“Thank you, Cali!” read a banner held up by the New Zealand players on Friday evening as they left the field, faces full of disappointment. Although in theory they still had a chance of progressing, the youngsters from Oceania knew after their 1-0 defeat by Portugal that they would go into their final group match with the homeward journey beckoning.

“We’re upset, because we were hoping to go further,” coach Chris Milicich reflected. “The tournament was a great adventure for us, and we’ve learned some important lessons for the future.”

The memories will remain, and not just for the Kiwis. When the tears of disappointment have dried, the teams will look back on the good times they have enjoyed in Colombia – their experiences, the fun they had and, above all, the country and its people, which the competing teams have taken into their heart over the past few weeks. Everywhere in the stadiums teams expressed their pleasure at the terrific support they have experienced from the local fans.

Great expectations
The disappointment was particularly acute for Uruguay, who like New Zealand were eliminated after recording just two points from their three matches. After the country’s most recent international successes – semi-finalists at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa last year, second place in this summer’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico, and especially victory in the Copa America last month, expectations in Colombia were sky-high. 

That made the let-down all the greater when La Celeste failed to make it past the group stage. “This is a painful moment for us, and as you can imagine, the mood in the dressing-room is very down,” said coach Juan Verzeri after the match.

Austria must also have expected better than finishing their Group E campaign, like Panama, with just a solitary point. Having made the semi-finals four years ago in Canada, the Austrians performed well below expectations this time out. “The quality of the squad turned out not to be good enough to stay in the tournament,” coach Andreas Heraf lamented.

This is a painful moment for us, and as you can imagine, the mood in the dressing-room is very down.

Juan Verzeri, Uruguay coach

Learning experience
The coaches of Panama and Korea DPR, neither of which – like Austria – managed to score a goal, described the tournament as a learning experience. “Clearly the pressure of playing in a World Cup was too big,” said Panama’s coach Alfredo Poyatos of his side’s performance in Colombia.

His counterpart from Korea saw positive elements in the team’s play despite their early exit. “We had the opportunity to learn from three big teams,” said coach Jo Tong-Sop of the matches against Argentina, Mexico and England. “I believe that this experience will help us to improve and to come back stronger in the future.”

Mali managed neither a goal nor a point, although their prospects never looked too bright in a group including the host nation, UEFA European Under-19 champions France and Korea Republic. Although the Africans went on to lose all three games by the same 2-0 scoreline, coach Sekou Diallo went home with positive thoughts in mind. “Mali has a strong team that has developed considerably by comparison with a few years ago,” he said. “Unfortunately we did not fully do ourselves justice here.”

The Australians had a different sort of lesson in their final match, finding themselves 4-0 down after just 18 minutes of dazzling football from Spain. Although the young Socceroos went into the match with qualification in their own hands, it took just a quarter of an hour for them to realize that their Colombian adventure was over. “The World Cup is now finished for us, but it was a fantastic experience for the players to take part in the tournament,” said coach Jan Versleijen.

Joy and despair
Croatia were made painfully aware of the fine line separating joy and despair. Having gone into the event with high expectations, the Balkan nation crashed out at the group stage without even a point. In what amounted to a sudden-death play-off with a place in the last eight at stake, the Croatians were beaten by Guatemala, who sealed a surprise spot in the Round of 16.

While the Central Americans celebrated their progress to the next stage, the Croatian players sat on the pitch in disbelief, unable to come to terms with what had just happened. “Going out is especially painful because we had such high expectations,” said coach Ivan Grnja. “I’m sorry for the people of Armenia, who gave us so much support in our games there.”

But even Croatia, once the initial sporting disappointment has faded, will look back with warm memories of their unforgettable experience in Colombia.