The word “youth” -- widely held to be the kiss of death in attempting to market the sport -- was banished. It was, anyway, an obvious misnomer -- these players are virtually all pros, not a few playing first-team soccer with top clubs, some already on huge salaries. Youth soccer? Hardly.
The U-20 World Cup is a young players’ competition, but it is not youth soccer. For my taste, it would have been better in 2007 to keep the Youth Championship name, but to lower the age, making it an under-18 tournament (while also lowering the under-17 World Cup to U-16). I still much prefer that approach. No doubt the marketing clan will, as ever, disagree with me.
An under-18 tournament would, I feel, give us a truer look at the upcoming generation of players. With that thought in mind, it’s worth pondering what the anomalies (they really look more like aberrations) of the current tournament are telling us.
An under-20 world championship without Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Spain, Russia, England and the Netherlands? That list includes 10 previous winners (in 21 tournaments). Of the under-20 powers that were present in Poland (Argentina, Portugal, Nigeria, France) all were knocked out before the quarterfinals.
Meaning that we have Ukraine vs. South Korea in the final. Maybe also meaning that things are changing, that the traditional player-producing countries (e.g. Brazil, Argentina, Germany) no longer rule the roost. That Ukraine, South Korea and -- yes -- the United States have caught up? If this were the U-17 World Cup, that would, I think, be a distinct possibility. But at this under-20 level, it is never clear just how seriously the top countries take the tournament. The key U-20 players are likely to be equally key for their club team, leading to some prickly club-or-country conflicts.
Of course, the Ukraine-South Korea final is not exactly the game we’ve all been waiting for. I find it hard to believe that the game will mark the arrival of any future world stars. For sure, the teams are there on merit -- each won five of its six games -- but the game stats are not particularly mouth-watering.
Ukraine is not an exciting team to watch. It has played steadily, at times dourly, through its six games -- five wins and one tie. Of the five wins, four had 1-0 scorelines. In fact, I can recall only one moment of drama and excitement: in the semifinal, when Italy scored late in added-time to tie the score at 1-1. But VAR, after the usual delay, nixed the goal, smoothing Ukraine’s path into the final. A splendidly worked goal, scored by Serhiy Buletsa, their best player, was all Ukraine needed.
The Koreans, it seems to me, had the more difficult task, opening with a 1-0 loss to Portugal, then going on to beat six-time winner Argentina, their bitter rivals Japan, and South American champion Ecuador. The Koreans are exciting to watch, because they take risks. Possibly their daring is born of naivete, but it makes for eventful games. The 3-3 tie with Senegal, with South Korea winning the shootout, was a thriller from start to finish. In the semifinal against Ecuador it was midfielder Lee Kangin who excelled. His free kick that set up Choi Jun to score the winner was perfection.
Even so, three of South Korea’s five wins were 1-0 games. In short, what we’ve seen so far, and the stats, do not hold any great promise of an action-filled final on Saturday. The Ukrainians, while not exactly cautious, make very few mistakes. And they do know how to convert -- quickly -- defense into attack.
If there is to be excitement, I think it will have to come from -- or be initiated by -- the Koreans. Theirs is a rumbustious sort of game, really quite the opposite of how the Ukrainians go about things.
So this is how I see it: given soccer’s uncanny ability to set up dream finals that quickly turn into total bores (the recent Liverpool-Tottenham UEFA Champions League final comes to mind), why should this unpretentious final, which promises so little, not give us a memorable game, one worthy of the sport?