By Paul Gardner
A word or two about the final. No, not that final, not the big one coming up, the great European club final between ManU and Barcelona. I’ve got another final in mind, one that was played this past weekend -- a rather different European final: The under-17 championship, the Netherlands against Germany.
It makes for an intriguing comparison -- in this sense: we are used to getting disappointing finals -- last year’s World Cup fiasco-final being only the latest example of a glamour-game gone dreadfully wrong. But that’s where the kids from Germany and the Netherlands have something to teach their seniors -- for they produced a wonderfully lively game with seven goals, and constant action -- of one sort or another.
And by “one sort or another” I do not mean anything bad -- I mean, in effect, that these were kids and they made mistakes. And if that’s what it takes to make the soccer enthralling, then bring on the mistakes!
A reminder of just how much of modern coaching is aimed at eliminating errors. That sounds like a praiseworthy objective until the realization hits home that what is being taught in so much coaching is nothing more elaborate or enterprising than caution.
And when caution takes over, when the best move or the best pass or the best approach is always the safe one, the no-risk route, then the game can quickly be turned into a turgid bore. That is what we get in too many finals. But not here.
Here we got boys obviously very keen to get on with playing soccer, boys looking to run at their opponents, to dribble, to exchange passes, even to use back-heel passes (the Dutch were particularly good at that) and to simply go for goal.
No, the defending was not all that great at times and I can imagine the tapes of this game being analyzed by the coaching supremos, and I know exactly what they will be looking at -- those defensive errors, or supposed errors, and I know what their report will consist of: Advice on how to defend better, and an explanation of how Germany, had they only been more tactically disciplined and, cursed words, better organized, could have won this game 1-0.
As it happened, Germany lost this game 5-2 ... and I’m going to give most of the credit for that scoreline to the Dutch who, in the second half, played some wonderful soccer. It seems extraordinary, but the Dutch have never won this title before. But with this win, the team has qualified (along with the other three semifinalists, Germany, England and Denmark) for this year’s under-17 World Cup in Mexico. The Dutch have never won that title either -- but with this team, I’d say they have to be among the favorites.
Those four semifinalists, you’ll notice, are all northern European teams. No Spain (the perennial European champions at this age group,), no France, no Italy, no Portugal. Obviously -- at least for my taste -- something is missing when the Latin influence disappears, but that is not to say there was not plenty of good soccer on view.
The liveliest of the teams, I thought, was Denmark. Unfortunately for them they ran into a Scottish referee, Steven McLean, on what I would have to assume was his worst-ever day at the office. With the Danes dominating their semifinal against Germany, McLean -- with a perfect view of the proceedings -- declined to call the most obvious penalty kick in the history of soccer as German defender Koray Kacinoglu barged into, knocked down, and then fell on top of the Dane Riza Durmisi. Without, of course, getting anywhere near the ball. Play on said McLean. Poor Durmisi peeled himself off the grass, and reeled off a whole series of emphatically hostile gestures toward McLean. So, a yellow card to Durmisi.
A little later, McLean failed to call another slightly less clear PK -- this one for Germany; the German coach Steffen Freund got himself sent off for his prolonged protest against the decision. Then, to crown his masterpiece, McLean failed to notice that Nils Quaschner, scorer of Germany’s second goal in its 2-0 win, had guided the ball into the net with his arm.
In the other semi, England and the Netherlands played a strangely sterile, but still entertaining game. Sterile -- because neither goalkeeper, by my count, had more than one save to make. The Dutch got the only goal, a nifty effort from Kyle Ebicilio in the first half, following a neat back-heel from Anass Achahbar.
As for the final -- there’s simply too much to tell. But what a joy to be able to sketch an entire game through a pulsating scoreline -- just look at the way that scoreline see-sawed, and match it up to the emotional ups and downs it portrays. Germany scored first after 7 minutes, 1-0, then it went 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4 and the final goal at 77 minutes, 2-5.
End-to-end, of course, but not just soccer ping-pong -- because there were goals at the end of seven of these moves -- and they were all good goals, a couple of them superb. Here we go: Samed Yesil’s opener for Germany, a real goalscorer’s solo dribble and finish, from inside the area, 1-0; a choral goal from the Dutch, a sequence of 13 passes -- with the final pass again a back-heel from Achahbar, to the wondrously named Tonny Trindade de Vilhena for a coolly placed finish, 1-1; then a contrast -- not much of a buildup before Oken Aydin lets fly with an unstoppable 30-yard thunderbolt, 2-1; Memphis Depay gets away on the Dutch right wing, looks up, keeps looking, before sending in a low ball to the near post -- the German goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos can’t hold on to the ball and Trindade pounces for his second, 2-2; just three minutes into the second half, the ball comes quickly up field from the Dutch defense -- three passes, but all accurately to a man -- the final recipient is Depay, who cuts inside Cimo Rocker then evades his tackle, moves into the area, dodges Gunter Koray, appears to lose the ball to Nico Perrey, gets it back and slams it home from 12 yards; next -- well, there had to be one “standard” goal here -- so defender Terence Kongolo comes up to score following a corner kick -- the ball is hooked away, but we don’t need GLT to see that this one was over the line, 2-4; another perfect assist from Achahbar, this time a mere nudge of the ball, pushing it forward gently, maybe a yard or so, right into the path of Ebecilio who crashes a right-foot shot in from 15 yards, 2-5.
Exhilarating it certainly was -- whether it was played the way the coaches wanted, who knows? And frankly, who cares? Dutchman Albert Stuivenberg must have been delighted, German Steffen Freund less so. But let’s assume that both men were prepared to allow their players great freedom. Freund -- following his expulsion in the semifinal -- was sitting in the stands. Maybe things would have been different had he been on the bench, but I doubt there was much to be done against this tumultuous Dutch onslaught.
I’ve mentioned 14 young players. Stars of the future? Maybe Ebicilio, who’s an Arsenal player, or Achahbar and Trindade, who are with Feyenoord. But, really, who knows? The perverse thing about under-17 national teams is the alarmingly small percentage of the players who go on to fame and fortune -- on average, only one or two per team.
We shall see these young guys again, in Mexico in the summer during the under-17 World Cup. That competition will offer what will probably be the last chance for them to play in such an uninhibited way. All of them are already with pro clubs -- it will not be long before the stifling darkness of well-organized caution descends upon the sparkle of their exuberant boyish play.
A last chance, then, for the kids to give us the games we so often don’t get from the adults and their coaches -- games with action-packed goalscoring excitement, games like this European final, which brought the fair play concept to life, and which proceeded without dangerous fouls, without player scuffles, without referees being mobbed, with no ejections, and with only two yellow cards.
The 16- and 17-year olds have reminded us just how attractive this game can be. Now ... can the adults of ManU and Barcelona live up to the example set by the boys?