U-17 World Cup: Nerveless England, Uzbek Upstarts And Another New Drogba

England face Germany after ending their spot-kick hoodoo, the Central Asians ooze potential, and Ivory Coast’s Souleymane Coulibaly has the makings of a superstar, as long as he stays away from Real Madrid for the time being.
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Proof that the U-17 World Cup is not your average international tournament came last Thursday when England won a penalty shootout, deservedly trumping an ugly Argentina team in a Mexican downpour.

Star man Raheem Sterling, who’s developing an encouraging David Villa-style knack of cutting in from the left to let fly with his right, followed up his belter against Rwanda by nabbing an equaliser with a trundling daisycutter. There’s more to this England team than the pocket-sized Liverpool prodigy, though.

Skipper Nathanial Chalobah never let Argentinian dangerman Brian Ferreira out of his sight, and aside from a sloppy spell in the second half, the team passed the ball well in sodden conditions, looking more composed than their South American opponents. Who says English-born footballers can’t keep hold of the ball and recycle possession?

The shame is that in all likelihood many of these promising youngsters won’t get the prolonged exposure they need in Premier League football, though it was a pleasure to watch English players who looked like they’d rather be representing their country than quaffing champagne in LA bars.

Next up for John Peacock’s side is a quarter-final with tournament favourites Germany this evening. Tapping into the country’s Turkish diaspora (nearly half the squad are of Turkish extraction), the Germans have put together another formidable team, breezing through their group and throttling USA in their last-eight tie.

Fifteen goals in four games tells a typical tale of Teutonic domination, with Samed Yesil, he of the Travis Bickle barnet and rank bad goal celebrations, top-scoring for them so far. Yesil’s been likened to the great Gerd Muller and while I’d usually baulk at the “New This, New That” tags that get stuck on the next big things, there’s a touch of Der Bomber in the way he snaffles up close-range chances and lands on his backside in doing so. Watch out England.

As Sterling, Yesin, Khakimov and Coulibaly would do well to note, lording it over your peers for a couple of weeks is no guarantee of lasting success.

Brazil have been impressive only in spells, but roused themselves in the first hour of their quarter-final against the intricate Japanese on Sunday. Attacking midfielder Ademilson, a late addition to the squad, scored his fifth of the tournament, while Adryan cracked in one of the goals of the competition, leaving his marker for dead with a Cruyff turn and thrashing the ball high into the net from a narrow angle. Despite switching off again in the last few minutes, the Brazilians now go forward to a semi-final with Uruguay, who ended Uzbekistan’s run last night.

The Uzbeks looked a genuine bet for the title until they conked out against the canny South Americans, though with an extensive youth system solidly in place we should be seeing more of the White Wolves in the future. Academies have sprouted up across the country, catering for growing demand among its 28 million inhabitants, nearly a third of whom are aged 14 or under, with the big three clubs of Pakhtakor, Mash’al and Bunyodkor supplying over half the squad in Mexico.

Aside from the technical skills of the likes of centre-forward Timur Khakimov and captain and right-sided midfielder Abbosbek Makhstaliev, the Uzbeks looked as accomplished and tactically astute as anyone, keeping their shape and making the transition from defence to attack with cool efficiency. Sitting back and inviting the Uruguayans forward turned out to be a bad idea, though.

Tactical awareness was something largely lacking from the African challenge. Burkina Faso and Rwanda were two of the weakest teams in the competition and while Congo entertained (never more so than in scoring this breakaway gem against the disappointing Dutch), they were, dare I say it, naive at the back.

Yet, it is the Africans who have produced the star of the tournament so far: Souleymane Coulibaly of the Ivory Coast, who is back home after scoring nine of his side’s ten goals to equal the competition record set by Florent Sinama Pongolle in 2001.

Being Ivorian and a great goalscorer, the Siena-based teenager has predictably been likened to a famous compatriot of his, though I’d safely bet Didi wasn’t scoring hat-tricks of this quality when he was 16. Even more predictably, the sharks of European football are already trailing his signature, with Spanish daily AS reporting that Real Madrid could make him theirs for a pittance this summer.

If Coulibaly has any sense he’ll stay put in Tuscany for the time being rather than get sucked up by one of Europe’s bloated superclubs, where he’ll no doubt be hyped to within an inch of his life, waste his time on the bench or in the reserves, and then get farmed out to a lesser club and wonder where it all went wrong as his career nosedives.

The experiences of Nii Lamptey, the stand-out performer at the 1991 U-17 World Cup, and other shooting stars like Sergio Santamaria should serve as warnings to the Ivorian teenager. The headline act in a Spain side that finished third in Egypt in 1997 and contained Iker Casillas and Xavi, Sergio outshone the likes of Ronaldinho to win the tournament’s Golden Ball. Signed by Barcelona straight after the tournament, the right-sided wide man fleetingly broke into the first team before touring the backwaters of Spanish football. While his former team-mates were winning the World Cup last year, Sergio was agreeing terms with fourth-tier Alhaurin.

As Sterling, Yesin, Khakimov and Coulibaly would do well to note, lording it over your peers for a couple of weeks is no guarantee of lasting success.

Raheem Sterling And Four Other Stars Of The U-17 World Cup

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