A group of teenage boys, on the road with their mates, playing at the pinnacle of age-group football and experiencing the sights and sounds of some faraway locale. Sounds like they are living the dream, does it not?
However, at Sharjah Stadium on Monday night, the protagonists of Group D’s second batch of fixtures still found time among the jubilation to pay tribute to those who helped put them there.
“I dedicate this goal to my father,” said Maher Gabsi, the Tunisian substitute, whose strike clinched a 1-0 victory against Russia and clinched his side’s participation in the knock-out stages.
“He travelled from the United States to watch me play this tournament. It’s a long way to come. I haven’t spoken to him yet, but it will be a nice celebration.”
Gabsi, the eldest of three children, can for one night at least unabashedly claim to be daddy’s favourite; the boy whose father took time off from his job at an American oil company just so he could see him strike gold. The elder Gabsi would be extremely proud, indeed.
He would find a rival, though, thousands of kilometres away in Caracas, Venezuela. There, the Caraballo household would have found vindication for staying up past midnight in witnessing their boy as he grabbed an equaliser in his match against Japan.
Jose Caraballo presumably knew they were watching, for when the forward prodded home the game’s second goal, he lifted his jersey to reveal a message to a particular beloved.
“Te amo mama,” read the T-shirt underneath.
Or, “I love you mum.”
Too bad Japan do not seem overly sentimental. Here, the goal only appeared to anger the beast, as it were, and they responded by continually carving open Venezuela to eventually win 3-1.
A place in the knock-out stages was thus secured by easily one of the tournament’s most attractive sides, so instead of casting minds to friends and family back home, Japan remain fully focused on what lies ahead.
“At the previous tournament in Mexico [in 2011], we reached the quarter-finals,” said Hirofumi Yoshitake, the victorious coach. “So our target is to go even farther than that.”
Tunisia will be glad they cannot meet Japan in the last 16. Of course, the north Africans will try to contain Yoshitake’s young stars in what is effectively a dead rubber match on Thursday, but it would not stretch the imagination to believe both teams will rest key players for the succeeding rounds.
However, if this game is anything to go by, Japan could almost field a second-string side and expect to thrive. Against Venezuela, they opted to provide eight players with tournament debuts but still looked extremely polished.
“Yes, a little,” said Rafael Dudamel, the Venezuelan coach, when asked if Japan’s superiority surprised him. “They are not playing typical soccer. They change a lot of players, but the tactics remains the same.
“We have to recognise that Japan are a big team. In one year and a half, no team has beaten them.”
Based on this evidence, it may be some while before anyone does.
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