Set against the backdrop of a country silently protesting against an almost tyranical leader, 2013 U20 World Cup of football kicked off in end of June. For the first time there was no Brazil or Argentina. To add to that, Netherlands, Italy and Germany were out as well. England were looking for some sort of redemption after an absolutely dismal showing of their U21 side at the Euros. Alas, it was not to be for the young lions. The South American teams had to be exceptional to have kept the big two away from the tournament entirely. But the real surprises have been Ghana, Nigeria and Iraq. Ghana have been mightily impressive and Iraq always seemed to have that extra bit of energy and zeal to get the job done.
The pre-tournament favorites Spain coached by Julen Lopeteguei (the same man who led the U21 side to the Euros less than a fortnight ago) have already been knocked out by a defensively resilient Uruguay side. The enterprising French side seem to have a very good shout for the title now. France v Uruguay would be an interesting final for two contrasting styles of play - France’s utterly dominant midfield and powerful attack with overlapping fullbacks against a defensively resolute and creative front three of Uruguay. Thankfully though, despite all the absences and disappointments, the crowd support has been fantastic and the talent on show has been nothing short of exemplary. One must acknowledge the support for the home side Turkey and the Ghanain supporters who have been in great spirit throughout the tournament. The latter can now cheer their team on in full voice during their third place match against Iraq.
Let’s take a look at the top 6 players who have caught the scout’s eye so far at the tournament (Ryan Giggs was in the stands on numerous occasions taking notes on the Spanish as well as the French, learning his scouting trade for United perhaps?)
One of the most talked about talents on display in this year’s tournament, Geoffrey Kondogbia has reiterated his stance as an emerging force in middle of the park. Long strides, great movement and boundless energy for the full 90 minutes make him a man to watch out for. His partnership with Pogba in the middle of the park is mouth-watering. Kondogbia was perhaps more impressive than his captain in the tournament and has chipped in with a couple of goals already. Sevilla should brace themselves for some big offers for this young man.
Oliver Torres has been the most impressive player on the Spanish roster. They say great things come in small packages and Torres is an exceptional illustration of that rule. He hasnt yet broken into the Atletico Madrid first team regularly but his performances at this tournament have to push him further up the pecking order. He was able to find teammates with the most audacious passes whether it was a 5 yard dab or a 65 yard cross field ball. His one-twos and inter-play with Jese, Suarez and Deulofeu were an absolute joy to watch. Far away from all the hype surrounding his teammates, Torres made sure he left an indelible mark on this tournament.
Another of Pescara’s wonder-kids, Juan Quintero also belongs to the captain Fantastic clan. Part of a Colombian team bursting with talent and widely tipped to make it big in future, it was a successful tournament on personal level for this attacking midfielder. With freekick and corner duties firmly under his belt, his long-range strikes struck fear into his opponents time and again. His immaculate freekick against South Korea was a thing of beauty. Quintero has been on the radar of many clubs this season and it was clear why they were pursuing him. He can play across the front three right behind the striker and its his versatility and efficiency in every position that plays to his advantage.
Marauding fullbacks are an intergal part of modern football. Ali Adnan has all charecteristics of a perfect modern full back and also has an eye for goal. A left footed fullback who saved his best performance till the semifinal against Uruguay, Adnan can put Iraqi football on the map in future. His freekick goal may have been partly down to goalkeeping error but it was his tenacity and zeal to push through the pain barrier after clashing heads with his goalkeeper that was most impressive. Playing 120 minutes in back to back games and putting in solid performances in both is commendable. His positional sense is as good as any and what was more impressive was although he made a few mistakes during one on one situations, he always recovered to put in a ball winning tackle. Disciplinary problems were evident for the entire Iraqi team but that should not hold back a truly talented young man from making a name for himself on the world stage.
Prior to the tournament the most hyped Portuguese player was Bruma. This was a man touted to be Portugal’s next ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’. Graduating from the same Sporting Lisbon academy that is so famous for harnessing young talents, Bruma justified all the pre tournament talk surrounding him. A monster of a shot with very good ball control and decision-making to add to his blistering pace, the only way is up for this youngster. 5 goals and 2 assists in four games at the tournament, his first at the U20 level is not at all a bad return.
Captain Fantastic. Abdul Ajagun is a leader with great skill. A prolific midfielder in the mould of Robben, Ajagun single-handedly carried his team through the group stages. The Captain’s armband seemed to have galvanised this youngster. His direct play left many a defender flat-footed and his eye for goal and thumping shots had no answer. A return of 3 goals and 1 assist counts for a fantastic tournament and one he can be proud of. His ability to play equally capably on either wing or behind the striker show his versatility.
A part of Inter’s drive to find cheaper, younger players with truckloads of talent, Diego Laxalt has quietly impressed this World Cup. Although his statistics may suggest other wise he has been instrumental in Uruguay’s run to the final. His combination play with De Arrascaeta and Nicolas Lopez in the midfield plus his vast arsenal of tricks and combination play down that left hand side with Gianni Rodriguez has been a corner-stone behind Uruguay’s success. When he seems cornered, Laxalt is able to flick the ball over to a teammate and find acres of space to run into. His combination with Mauro Icardi & Ricky Alvarez at Inter should be interesting to watch over the coming season.
The French U20 squad is a star-studded one and one must recognise the strength and composure of Yaya Sanogo up front along with the dead ball ability and pace of Jean-Christophe Bahebeck as his partner. Paul Pogba is a name known to the world thanks to his exploits at Juventus already. Also on your ‘watch for’ list should be fullbacks Dimitri Foulquier & Lucas Digne.
Spain are an impressive set up and there were a few other bright spots in their squad. Javier Manquillo, their marauding right back was very impressive on both sides of the half way line. Sotres, their goalkeeper is a brilliant shot stopper but his distribution is abysmal. It is something that can be worked on for sure but it was a major flaw. Denis Suarez was a major contributor to build-up play with great changes in pace and the ability to drive down to the byline and put in teasing crosses both in the air and along the ground wreaking havoc in the box. One hopes Manchester City will give this budding talent his chance to make a name for himself in a world renowned squad. Jese Rodriguez & Gerard Deulofeu were the most sought after names prior to the tournament and they delivered in a big way. Jese was exceptional in front of goal and is a magician pulling goals out of nothing. Deulofeu may have petered out over the course of the tournament but there is enough talent in him to shine in future.
The Uruguay team have more than showed what they are capable of by knocking out pre-tournament favorites Spain at the last eight stage. The attacking talent at their disposal in the form of Nicolas Lopez, De Arrascaeta , Ruben Bittencourt, Diego Rolan and Stefan Cristoforo to name a few, has been fantastic. The South Americans have a very well-balanced look and it would come as no surprise if they were to go on to win this World Cup. The back line comprising of rampaging fullbacks Guillermo Varela and Gianni Rodriguez coupled with the uncompromising rocks in the center of defense of Jose Gimenez and captain Gaston Silva have helped them maintain an almost pristine defensive record.
None of Ghana’s victories would have been possible if not for the acrobatics of their goalkeeper Eric Ofori Antwi and their do-or-die captain Lawrence Lartey. Ghana also have a recognised attacker in the form of Frank Acheampong, who plies his trade at Anderecht. His ability to pop up at every position on the field to collect the ball and play in a teammate is well appreciated by his coach Sellas Teteh. Add to that, his willingness to cover every blade of grass for the full 90 and if required 120 minutes and you have an enthusiastic and talented young player. The goalscoring exploits of Ebenezer Sallifuah makes the Black Satellites a very potent attacking team with a great future.
Chile were another impressive team at this tournament. Manchester United striker Angelo Henriquez proved why he was so sought after through his performance in the dramatic loss to Ghana in the Quarter-Final by netting two different but fantastic goals.
Last but not the least, was Iraq. The Western Asian nation upset all odds by topping their group ahead of England and Chile. They continued their giant killing run by scalping Paraguay and South Korea in the next two rounds and were just three minutes away from a place in historic final. Iraq mostly played a dogged team-game but the likes of Farhan Shakor and Mohammad Hamid left good impressions.