FIFTEEN visiting teams and hosts Trinidad and Tobago will square off in the September 13-30 Fifa Under-17 World Championship, to be played at four new stadiums around the country and the Hasely Crawford National Stadium.
For the most part, the young players are completely unknown to local fans, as is the footballing history of some of the nations at this level.
Today, the Sunday Express presents features on the last of four groups involved in the contest for the prestigious title.
Group A is in the spotlight. The four teams—Australia, defending champions Brazil, Croatia and Trinidad and Tobago—will play their first round matches at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain.
FROM kick off at 1 p.m. on Thursday, September 13, it is almost inevitable that the Hasely Crawford Stadium would enjoy the largest influx of supporters for the 2001 Fifa Under-17 World Championship.
But it would be wrong to assume that this is merely a result of the presence of the host nation, Trinidad and Tobago, in Group A.
Group B outfits may argue that, with the likes of Japan, France, Nigeria and the United States, they deserve the title “group of death”.
If Bacolet, Tobago seems an attractive proposition to the “Grim Reaper”, surely the Crawford Stadium would be the ideal destination for football historians and walking statistic machines.
Brazil, not for the first time, should be the main drawing card for non-partisan supporters.
The prestigious international youth title would arguably be most cherished by the Brazilian teenagers for more than one reason.
Firstly, it would offer tangible evidence that the land of samba is still the pace setter in the “beautiful game” despite recent dismal performances in the higher age groups and at senior level.
Perhaps more importantly for historians, though, a Brazil victory would make the South Americans the first country to win the Under-17 title for the third time—an honour that can also be achieved by an African team, Nigeria.
It will also be Brazil’s third consecutive win in this tournament after successes in New Zealand (1999) and Egypt (1997).
The output of creative midfield star, Leandro do Bonfim, is key to their eventual placing.
Leandro, who hopes to join Bebeto, Dida and Vampeta as famous products of the Vitoria FC youth system, is considered a throwback to the traditional Brazilian offensive midfielder a la Zico or Didi. Big shoes to fill, but then Leandro is also expected to emulate Romario and Ronaldo as well when he joins Dutch team PSV Eindhoven at the end of the tournament.
He hopes to take a Fifa Under-17 Championship gold medal with him.
“We have to win, whatever it takes,” said Leandro. “I have not had the chance to watch the other teams in action, but we have what it takes to be the champions again.
“We are going after a third title, and when we want something badly enough and have God on our side then anything is possible.”
Leandro and company may find their first opponent to also be their toughest.
There can be no doubt that Australia also consider themselves title contenders.
Two years ago, only the lottery of the penalty shoot-out separated the Aussies from Brazil in the 1999 final after a 0-0 draw at the end of regulation time.
Coach Ange Postecogluo would not have to wait long for revenge as they open their campaign against the defending champions on September 14.
This group of Australian under-17s have only lost once since coming together, which, ironically, was their last game on a recently-concluded tour of Miami.
United States’ Major League Soccer (MLS) team Tampa Bay Mutiny whipped the Aussies 4-1 on September 4, but Postecogluo is unfazed.
“We felt it was important that, before we go to Trinidad & Tobago, to give the boys a couple of difficult games,” said Postecogluo. “And, with the Mutiny in particular, the kind of physical test they’ve not had before.”
A tough, hard-running team, Australia have regularly showed the ability to dismantle weaker outfits.
Oceania minnows American Samoa fell victim to a ruthless 30-0 assault during their qualifying campaign, while opponents like Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were also comprehensively dismissed.
Striker Jay Lucas, who is attached to English Premier League team Southampton, will be their “go to” man up front.
He should be ably assisted by Southampton teammate and midfielder Darren Broxton and strike partner Brett Holman.
But there is no doubt that captain Carl Valeri is the leader of the team.
A tall, strong player who operates between the defence and midfield, Valeri stands apart for his maturity and has already been summoned to the national senior team.
The Trinidad and Tobago tournament offers an excellent opportunity for him to prove that he can lead the Aussies to greater things.
Croatian star Niko Kranjcar has a similar challenge.
Croatia, as the historians will tell you, are making their debut in this competition and Kranjcar will do his utmost to ensure that it is as spectacular as their maiden World Cup appearance in 1998, when they finished third overall.
Coach Martin Novoseleac, for one, insists that his team are no underdogs.
“We are not a surprise anymore,” said the Croat coach. “Croatian teams are becoming regular contenders in both European and World Championships at all levels. Everyone is used to us now.
“In England, we showed we have another talented generation.”
England learnt that lesson the hard way as Croatia crushed their hosts 4-1 in the third place play-off to qualify for the Trinidad and Tobago finals.
Kranjcar, who is already a member of the Dinamo Zagreb squad, is the darling of the crop. A tall, attacking player, he compensates for his lack of pace with superb ball skills and technique and seems destined to attract much media attention.
The tournament’s opening match will be as good a time as any for the teenager to announce his arrival to international football.
Trinidad and Tobago coach Rene Simoes will do his utmost to ensure that Kranjcar says little, though.
It is a tall order for the host team, dubbed “Team 2001”, who have progressed rapidly since the appointment of Simoes last May.
But was it enough to tame the world’s elite young football teams?
Captain Roderick Anthony and his teammates have at least three games in which to answer that question.
Simoes, who has pleaded for more vocal support from the home fans, has sensibly constructed a team built more on containing than outclassing opponents.
Out went an open 4-4-2 system used by axed Nigerian coach Chief Adegboye Onigbinde and, in his place, Simoes introduced a more cautious 3-5-2 plan which is conducive to a close marking game.
The Brazilian coach, who has experienced this level of competition with Brazil and Jamaica, knows the magnitude of the task that awaits them.
“You are the weakest team in the group,” said Simoes, soon after his appointment. “So you have to make some protections and try to make something to surprise them.”
A 2-2 draw in a friendly against Oman last Friday showed that there is still a lot to be said for common sense.
An ice-cool finish from Jerol Forbes to tie the scores at two-apiece would have caught the eye of scouts at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.
The tall, elegant Forbes should partner the equally imposing Nkosi Blackman—who is recovering from a groin injury—up front for Team 2001.
Behind them, diminutive playmaker Devon Leacock should shoulder the team’s creative burden, if he manages to shake off a string of nagging injuries which can probably be attributed to his small frame.
But it is athletic goalkeeper Marvin Phillip who is likely to have the most opportunities to establish a reputation for himself.
And, while he is busy at the back, he will hope that Blackman and Forbes put away one or two of the chances that come their way.
Trinidad and Tobago are still awaiting their first goal after three barren games for coach Bertille St Clair’s “Soca Babes” in the 1991 Under-20 World Cup in Portugal.
It is that statistic which would most concern Trinidad and Tobago football historians.