x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Surprises and lessons aplenty as U17 World Cup enters the home stretch

Host nations do not always have it easy, but big crowds do help

Sulail Al Noobi and the UAE found the going difficult at the Fifa U-17 World Cup despite playing on home soil. Sammy Dallal / The National
Sulail Al Noobi and the UAE found the going difficult at the Fifa U-17 World Cup despite playing on home soil. Sammy Dallal / The National

With the group phase and first knock-out round concluded, let us take a look at what we have learnt at this incarnation of the Fifa Under 17 World Cup:

No home comforts

Despite the fanfare that accompanied the UAE’s first staging of the U17 World Cup, history suggested the home side would labour. And so it transpired.

Understandably anxious, a nervy opening encounter with Honduras concluded with a morale-sapping defeat, followed by reverses against Brazil and Slovakia. Rashid Amir’s side bowed out after the first round.

It proves the pressure on a host country, especially in such a fledgling age group, can be too much to bear. The UAE will undoubtedly be stronger for the experience, though, and should seek solace in that, of the tournament’s 14 previous editions, only seven hosts have qualified for the knock-out stages.

Level playing field

Take Brazil and Nigeria out of the equation and, if anything, the tournament has added weight to the argument that, in this category in particular, the gap between the established and the emergent is not as wide as it is higher up the international football food chain.

Granted, there have been those who struggled – the UAE, New Zealand, Panama, Iraq and Venezuela did not register a point. Yet, with the exception of New Zealand, they are relatively untested at U17 level. Other matches have been difficult to predict, as evidenced by the last 16, when Japan, Morocco and Uzbekistan belied their earlier superiority by promptly exiting the competition. Expect a few more upsets.

Someone will go fourth

Saying that, it would be a major shock if Brazil and Nigeria do not contest the final on November 8. Easily the tournament’s most prolific sides – both have racked up 18 goals from four matches – they have already been crowned world champions three times apiece. For one, an unprecedented fourth seems certain to follow.

A showpiece clash between these two would be intriguing. Brazil have typically displayed all the flair of the “joga bonito”, while Nigeria have built their success on the collective. The Africans are physically imposing, and they swarm opponents to eventually overwhelm them. Back Brazil to supply the antidote, though.

Pathway to the stars

The U17 World Cup is billed as a platform for “future legends”, and with merit. Past tournaments have exhibited the developing talents of Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldinho, Gianluigi Buffon, Cesc Fabregas and Neymar.

The 2013 edition has been no different. Brazil have paraded Nathan, Boschilia and Mosquito, while Kelechi Iheanacho and Musa Yahaya have been standouts in an impressive Nigeria team. Others to have excelled include Japan’s Ryoma Watanabe and Kosei Uryu, Joaquin Ibanez of Argentina, Italy’s Simone Scuffet and Tomas Vestenicky, the formidable Slovakian striker.

Of course, successful careers are not guaranteed. But, for the moment, their respective futures appear bright.

Football a spectator sport

An age-old problem has been accentuated by this event. Professional football in the UAE, while popular, struggles to attract crowds and suffers as a spectacle.

The U17 World Cup, though, has shown what a little atmosphere can do. According to Fifa, more than 200,000 spectators have turned out for the 44 matches thus far.

Admittedly, a one-off international event always encourages greater numbers, but it is a reminder the whole football experience is infinitely more enjoyable with people thronging the stands.

jmcauley@thenational.ae