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.
Great article, as usual!
Shame on me, watched the first 20 minutes of what looked like a terrific matchup and the zooming in and out of the various cameras on the pitch started to strain the eyeballs to the point of exhaustion...why on the world are there so many cameras on the pitch which tend to destroy the rhythm of the game...why on earth do viewers want to see a closeup of a player running into his position after a turnover/or a bench shot while the view of the ball and other players is lost...this concept of zooming about is totally unacceptable and killing the essence of the game. I'd like to hear some comments on this 'novo-video' calamity.
Has there been a discussion of the USA U-17 performance against Germany.
I saw the game and I don't believe US Soccer is putting are best players on the pitch. I saw terrible first touches, I saw laziness in defense and offense. I did not see any US players able to go one vs one with the German defense. I saw to many sloppy passes.
An frankly some of the players were not even athletic yet to mention creative and skilled. They lacked vision and imagination. They were all big boys but not true socccer players.
The US needs to change the way they identify and develope soccer players.
ODP is not developing players it does claim to do so. But worst it can not even identify players with future potential. The big clubs influence selection in the wrong way.
The only hope is that that Development Academy along with the professional clubs with produce talent.
I believe you will not see many of those youth players on the National team in future years. We need to train our youth the way Spain trains their youth players. You will never find a Messi or Xavi the way US soccer is set up today.
What a game! What a finish! This is soccer! This is life! I mean, save the drama for your momma!!
Great article. PG is one of the few (only) soccer reporters who actually highlights the style technical level of play -- love it. For those who are as fed up with US Soccer as Michael Cymbal and I are, please join the effort to boycott the US _Costa Rica game and all US Soccer purchases between now and then -- spread the word!! Also be sure to send comments to the following Board members:--------------------------------
Board Of Directors
Sunil K. Gulati
Executive Vice President
Immediate Past President (non-voting)
Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia
Jeff Agoos, Danielle Fotopoulos, Jon McCullough
Pro Council Representatives
Tonya Antonucci, Don Garber
Adult Council Representatives
Richard Groff, Bill Bosgraaf
Youth Council Representatives
Bob Palmeiro, John Sutter
At Large Representative
Carlos Cordeiro, Fabian Núñez, Donna E. Shalala
CEO/Secretary General (non-voting)
I agree with Michael, There has to be a better selection of players in the US than what is currently being showed by the U-17 and other catagories of players in the US camps now. Maybe they ought to have National try-out's like the NFL does, get the most athletic talent with a soccer background and not limited to just Premier & Academy level players but to the whole nation. This would be time consuming I realize that but as it is the better talent in my area alone cannot afford the cost of Premier or Academy clubs let alone going the route of ODP's which for me and other families would cost a bloody fortune in gas alone not to mention 6 hrs of driving per practice session. I hope that someone out there can come up with a solution to this problem in our country.
Wonderful game of soccer. Thank you for a great article that highlights the enjoyment I felt while watching this game.
I don't understand what you guys are complaining about with the ODP coaches... we have a lot of English coaches coaching here.
Sorry K.O. but a national tryout won't work...individual MLS clubs need to find talent and develop it; clubs need to find the right personnel to develop a system which concentrates on technical quality/awareness on the pitch with less emphasis on physicality which can be readily found. Parma developed Giuseppe Rossi and Barca developed a slew of others, that system works, so why can't it be duplicated here? The USSF should provide a developmental subsidy to MLS clubs which would boost efforts for discovery and development.
Mr. Paul Gardner, I enjoyed reading your writing almost as much as I enjoyed watching the game (bits and pieces since I was at the office), congratulations, it is a brilliant piece.
Fun article to read Paul. I like the idea of writing to the leadership of the US National Teams. Things have got to change and it starts at the top. I have always rooted for the Mexicans except for when they are playing the US. I like the way they play. I wish the US teams would play more like Mexican teams. I think we would do better on the field if we adopted their type of approach to the game. Changes need to be made at the grass roots level. As Jurgen Klinsman put it the Pyramid is upside down in the US. Soccer talent shouldn't be evaluated on the basis of what a child's parents can pay out to ge their child into a competitive situation. I have seen hispanic kids (El Salvador) in my area who I coached in recreational soccer who just did not have the financial means to play select soccer. That has to change if we are going to get better as a nation. One of the other writers above touched on this in a different way. We have got to widen the search for talented players to include kids that come from families that don't have alot of money. What does money have to do with soccer talent?
To I w Nowozeniuk, From what I know and have seen personally this isn't happening. Also G. Rossi was developed by his dad here in NJ not in Italy or Spain!
KO, I once spoke to Fernando Rossi about his son and refereed one of his U-10 games...the kid was born to play and yes, a father's (Clifton H.S. coach)influence was important, yet, Fernando claimed he had nothing to do with Giuseppe's talent...many skilled players at U-14 stop progressing and in Giuseppe's case, at 14 he was at the Parma Academy honing his skills. It's a two way street, talent and desire to improve, and the right coaching philosophy...those that have it and want it are the typical achievers.
Hmm, surprisingly, a favourite article for me, Paul. Good job, thanks.
While I ended up watching the Costa Rica-Bolivia game live, fortunately I had the presence of mind to DVR the U17 game that was being played at the same time. It certainly did seem almost choreographed to produce maximum suspense. And to be settled by a bicycle kick in the 90th minute … unbelievable! Not that the 2nd half of the Copa America game wasn’t pretty good as well, particularly watching that kid Joel Campbell shred the Bolivian defense into little pieces (the same defense that had so aptly held Messi and Argentina just a few days earlier). But watching the heroics of these teenagers from our Concacaf rivals, I do have to wonder where our Gomez or Campbell is? How can it be that we haven’t produced a similar boy wonder since Landon Donovan’s heroics at another long ago U17 World Cup? Is it a coincidence that Gomez and Campbell were developed from an early age by two of the clubs with the best youth systems in the region (Pachuca and Saprissa)?