2003 ended on a high note for Brazil, as the youth team capped a splendid 2002/2003 season with a world title triumph in the United Arab Emirates. What with the 2002 senior title and the U17 success in Finland, the harvest has been quite simply exceptional in scale. The Auriverdes were made to battle all the way to secure their third youth title, but in the end, the 14th edition of FIFA's second largest event provided further confirmation of South America's supremacy at youth level.
Elsewhere, Spain showed their quality again, Africa flattered to deceive, Europe generally disappointed, Australia and Canada impressed, Asia grew in strength and the United States showed their continuing progress on the world stage. But perhaps the most abiding memory of all will be the sensation created by the United Arab Emirates side led by their diminutive genius, Ismail Matar.
Brazil show fighting spirit
Brazil's road to the final in the Emirates was far from smooth. Drawn in the highly competitive Group C, the Auriverdes started off nicely with a victory over Canada (2-0), but were then held to a draw by the other group favourites, Czech Republic (1-1). The Seleçao then encountered a huge banana skin in the shape of the fearless Australians (2-3), a defeat took them to the brink of elimination, but Marcos Paqueta merely reiterated his tournament-long mantra that his team were 'not yet firing on all cylinders.'
And so it transpired, when at the last-sixteen stage, the South Americans' form began to rise at a breathtaking rate as their key individuals stamped their mark on the tournament. Daniel Alves, the Cafu-style right back, ripped opposing defences to shreds; Dudu, the impressive defensive midfielder-cum-goalscorer, grew increasingly influential; attacking midfielder Daniel Carvalho caught the eye courtesy of his typically Brazilian technique, and striker Kleber bristled with controlled aggression. The match when all these key elements knitted seamlessly together was the quarter-final, as Paqueta's protégés knocked five goals past the hapless Japanese (5-1). In contrast, the semi-final against their Argentine archrivals was almost an entirely different ball game, with Brazil having to deploy all their considerable tactical acumen to win the day (1-0). The final against Spain followed a similar pattern (1-0), as the Samba Boys belied their nickname to demonstrate that they were the most mature side in the competition, alternating Brazilian panache with tight, efficient, technical and tactical play of the highest calibre.
Good fortune deserts finalists Spain
While clearly not the most spectacular side in the UAE, the Furia Roja's consistency and technical ability quickly established them as title contenders. Captained by Andres Iniesta, a name you are sure to hear more of in the years to come, José Ufarte's charges got off to a poor start with a defeat at the hands of Argentina, before steadying their ship in expert fashion. Their star performers included striker Sergio Garcia, goalkeeper Riesgo, midfielder Gavilan and the aforementioned Iniesta. The selección's number 8 stood out on account of his astute reading of the game, neat finishing and fighting spirit.
In the final itself, Spain's already daunting task was rendered nigh on impossible as early as the fourth minute, when Melli was red-carded to gift Brazil numerical dominance. As is so often the case, however, the 10 men responded to adversity by raising their game, although the breakthrough their bravery merited continued to elude them.
South America, king of the footballing jungle
The South American continent emerged from UAE 2003 as the dominant force, with three of its four representatives reaching the semi-finals to make up the same final foursome as in Finland for last summer's U17s.
Argentina may have capitulated to Brazil in the semi-final, but before then they had won all their group matches and shown nerves of steel at the last sixteen and quarter-final stages. Along the way, Fernando Cavenaghi and Javier Mascherano were the pick of their players. Colombia, meanwhile, enjoyed a fine campaign while not attracting any great fanfare. Their high point came in the last sixteen against Ireland Republic, when they snatched victory with a golden goal at the culmination of a breathtaking encounter. In a side that displayed a tremendous team ethic, the performances of striker Edixon Perea and goalkeeper Hector Landazuri stood out.
While Africa made up some lost ground in the wake of a disastrous U17 campaign (no representatives in the last sixteen), their achievements in the UAE were not a patch on previous years. None of the four CAF countries made it through to the quarter-finals, a level of failure last endured by the continent back in 1991. But bright sparks in an otherwise bleak picture included Arouna Kone and Antonin Koutouan of Côte d'Ivoire. The performances of UEFA's representatives, meanwhile, were scarcely more encouraging. Although Spain put a gloss on Europe's achievements by reaching the final, the continent's five other participants did not exactly set the world alight. Two of them (Ireland and Slovakia) battled through to the last sixteen, but further progress proved beyond them
On a more positive note, the development of the so-called 'minnow' continents, observed at Japan/Korea 2002, continued apace. Canada and the United States both suffered narrow quarter-final defeats and presented a high standard of play throughout. Japan, the United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser extent, Korea, flew the flag high for Asia, while Australia produced the shock of the tournament with their first-round win over Brazil, before succumbing to the bewitching powers of the Emirates' Ismail Matar in the last sixteen.
Ismail Matar, the star who appeared in the east
Before the start of the competition, those who had heard of him were few and far between, but by the tournament's close, the name of adidas Golden Ball-winner Ismail Matar was on everyone's lips. The Al Wahda striker, who already lines up his country's senior side, almost single-handedly hauled his team as far as the quarter-finals. His vitality, dribbling skills, passing ability and fearsome shooting caused a sensation whenever he took to the pitch. At last sixteen stage, he dispatched Australia with a wonder strike, and despite failing to repeat his exploits in the quarter-final with Colombia, Matar made a lasting impression. If he can continue in the same vein, this is one young man whose future looks decidedly golden.
Germany, England, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Mexico, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Spain, United States, Japan, Mali, Uzbekistan, Panama, Paraguay, Korea Republic, Ireland Republic, Czech Republic, Slovakia.
Zayed City Sports Stadium, Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium (Abu Dhabi), Sheikh Khalifa Stadium (Al Ain), Al Maktoum Stadium, Rashid Stadium (Dubai), Sharjah Stadium (Sharjah).
Number of goals: 118 (average: 2.27 per match)
4 goals: Ed Johnson (USA), Dudu (BRA), Daisuke Sakata (JPN), Fernando Cavenaghi (ARG)