Thursday, November 19, 2009



I escaped from my newborn this week just long enough to watch the final of FIFA's Under 17 World Cup in Nigeria. It was a game well worth watching.

World Soccer's Paul Gardner, a football purist who makes Craig Foster seem like an apostle of playing the percentages by comparison, has often written that the Under 17 event is his favourite tournament. Why? Because at that level, skill, enterprise and attack are generally rewarded much more than in the senior game.

It has often been so in the past. But in Sunday's match, we saw pragmatism overcome flair and enterprise, despite fanatical home support.

This is not to decry the quality of the Swiss, who played some delightful football in their semi-final win over Colombia and clearly have some players of great ability. But in the final, they set out to soak up the Nigerian possession and hit their hosts on the break. Ultimately, the strategy was successful...something of a rarity at Under 17 level.

It was a callow sort of pragmatism, in some ways. There were some unpunished blunders in defence, and occasionally the Swiss wasted some 3 v. 2 and even 2 v. 1 opportunities at the other end, by being a bit too cute. But on the whole, their defensive efforts were laudable. Tackles were nicely timed, positioning was surprisingly mature, and the star of the match, Ricardo Rodriguez, showed precocious authority at the back.

The aforementioned Craig Foster made the accurate observation at half-time that Nigeria were wasting their opportunities by snatching at their shots just shy of the penalty box - rushes of blood to the head won out over teamwork at that critical point. Abdul Ajagun was particularly guilty of this, but others were prone to it as well. And although the Nigerians were tearing the Swiss to pieces down the left, with the powerful Terry Envoh getting past his man constantly, the killing cut-back never arrived.

Is such a result a straw in the wind, combined with Ghana's victory over Brazil with ten men in the Under 20 event? Certainly, youth teams appear to be showing more organisation and teamwork than in the past. But pragmatic does not necessarily mean dour, and I felt there was plenty to admire about the Swiss effort in Abuja. On the whole, they deserved their triumph.

A final thought: has there ever been a more ethnically diverse team at a FIFA event than the Swiss in Nigeria? There were, just from memory, names of French, German, Czech, Albanian, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Yugoslav, and West African extraction. United Nations FC?

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