By Paul Gardner
Well now, considering you were alerted, in this very column, just three days ago, about the excitement that awaited in the Under-17 World Cup semifinals, we're not accepting any excuses from those who chose not to watch.
No punishment, though -- the fact of having missed a superbly exciting, skillful, emotional, eventful game (and how many of those have you seen lately?) should be enough to make anyone who failed to watch Mexico overcome Germany 3-2 want to hang his head in shame.
This was simply wonderful to watch, non-stop, end-to-end action, both teams playing their hearts out, the result in doubt right down to the final seconds of those agonizing five minutes of added time.
It all happened as though choreographed to produce a maximum of suspense, a continual ordeal of up-and-down emotional swings, played out before a jammed stadium in the evening sunshine of Torreon.
This looked like a difficult game for Mexico -- against a German team playing the most convincing soccer in the tournament, a team with all the traditional German strengths, both physical and mental, and a team with excellent technical skills. More ominously, a team scoring over three goals per game.
But the Mexicans, in beating France in the quarterfinal, had shown themselves to be a quick-moving team with total confidence in their short-passing game -- and they had proved, indisputably, that they were not intimidated by a bigger team playing a more physical game.
The game promised much -- and it delivered almost at once. From Mexico came a series of flowing attacks and after only three minutes, a strange goal, a cross from the left that Julio Gomez -- surely the shortest player on the field -- headed with a rather unconvincing turn of his body -- the ball sped goalward, hardly at an unstoppable rate, while German goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos, maybe bemused at the idea of such a short player getting in a header, watched, motionless, as the ball sailed smoothly past him, and into the net. But remember that name, Julio Gomez, there’s more about him coming up shortly.
The German response was not long in coming. After seven minutes of bracingly open play from both teams, the German captain Emre Can pushed a ball forward to Samed Yesil, already the scorer of five goals in the tournament. The pass was intercepted by a Mexican defender, but Yesil swooped in, stole the ball back, and then slotted a perfect low shot from 18 yards, under keeper Richard Sanchez’s despairing dive.
The soccer continued to sparkle, soccer played with brio by both teams, soccer that seemed like an endless string of clever passes, neat moves, skilled dribbles, shots, near misses, and saves. So continual was the action, at both ends of the field, that it came as quite a shock to see the official stat for first-half possession -- 60-40 in favor of Mexico, which implied a dominance that Mexico did not seem to have shown. The balance of power seemed more like a standoff, but a bristling action-packed standoff. It ended on the hour mark, when Can set off on a powerful 40-yard dribble that took him into the Mexican penalty area, where he fired a low shot past Sanchez.
Time for the Mexicans to wilt? Far from it. These boys came storming back, and from then on, they really did dominate the game, if the Germans ever do get dominated. For despite wave after wave of Mexican attacks, the Germans never appeared rattled, and retained their dangerous ability to counter with speed and intelligence.
The game was on a knife edge, and it remained there for the next 30-plus frantic, nail-chewing, exhilarating minutes. The Mexican equalizer was surely coming at any moment -- but could the German counter be long delayed?
The Mexicans got in the first, decisive blow, in the 76th minute, with a corner kick from the right wing, taken by Jorge Espericueta, a chirpy, busy player with the knowing face and the soulful eyes of a gamin. His left foot kick came in close to the crossbar, almost parallel with it; it passed just over the leap of keeper Vlachodimos and curled slightly, into the goal just before it reached the far post.
What is known in South America as a gol olimpico, a goal direct from a corner kick.
With that kick, with that tying goal, began the quite remarkable saga of Julio Gomez. As the ball was entering the goal, Gomez raced in to the goalmouth. The German forward Yecil was standing guard on the goal line -- both players jumped for the ball, neither reached it, but Gomez, colliding heavily with Yecil, went down with a head injury. It took nearly four minutes for Gomez, his head bleeding heavily, to be stretchered off the field -- and another four minutes before, his head swathed in a prominent white toque of bandages re-entered the game. More than likely, had Mexico not already used its three subs, he would not have been sent back to the field.
But re-enter he did, and suddenly the prominent white toque seemed to be at the center of all Mexico’s attacking moves until ... in the 90th minute, as the dreaded shootout threatened, Gomez put the final, memorable touch to this unforgettable game. Another right wing corner for Mexico, again delivered by Espericueta -- this one to the near post, where it was flick-headed across the goalmouth by Marcelo Gracia. The ball passed over everyone until it reached Gomez, in the 6-yard box at the far side of the goal. It dropped behind him, but Gomez turned, and back to goal, hit an overhead volley that went back across the goal, past the goalkeeper, past the desperate lunge of Sven Mende and into the net off the post. The kick was like Gomez’s earlier header, somehow not quite right, a bit awkward-looking ... but it had won the game for Mexico.
Off went the ecstatic bundle of young Mexicans, over into the corner to pile on top of Gomez ... but that never happened, the white bandages offered too fragile a target, and anyway, there was forward Julio Ferrio, his arms outstretched, his elegant fingers sufficient caution to his team mates to take it easy.
The torture of five minutes of added time followed -- maybe it seemed like five hours for the Mexicans -- the Germans thought it was too short, and let referee Omar Ponce of Ecuador know about it.
An evening of superb soccer, and an evening of enchantment, too -- to see these young players, Mexicans and Germans alike, produce a game of such brilliance that it puts to shame much of the soccer that their seniors in leagues all over the world regularly try to convince us is the real thing.
This was the real thing. Mexico will face Uruguay in the final on Sunday in Mexico City’s vast Azteca Stadium. You have been warned.