IT was an event that lived up to expectations in virtually every sense. Once again, the 2001 FIFA World Under-17 Championship featured a high level of exciting football, devoid of all the defensive tactics and unadventurous pragmatism that has plagued the game at senior level. As always, some of the best displays in the competition occurred during the quarterfinal stage and, not surprisingly, African teams performed exceptionally well in this championship, with all three of the continent’s representatives reaching the last eight.
All the major characteristics that have defined this tournament during its 16-year history were exhibited in Trinidad and Tobago last month, and the major beneficiaries were the local football fans. Thanks in part to nostalgically cheap ticket prices, the people flocked to the various stadia to witness the games and were rewarded with a feast of top-notch football, featuring several memorable contests and some great goals. As usual, the most attractive brand of soccer was sold by Brazil. The defending champions dominated their first round group with their classic short-passing style and finished the initial stage with a 100 percent record. The same feat was also achieved by Nigeria, whose game was based on speed, stamina and power. But, overall, the teams all played positive, adventurous football. The desire to win at this level far outstripped fear of losing and, as such, the games were generally entertaining, with an average of more than three goals per game.
What helped the competition a lot was the great interest shown by the local public. First of all, there was the great patriotic following of the home side that was applauded by technical director Rene Simoes. In addition, by the second round of group matches everyone seemed to know that the top teams were Brazil, Nigeria, France, Burkina Faso and Argentina. Some players also became well known, including Trinidad and Tobago’s Nkosi Blackman, Brazil’s Leandro and Caetano, France’s Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Femi Opunbunmi of Nigeria and Wilfried Sanou (Burkina Faso).
The World Under-17 Championship is all about raw potential and, in this regard, the African players stood out. On many occasions they were simply too quick, too fit and too skillful for their opponents. These qualities were very much evident during Nigeria’s 5-1 quarterfinal annihilation of Australia. Australia’s players simply could not cope with the speed of their Nigerian counterparts on the break and gave up four goals during the last 20 minutes of the encounter. Burkina Faso and Mali also proved to be tenacious opponents. Like Nigeria, both teams were potent on the counterattack and had a knack of wearing down their rivals. Hence, one can see why African sides have been so successful in this competition. However, as South Africa national team coach Carlos Queiroz recently pointed out in World Soccer, young African players in comparison to their counterparts from other continents - are still at a disadvantage in terms of facilities and equipment. He said that, while the immense level of talent is definitely there, African players still need a “better coaching environment” and a “better understanding of the tactics of the game.” Such deficiencies help explain why players from Europe and South America, on the whole, tend to develop more all round than African players and why the level of African success that we have seen in this competition, has been less pronounced at the under-20 and senior World Cups.
With Argentina reaching the semifinals and Brazil the quarters, South America had a good tournament, with Paraguay being most unfortunate not to have advanced past the first stage. By contrast, all the Asian representatives were eliminated in the first round: continental champions, Oman, showed the technique that carried the country to fourth place in the 1995 competition and to the quarterfinals in 1997, but it was not enough this time around; Iran lost all three of its group games; Japan defeated the USA in its opener but was simply outclassed by both Nigeria and France. The performance of the French was a boost to Europe, though Spain did show evidence of being a classy side before poor preparation took its toll. Croatia lacked depth and it showed.
Costa Rica’s first ever appearance in the quarterfinals was the gleaming light in an otherwise dismal performance for the Football Confederation. The United States was a disappointment, with its top players - Eddie Johnson apart - failing to deliver the expected goods. Trinidad and Tobago also lost all of its games but, thanks to the emergency preparation effort carried out under the auspices of Simoes, the spectacular disaster forecast by everyone, failed to materialize. Instead, the home side played to the best of its ability and demonstrated admirable levels of maturity, confidence and fighting spirit. In fact, such displays served as an indictment against the former coaching setup, headed by Nigerian Adegboye Onigbinde. Over a period of two, years the team rarely played and, even when it did, the results were abysmal. The players were lacking in several technical areas and local football authorities seemed unconcerned for the most part. This was until June, when the realization suddenly dawned that a world tournament was going to be held here soon and that the Trinidad and Tobago team was extremely far from being ready. Under Simoes, new players were tried and brought in, discipline was instituted and several practice games were played. The end result was the national side generally held its own during the competition and one was left thinking what could have happened had the Trinidad and Tobago team been properly handled from earlier on.
Buoyed by the success of the event, the TTFF has announced its intention to bid for the 2004 Football Confederation Gold Cup and the 2007 World Youth (Under-20) Championship. Both tournaments will represent even greater challenges than the World Under-17 Championship. The Gold Cup is the region’s premier football event and has, so far, only been held in the USA and Mexico; the World Youth Championship features 24 teams, thus raising questions over playing venues and accommodation. Will the existing stadia be adequate enough to stage a total of 52 matches? Will there be enough hotels in six years time for the greater number of teams, fans and media personnel?
Only a few players from the under-17 level are expected to make it to the top. Hence it is likely that the majority of the players whom we witnessed last month will not earn full international caps for their countries. It is not until the under-20 level, where the experience and maturity of the players is dramatically higher, that one gets a much better idea of whom the future stars of football are likely to be. It is for this reason that the under-20 event is considered much more important than the under-17 version and, thus, comes under even greater scrutiny from the world audience.
However, for now, the ninth World Under-17 Championship turned out to be the greatest ever football event staged in Trinidad and Tobago. A huge debt of gratitude is owed to the fans who turned out in welcome numbers and the teams and players who provided so much good football. The facilities are now there, along with a renewed interest in football. Hopefully, the TTFF can now capitalize on all that has happened. This is the perfect scenario for establishing a development structure targeting ALL young footballers and not just the members of the under-17 team. It is imperative that both the TTFF youth leagues and the Secondary Schools Football League achieve a much higher standard of play, so as to increase the likelihood of this country’s players performing well in the international arena.