They went to the World Cup as the African champions. But when it mattered, they disappointed. That was the story of the Flying Eagles at the recently concluded FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
Tipped by pundits as one of the favourites for the title, the Flying Eagles, comprising the bulk of the world-conquering Golden Eaglets squad of 2013, were a total disappointment in New Zealand, where they crashed out in the second round. Their 1-0 loss to Germany did not tell the complete story of a team which went as the champions of the African contingent but failed to deliver the goodies when it mattered most.
With their unceremonious exit from the 24-nation tournament confirmed, it was left to west African neighbours Mali and Senegal to cover the shame of the Flying Eagles by producing some electrifying football to reach the semifinals, where they lost to eventual finalists, Brazil and Serbia. But for Mali and Senegal, Africa would have had a World Cup to quickly forget as their supposed top team, the Flying Eagles, coached by Manu Garba played what could be likened to negative football, where strikers and midfielders found contentment in passing the ball to their defenders.
For those who followed the exploits of the Golden Eaglets at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in U.A.E in 2013, what played out in the last one month in New Zealand was simply unbelievable and showed the depth of those coaching our national teams.
But their second round exit from the tournament was not enough to take the shine off the tournament that lived up to its billing of throwing up exciting stars like adidas Golden Ball winner, Adama Traore of Mali.
‘This is the one’, New Zealand 2015’s official slogan had proclaimed. And, for Serbia, it really was.
A FIFA U-20 World Cup memorable for all sorts of reasons will, for its unlikely champions, forever be remembered as a historic and heroic breakthrough success. Celebrating it as such will be fully justified, too, because this global title – the country’s first since independence – was as hard-earned as any in the competition’s history.
Serbia’s triumph was indebted to the spirit and steel of a group of players whose oft-stressed motto – “one team with one heart” – was tested time and again. No-one should forget, for example, that their dramatic 2-1 final victory over Brazil, secured by Nemanja Maksimovic’s 118th-minute winner, was the fourth in which they had been taken to extra time. None of eventual winners’ knockout matches were settled within 90 minutes, in fact, with the tone having been set in the last 16, when they were seconds away from going out to Hungary.
Grabbing a last-gasp equaliser in that one, then winning it with ten men, had led coach Veljko Paunovic to boast of having “21 lions”. Similar subsequent triumphs over USA and Mali merely reinforced that proud conviction, with the resilience shown in their final, fairy tale win taken by the 37-year-old as the ultimate proof. As Paunovic declared after beating Brazil: “The team that wanted most to win this trophy has won it.”
Brazil thrill, Africans amaze
No team conquers the world on character alone, though, and it would be remiss to ignore the talents of a well-balanced squad that had dogged defenders, inventive attackers and the tournament’s outstanding keeper in Predrag Rajkovic. Nonetheless, Paunovic was the first to admit that his team had enjoyed an element of luck against “a great and an amazing team”, adding: “Brazil deserve this trophy too”.
While a record-equalling sixth U-20 title eluded the South Americans, they can take considerable comfort in having achieved their other key aim. Midfielder Boschilia expressed it best as “trying to restore the image of Brazilian football,” with coach Rogerio Micale – installed just weeks before the tournament – making a point of returning to A Seleção’s adventurous, attacking roots. The results were often spectacular, such as in their 5-0 semi-final demolition of Senegal or the dazzling 4-2 win over Nigeria. Before succumbing to Serbia, Brazil also succeeded in setting a new tournament record, extending to 20 matches their unbeaten streak at these finals.
The previous benchmark had been set by their old rivals, Argentina, whose first-round exit was one of the big surprises of the group phase. The six-time winners and South American champions had been expected to go the distance, but their failure to win a single match was to prove one of several tales of the unexpected Down Under.
Ultimately, rather than Argentina or Germany in the last four, we had Mali and Senegal, who began the tournament as the lesser-fancied of Africa’s representatives and ended it as sensations and fan favourites. Bronze medallists Mali were particularly beloved, thanks largely to their proclivity for spectacular goals, four of which came from player of the tournament Adama Traore.
Stars on show
“A great player with a great future,” was how Traore’s coach described the adidas Golden Ball winner, and that description could yet apply to a few others on show in New Zealand. While there was no one, pre-eminent star who dominated the tournament like Maradona in ’79 or Messi in 2005, there were plenty who – with a bit of dedication and good fortune – could yet follow in the footsteps of this duo and countless other star graduates. Danilo and Sergej Milinkovic were worthy winners of the Silver and Bronze Ball, for example, and the finalists also benefited greatly from the individual talents of players such as Gabriel Jesus, Boschilia, Andrija Zivkovic and Maksimovic.
Germany’s Marc Stendera and Angel Correa of Argentina also showed flashes of brilliance before suffering injury and early elimination respectively, while the progress of Senegal’s Sidy Sarr and the high-scoring duo of Viktor Kovalenko (Ukraine) and Bence Mervo (Hungary) will be well worth following. New Zealand 2015 was also notable for the high standard of its goalkeeping, with Rajkovic – Serbia’s inspirational, Golden Glove-winning skipper – impressing along with the likes of USA’s Zack Steffen and Bohdan Sarnavskyi of Ukraine.
Senegal’s Ibrahima Sy also emerged as one of the tournament’s great personalities, coming into his own in a shootout win over the Ukrainians in which he saved three penalties. That feat enabled the effervescent Sy to equal a U-20 World Cup record, yet proved typical of a competition in which missed and saved penalties became commonplace, with nine of the 18 taken during normal time failing to find the net.
As always at the U-20 World Cup, attention was dominated by the emerging stars and eventual winners. However, even in his moment of glory, Paunovic was able to acknowledge the bigger picture and wider impact that the event has throughout football. “This has been an amazing tournament and I congratulate all the teams and individuals involved for the great work, fair play and kindness they have shown,” he said after the final. “We must say, too, that FIFA did a great job here and have given lots of poorer countries a great opportunity to learn and to enjoy a wonderful experience.”
Those sentiments would certainly have been echoed by Fiji, one of whose players the historic win over Honduras in this, their first-ever FIFA tournament, as “the realisation of an amazing dream”. Fellow debutants Myanmar also departed with warm words for the “empowering” experience of testing themselves against the best, while Senegal – the tournament’s other first-timers – undoubtedly made the most of their opportunity.
New ground was broken by hosts New Zealand too, with the Junior All Whites reaching the knockout phase for the first time and becoming the first OFC team to score five times in a competitive FIFA match. But while their U-20s offered cause for encouragement, this tournament’s success will be better judged on having inspired future generations of Kiwi footballers and football fans. Again, the indications bode well.
Over 8,000 children took part in FIFA Grassroots Festivals across the country before and during the tournament, and the more tangible elements of its legacy include nine FIFA-standard pitches, a futsal court, floodlights and training equipment. This, said Dave Beeche, CEO of the U-20 World Cup Local Organising Committee, amounts to “over $5 million dollars of football infrastructure and equipment to help grow and improve the standard and facilities for football”.
If such investment and encouragement presents New Zealand with an opportunity, the evidence of the past few weeks suggest that it will be grasped. The Kiwis, having been exemplary hosts of FIFA’s U-17 men’s and women’s showpieces in 1999 and 2008, again excelled, with FIFA’s Director of Competitions quick to laud their efforts. “The FIFA U-20 World Cup has been run by hugely dedicated individuals, passionate and enthusiastic volunteers, and we are delighted with how well the tournament has been delivered across all seven host cities,” said Colin Smith.
Few could dispute that, and fewer still quibble with Smith’s concluding praise. “New Zealand,” he said, “proved to be a fantastic host.”
154 (average of 2.96 per game)
•adidas Golden Ball: Adama Traore (Mali)
•adidas Golden Boot: Viktor Kovalenko (Ukraine)
•adidas Golden Glove: Predrag Rajkovic (Serbia)