By Paul Gardner
There has been positive turn of events for Argentina in the Copa America -- just one. Namely that Brazil, in its game against Venezuela, looked as bad, or maybe even worse, than Argentina did against Bolivia. At least Argentina managed to score a goal -- wonderful one from Sergio Aguero - in its 1-1 tie, while Brazil lumbered to a vapid 0-0 tie.
I had expressed a wish to see the teenager Neymar make his mark for Brazil -- a wish that was not granted, for Neymar was as ineffective as Lionel Messi had been for Argentina. And I suppose there is another positive angle for both Argentina and Brazil -- they can hardly get any worse.
At the moment, the Copa America is limping sadly along -- and if goals are red blood corpuscles of soccer, which I believe they are, the elements that keep the game alive, then Copa America is a half-dead tournament, giving us just eight goals in its first six games.
But while the Copa has been immensely disappointing, the Under-17 World Cup from Mexico has burst into vivid life with a series of excellent quarterfinals over the past weekend.
The best came from Brazil and Japan on Sunday. This Brazil, the baby version, displayed most of what the senior version in the Copa lamentably lacked against Bolivia. A neat passing game, for a start. A wonderful attacking fullback in Wallace, who made exciting things happen, instead of repeatedly running into a dead end, as Dani Alves did with the seniors. In Ademilson, a forward who looked like a goal-scoring threat almost every time he approached the Japanese penalty area. And what a pity the blond Adryan is so young -- for here was the dynamic figure the seniors so pitifully lacked, now a playmaker, now a goal-scorer, now a right winger, now on the left 0 a masterful performance crowned with a grand goal. And then marred by a stupid foul that brought him a yellow card that will keep him out of the semifinal against Uruguay.
The Japanese had no answer to Adryan -- not until the final 10 minutes or so, when it threatened to turn the game on its head with a most remarkable comeback. Japan had never stopped playing its smooth, on the ground, rapid passing game. It is delightful to watch, but it demands constant running from everyone -- so how was it that, right at the end of this enthralling game, it was the Brazilians who looked exhausted, who were desperately hanging on as their semi-final place, surely guaranteed at 3-0, now looked in imminent danger.
Shoya Nakajima made it 3-1 at 77 minutes, then with Brazil visibly wilting, Fumiya Hayakawa -- with just two minutes of regulation time left -- struck to make it 3-2, bringing on as nail-biting as finish as you could wish for. But that second Japanese goal immediately revived the Brazilians, who regained their vitality to run out worthy 3-2 winners.
On Monday, we got almost a replay, with Germany, 3-0 up on England after 53 minutes, coasting into the semis ... until it too lost their way, and England scored twice between the between the 63rd and 87th minutes. Once again, we had a nerve-racking finish. Germany survived but, as the game finished, there was that same feeling that had made itself felt after Brazil’s win ... had the better team really won the game?
In both cases, I’d say yes, the better team had won -- just about. But Japan and England, had they got the tying goals, might very well have won in the penalty kick shootout; there is no overtime.
The least spectacular of the quarterfinals had been Uruguay’s 2-0 win over the surprise team Uzbekistan (who had beaten the USA 2-1 in the first round). Evidently, experience tells -- not the experience of these particular Uruguayan boys, which will be much the same as that of all the contestants, from whatever country, but the accumulated tradition of Uruguay as one of soccer’s important nations, what players mean when they talk of “playing for the shirt.”
Not to be outdone in their own tournament, the Mexican boys rounded off the quarterfinals Monday with a stirring 2-1 victory over France. In many ways, this was the most remarkable of the games, because France -- a highly skillful team, with speed, strength and athletic ability too -- had vaulted to the top of the favorites list with its 3-2 win over the much fancied Ivory Coast in its previous game.
The beauty of the Mexican win was that it was accomplished in great style. We had seen, just a week ago, the beauty of Mexican soccer as it dismantled the U.S. national team, and now we saw it again from the teenagers, as they handled the French with quite outstanding coolness, never deviating from their basic short-, rapid-passing game and on the whole simply being too quick for the speedy French whose midfield play was repeatedly broken up by the Mexicans simply because they thought quicker and moved to the ball quicker.
The two Mexican goals were beauties. In the 14th minute, Carlos Fierro played a ball into the French penalty area from the left wing -- it ran towards Marco Bueno, who either made a mess of his attempt to play it, or (and this is the version I’m going with) cunningly let it run through to where midfielder Kevin Escamilla hit it firmly into the net from the edge of the area. Jordan Ikoko tied it up for France three minutes later, but it was Fierro who had the final say early in the second half. He continued to harass and bamboozle the French defenders and capped his display with a wonderful goal as he cut inside defender Jordan Vercleyen, then outpaced him before hitting a curling shot into the French net.
The Mexicans will doubtless find it more difficult against the Germans in their semifinal. It’s tempting to talk of the German juggernaut crushing all opposition -- their scoring record is now 18 goals scored, only three conceded. Yet, when put under pressure by England, the German defense looked anything but impregnable. Stopping Germany from scoring the first goal seems like a good way to at least slow the juggernaut -- but so far, none of Germany’s five opponents has been able to do that.
The other semifinal is a historic South American rivalry, Brazil vs. Uruguay. No predictions about that one. When the two teams met earlier this year in the South American under-17 championship, the game finished 0-0. The statistics so far say that the final of this tournament will be Germany vs. Brazil. But when you look at the way Mexico are playing with the their home fans at their back, when you look at Uruguay’s long history of making life difficult for Brazil (the awful shadow of Maracanazo, the day when Uruguay beat Brazil in Rio to win the 1950 World Cup still hangs heavy in the Brazilian soccer atmosphere) it could just as well be Mexico vs. Uruguay. For the moment, the excitement offered by Thursday’s semis is enough to be going on with.