Stars of the U-17 FIFA World Cup… Present, Past & …

The U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017 is the first FIFA tournament hosted by India. Indranath Mukherjee is taking a look at the potential of some of the young talents playing in the tournament and remembering some of the names from earlier tournaments hoping that this is the beginning that may change the future of Indian football.

George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah assumed the office of the Senator of Liberia from Montserrado County on 14 January 2015. But people who followed their football in the 1990s would still remember him as a first-rate centre-forward and he remains, till date, the only African player to win the Ballon d’Or (in 1995). Coming from the West African coastal country of Republic of Liberia, George Weah had an illustrious career at Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and AC Milan. His son Timothy Weah, now playing in India in the under-17 FIFA World Cup has already signed his first professional contract with PSG tying the United States youth international to the Parc des Princes until 2020. Tim, born in New York, joined Les Parisiens’ youth academy in 2014 and stood out for PSG in the UEFA Youth League last season and scored three times. Only future can tell if he will reach his father’s stature in terms of footballing achievement, but he is surely one of the stars of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017.

Komal Thatal, the boy from Sikkim who looks distinctive in his flashy, faux-blond hairdo doesn’t have any such footballing lineage. But the son of master tailor Arun Kumar Thatal and Sumitra has become a familiar name in India as he made a quick impression in India’s first FIFA U-17 World Cup match against USA in Delhi on October 6. He has already established himself as the creative nucleus of the Indian team in their exposure tours running into the tournament and he lived up to the reputation to some extent in the first match although the score-line may not suggest the same. If rumours are to be believed then Manchester United has been scouting for Komal and keeping track of his performance in the current tournament. The English U-17 team may miss out on the service of their finest talent Jadon Malik Sancho. The Borussia Dortmund winger has already appeared in UEFA Champions League and the club apparently has made a request to not to play Sancho in the knock-out stages of the FIFA U-17 World Cup as they want him fully fit for the next match day in Europe. The French starlet Amine Gouiri who is contract bound at Lyon until 2020 has also attracted strong interest from AC Milan and Arsenal. Flamengo U-20 striker Lincoln Correa dos Santos could become a sensation in the European transfer market in coming years. Abel Ruiz Ortega of Spain is another exciting striker who is part of FC Barcelona B and could be another star of the future.

The FIFA U17 World Cup is the platform that all of these young stars have today to showcase their talent to the world. The concept of promoting youth through various age-group World Cup events dates back to 1977. And we all probably know the biggest star that came out of one such under-age World Cup.

Diego Armando Maradona, after being dejected for missing the 1978 FIFA World Cup as the coach César Luis Menotti thought he was still too young to play at the senior level, emerged as a superstar at the second FIFA World Youth Championship – now known as FIFA U20 World Cup – in 1979 in Japan.

The first edition of the U-17 tournament, however, started as FIFA U-16 World Championship in China in 1985. The third edition of that World Cup saw the host Scotland losing out to Saudi Arabia on penalties after the final ended in an exciting 2-2 draw. The team finishing third in the tournament was Portugal, which had one the country’s biggest footballing stars. Luis Figo scored from the spot in his debut game against the Saudi Arabia. His other goal in the tournament came against Argentina in their 2-1 win in the quarter-finals.

Then in 1991, Italy, led by a certain Alessandro Del Piero, hosted the first ever U-17 World Cup but didn’t make it past the group stage. USA topped the group while Argentina finished second. Argentina eventually finished third having lost to Spain in the semi-final by a solitary goal. An Argentine midfielder who scored his only goal of the tournament which happened to be the team’s first goal of the tournament later on had a successful career in Serie A. Yes, it was the Estudiantes midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón.

Italy didn’t do too well in the next edition either. The managed to score only one goal in Japan in their group stage match against Mexico. The guy, who had scored from a distance of 30 yards, later went onto score many wonder goals for AS Roma. Apart from Francesco Totti, the 1993 U-17 World Cup also saw a lanky Nigerian scored a hat-trick in their first game. Nigeria won the championship and Nwannekaenyi Kenny Okwu Kanu’s five goals in the tournament earned him a call from Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax.

Ghana kept the championship title in Africa in 1995 by beating Brazil 3-2 in Ecuador. The Brazilian custodian Julio Cesar made his debut in the tournament against Germany and they won the match 3-0. Incidentally it will be Julio Cesar who would be under the bar against Germany in 2014 FIFA World Cup semi-final. Yes, we are speaking about that 7-1 debacle.

Egypt 1997 saw a reversal of fortune when Brazil beat Ghana 2-1 in the final. The Adidas Bronze ball winner in Egypt went onto establish himself as one of the greatest entertainers of the game. Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, aka Ronaldinho Gaúcho won the senior World Cup in 2002 and till date is the only footballer to have won both the U-17 and senior FIFA World Cup. Although Spain finished third in the tournament, two youngsters from that team went on to become world champions later – Spanish captain Iker Casillas and the midfield maestro Xavier Hernández Creus.

Xavi’s partner, another Spanish artist in midfield Andrés Iniesta Luján made his debut in U-17 World Cup in Trinidad &Tobago in 2001. Even with Fernando Torres in their ranks, that Spain team failed to progress to the knock out stages thanks to a shock defeat to the lowly Burkina Faso. Spain finally made it to the final of U-17 World Cup two years later in Finland. Although they lost to Brazil 1-0, the star of the tournament winning both the Adidas Golden Ball and Golden Boot was Francesc (Cesc) Fàbregas Soler. Spain made it to the final again in Korea 2007 but lost 0-3 on penalties to Nigeria. But the star of the tournament was from Germany who had finished third. The Adidas Golden Ball winner Toni Kroos, later went on to win the FIFA World Cup in 2014.

Germany did not do that well two years later as they crashed out of group stage in Nigeria. After an exciting 3-3 draw with the host, they faced Argentina in their second group match. They took the lead in the 8th minute of the match but Argentina came back from behind and won the game 2-1. The guy who scored for Germany in the 8th minute scored against Argentina again, in 113th minute in the extra time in a FIFA World Cup final five years later. None other than, Mario Götze.

From the names of these players, the kind of impact most of them have had at a later stage, one thing is for sure. The U-17 World Cup is the launching pad for some of the big names in football. Although U-17 football is still not as organized as U-20 age group, it remains the first platform for the young talents to represent their countries. For India, U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017 is a big deal. The Government of India and All India Football Federation (AIFF) have invested significantly on the team in the last few years. The players have travelled across the world to play exposure matches and in spite of significant difference in physical ability and skill, the team have shown some character in the tournament. AIFF wants to hold on to the group and prepare them for the 22nd edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup. India has already places its bid to host the tournament and for them to do better in 2019, some of the players need more professional set-up to mature at the desired level. The goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem has shown immense ability and confidence, and if he gets into the youth team of a club in Europe, we will see a much more improved Dheeraj in two years. The same applies for the likes of Amarjit Kiyam, Abhijit Sarkar, Jeakson Singh, Komal Thatal, Sanjeev Stalin and others. Let’s hope that U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017 is a beginning for India in the international football arena.

Cover Image Credit: FIFA.com

The Three Halves and Halves Nots

A few months ago the media was awash with reports that FIFA was toying with the idea of introducing three halves of thirty minutes each in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Though I couldn’t find any official statement from FIFA confirming this (in fact they had swiftly moved to refute the rumours), I can’t wait for this strategy to be introduced. It may turn out to be one of the most important innovations in football, comparable to the banning of snoods and booking players for taking off their shirt.

For starters, the term “three halves” is path breaking in itself. It can potentially change the entire footballing paradigm where every match, in fact, becomes a match and a half. It is straight out of the Kevin Keegan world of football expressions where there is no bigger honour than being the second best team in the world, where there isn’t anyone bigger or smaller than Maradona. With it, FIFA can scale the marketing heights of Woolworth or Sainsbury’s by offering three matches at the price of two tickets. Besides, with two half time breaks, they must come up with appropriate names for them too. Taking a cue from cricket, the breaks could be named tea and high tea, or supper and dinner depending on when the game is played, and embellished with appropriate sponsorships.

Beyond these obvious marketing and promotional opportunities, there are other ways to leverage the third half to make the beautiful game even more beautiful. The basic game of football has not changed since it started. It has always been played in two halves where two teams, comprising 11 players, fight for a ball. Tournaments like Moretti were a whole new ball game though. Now with three halves, FIFA will be well-equipped to introduce three-way match ups, much like the three-way elimination matches so widespread and popular in professional wrestling. Let us try to understand how it will work. In a match between Team A, B and C – Team A plays Team B, Team B plays Team C while Team C plays Team A in the first, second and third halves respectively. The goal difference for each team over the three halves is computed and the team with the highest goal difference declared the winner. If there is more than one team with the highest goal difference, the points are split. In case of knock-out matches without a clear winner, there are two or three-way penalty shootouts as necessary. Three-way penalty shootouts work in exactly the same way as the three-way match.

The question is what is in it for FIFA, apart from revenue, that is. Well, with three-way match ups of 90 minutes split in three halves, FIFA will be able to increase the number of participating teams from 32 to 48 with zero overhead. This is likely to reduce the chances of global favourites such as England missing the tournament by bowing out in the qualifiers.  Besides, with more teams participating, TV revenue will also surge.

However, in the mundane world of domestic and continental football, it will not be justifiable to have three-way matches for the simple reason that to maintain the traditional home and away format, the number of matches will increase beyond control and the schedule will become unmanageable. Nevertheless, an idea as radical and path-breaking as a game of three halves has its advantages. The domestic and continental competitions can continue to be held between two teams, but introduction of the extra half will add value to the player and spectator experience, as well as introduce avenues for new tactical thinking. In the following paragraphs I shall explain how.

One aspect football has not been able to market is the toss. It is such a trivial affair in the game that nobody but the referee is usually bothered about it. However, this third half might just give the toss a new lease of life. Journalists can spend column inches on which way the wind will blow, while broadcasters can perhaps slip in a weather report into the match preview. We may also have a full-fledged pitch report where the venerable experts will pick up blades of grass and blow them in the air, measure the hardness of the soil in various areas, especially the penalty box and provide expert comments. Captains will be interrogated on their decision and blasted or commended on it, and the armchair fan will have another topic to ruminate on. Of course, all the while the camera will silently follow them around to seize every moment that can enhance the drawing room-audience experience. What’s more, it will positively contribute to the employment scenario as meteorologists and geologists will now be added to the entourage of coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, dietitians, nutritionists, psychologists, philosophers and the likes.

Most football fans will agree that time added on due to injuries and substitutions, is fast becoming one of the most intriguing topics of discussion. From waiting for the fourth referee to flash the number of minutes to be added, to anticipating when the referee will decide that enough time has been added and blow the whistle, to Manchester United inevitably scoring a goal well beyond the anticipated end of the half, time added on continues to enthral the football fanatics and divide opinion. What happens during half time is also occupying increased mindshare with pizza fights, handbags and accusations of referees visiting opponent dressing rooms bandied about with increased regularity. The additional half time break will obviously enhance these simple but nonetheless essential appendages to the football experience. Certain managers will also no doubt be delighted to find another window for unleashing the hairdryer to make sure that everyone is on their toes.

The move is also expected to have social and economic impact reaching far beyond the perimeters of the football field. With two half time breaks, the sales of hamburgers, baguettes and sandwiches in the stadium are sure to skyrocket, thus substantially boosting the stadium refreshments business, and creating more employment opportunities. Back home, we can expect a marginal increase in domestic harmony as during the extra break the football fan will perhaps spend a bit more time with his family during the hectic Saturday and Sunday evenings.

However, the question remains, what is in it for the players. There certainly is something. It is not apparent because we, the unforgiving audience, treat them like Roman gladiators and do not spend a moment to consider the trials they undergo on the field. We pulverize them for making simple mistakes without considering that they may be in obvious physical discomfort, the likes of which we seldom need to face. Have we considered that some of the misplaced passes, fluffed clearances, scuffed shots and flapped corners, inability to track back or mark the opponent could have a physiological reason? In other words, have we considered that not every player may be blessed with the industry of Jens Lehmann? So, the three halves will obviously give that additional opportunity to answer nature’s calls, both proactively and reactively, that may have been inhibiting them from playing to their potential. Given that, I must say, every professional footballer will be flushed with delight if FIFA’s new move is implemented.

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Saumyajit Ray can be reached at saumyajit.ray@gmail.com

Title courtesy: Anustup Basu