an international competition - the Under-17 World Championship. The local organising committee has been working relentlessly for months to ensure the success of this sporting event for Trinidad and Tobago at the start of the new millennium, under the baton of a distinguished conductor in the shape of Jack Warner, Vice President of FIFA and President of CONCACAF.
All the powers that be in the country have been harnessed to tackle the challenge ahead. No fewer than four stadia have been built especially for the occasion. Each of them has been named after local sporting celebrities whose reputations have long spread far beyond the shores of the Caribbean Sea.
In this year’s European Championship final, Spain (top) defeated France 1-0. France’s U-17 want to make history in the Caribbean (bottom).
Finally, the existing Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain (Trinidad), the capital, will be the setting for the opening game, the final and the national team's first-round matches.
As usual, the table of teams that have qualified for the final competition is an array of attractive talent. Brazil have already won the championship twice (in 1997 and 1999) and will be going all out to make it an unprecedented three. Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso will be trying to reaffirm the African continent's supremacy in this world championship in which Africa has already pocketed half of the titles. Australia, unlucky finalists in the last competition (beaten 8-7 by Brazil in the penalty shoot-out), and the USA, semi-finalists in 1999, will be going there with healthy ambitions. Trinidad and Tobago, appearing for the first time at this level, will be relying on staunch support from the locals. Asia's representatives are more than mere outsiders. Paraguay, Costa Rica and Croatia could easily turn out to be the killjoys. Argentina, Spain and France will all be in winning mode to add a title to their list of honours that has so far escaped them.
France will be turning up with a high-calibre team that recently held out to Spain, the indisputable rulers in this category in Europe, at the continental championship in Sunderland (England) in May. "Les Bleuets" did not buckle until a penalty was awarded to the Spaniards four minutes from the final whistle. This was a huge disappointment to the World Champions' heirs who had, up to that moment, scored 17 goals against their opponents without having conceded one. "It is always a big let-down to lose a final," commented Jean-François Jodar, the French youth team coach afterwards.
France, champions of the world, of Europe and the FIFA Confederations Cup Korea/Japan 2001, have never been a shining light in the under-17 category. They have, in fact, only ever made it once to the final competition. "We have never had the luck," claims Jodar. "We have finished fourth in the Euro on four occasions and so have always just missed the boat. The European zone is very selective because it only allows three finalists out of fifty-one countries." In 1987, the team coached at that time by Jean-Pierre Morlans (who will, incidentally, be in Trinidad and Tobago as a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group) featured a certain Emmanuel Petit in its ranks. After battling through a difficult first round and sweeping Brazil aside in the process, the young French team succumbed to the USSR in the quarter-finals, who then went on to win the trophy.
The winning spirit
The mission consigned to Jodar's protégés will therefore consist of reversing the course of history. But the task ahead will be all uphill. The festive draw held in Tobago in spring could prove to be a Trojan horse for the French players. "Contrary to what was claimed in the French press," declared the coach, "I think I have landed in the most difficult group. In my opinion, Nigeria are the favourites among them. They are always one of the most formidable opponents and it is no coincidence that they have won the competition twice. But the United States are very athletic too. We played them at a tournament in Salerno in Italy and it was touch and go all the way. And finally, Japan, whom we played at a competition in Montaigu in France last year, gave us a run for our money."
Despite this rightly cautious analysis, the French selection is not lacking in talent. Quite the contrary. They proved it throughout the two seasons of training for the championship in Europe and made their mark on the day. "The group is very interesting because it is homogenous. That is, without doubt, the most remarkable feature. I am very lucky indeed to have about twenty players of more or less the same calibre. That will be a great help if anyone is injured," says Jodar. The fact that they will not have been involved in many matches will be something of a drawback in the French players'preparations. The league championship will have started the day before the training period is due to begin. Meanwhile, the protagonists in the European adventure will have had the chance to relive the memories of their campaign at the customary gathering of junior selections in the Fernand Sastre National Technical Centre in Clairefontaine. Then they will make the most of the last few days in France by contesting one last practice game on home ground. Before taking off for the Caribbean, the winning spirit.