In no-World Cup (or no-European Championships) summers, the offseason of football fans can be a depressing time, with several weeks of “excitement” over rumours of new addictions to their club and nonsense anticipation over the start of training camps and friendly matches played at turtle-like rhythm. To bridge the gap after the apex of the previous football season, this year there were no shortage of different options, with several competitions going on from late May to early July.
During that time, I had my sights split between four tournaments held all over the world and had a blast following them. Starting in New Zealand, at the Under-20 World Cup (30th May to 20th June), all the way to Canada and the Women’s World Cup (6th June to 5th July) or Chile and the Copa America (11th June to 4th July), with some selected stops in the Czech Republic (U-21 European Championships), I was busy enjoying some really fun sporting events.
This article compiles my thoughts and perspectives on those tournaments, with the obvious remark that I naturally had to prioritize certain viewings and make biased choices on content. Thus, I have to disclaim that my live look-ins on the U-20 World Cup were limited by time-difference and mostly restricted to my nation’s (Portugal) games, and the same happened to U-21 matches due to work-week obligations. The Copa America and the Women’s World Cup final rounds also collided often and my preference usually went to the Canadian-held competition because…well, I just can’t see those girls at big stages that regularly.
It’s time to unpack my (imaginary) travel suitcase and share the spoils.
Under-20 World Cup and Under-21 European Championship
I’ll start with the biggest youth tournaments of the summer and the interesting differences in approach that I noticed between the three European countries that were present in both. As a whole, Portugal, Germany and Serbia should be happy with their performance, but undoubtedly they had to fragment overlapped groups of players that could have been in either event. The way they did it and what they managed to achieve enclosed how they view the sport at the national level right now. The Serbians were the only ones to clinch a title, so I’m going there first.
Coming off four consecutive presences at the Under-19 European Championships, the group which Veljko Paunovic got to New Zealand had a few members that experienced success at the 2013 Under-19 European Championships and was supplemented by the semi-finalists of the 2014 event, defeated by Portugal on penalties. Thus, the Serbians knew they had good chances of shining at the world stage, on the first participation of the country on the competition since 1987, at the time as Yugoslavia. It was a long time ago but the youngsters couldn’t have a better example to follow, as that generation left Chile with the trophy. Comprising a terrific array of talents that would become household names, including Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker or Predrag Mijatovic, much of the members of that squad played on Europe’s richest emblems and peaked as a team with the third place on the 1998 World Cup.
Time will tell if the heroes of 2015 will reach the same heights but it’s not too early to appoint the most promising of the lot. Everything starts at the net with goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, the captain and starter for this team and the U-19 iterations of 2013 and 2014. The Red Star Belgrade wunderkind collected the Golden Glove awarded to the best of the tournament at his position and added a few more accolades to a trophy case that already included the nomination as best goaltender of the Serbian league at just 19-years-old. On defence, the dynamic Milan Gajic and center-back Milos Veljkovic, already a property of Tottenham, turned some heads, as did Gent’s midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the leader pushing the team forward at the centre of the park. Vojvodina’s Mijat Gacinovic confirmed the good impressions of the Euro’s and winger Andrija Zivkovic delivered on the credentials of youngest captain in Partizan’s history and most premature debut for the main national team, leaving the World Cup with the award for best goal of the tournament. 17-year-old Ivan Saponjic scored a pair of goals coming off the bench but the decisive tally in the final, against Brazil on extra time, was the work of Nemanja Maksimovic, who didn’t have the same buzz surrounding some his teammates because he plays in Kazakhstan, for FC Astana.
The Serbians started on the wrong foot, losing the inaugural match against Uruguay, but righted the ship to reach the last 16 and then showed tremendous resiliency to overcome four consecutive knockout games that went past regulation time, including a penalty shootout victory over the USA in the quarters.
The Under-21 Serbian team returned to the category’s pinnacle event for the first time since 2009 but they couldn’t replicate the U-20’s success, failing short on the group phase after a draw and two losses. Led by Borussia Dortmund’s Milos Jojic and Benfica’s Filip Djuricic, the Balkanian outfit never displayed the level that ousted Spain, the reigning Champions, out of final tournament and were beaten fair and square by hosts Czech Republic (4-0) and Denmark (2-0). However, everything could have been different had they decided to bring the talents of three players: Schalke 04’s defender Matija Nastasic, Liverpool’s winger Lazar Markovic and new Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, all already established on the starting eleven of their national team, which is almost mathematically eliminated from contention for a spot on the 2016 European Championships. The main team, now coached by Ljubinko Drulovic, the mastermind of the U-19 European Championship triumph in 2013, is experiencing a rebuilding phase, having qualified for only two international competitions in this century (2006 and 2010 World Cups) but the youth Serbian teams have shown that help is on the way. The future of the country’s football seems bright if they can find a way to mesh the kids with untouchable figures like Alexander Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic.
The Germans arrived at the U-20 World Cup as the European Champions, after beating Portugal at the final held in Budapest last July, but without a key player of that squad, injured striker David Selke, who will represent RB Leipzig next season and was the best goal scorer of the 2014 tournament. Without a clear replacement, Frank Wormuth had to improvise and Hany Mukhtar received the task, tallying four times in the event but only one after his hat-trick against lowly Fiji. The Germans lacked an incisive front-man but they had talent to spare manufacturing scoring chances, with the trio of Marc Stendera (Eintracht Frankfurt), Julian Brandt and Levin Oztunali (both from Bayer Leverkusen) excelling, especially during the group stage, where the team cruised past three weak opponents (Fiji, Uzbekistan, Honduras). The attractive, offensive style of play produced 16 goals in three games but the offense dried up when things got tougher, with a narrow win over Nigeria preceding a 1-1 draw against a surprising Mali squad, which then left victorious on penalties. The talented Germans were thus sent home earlier than expected but at least one man was recognized in the end: Stendera’s playmaking and prowess on set pieces netted four goals and three assists and those numbers were enough to clinch the Bronze Boot.
From the German team that won the U-19 Euro one year before, the World Cup squad was also in danger of missing the services of Nurnberg’s Niklas Stark, but the skipper/defensive midfielder ended up travelling to the other side of the planet and covering for the loss of Joshua Kimmich. The defensive pivot handpicked by Pep Guardiola arrives at Bayern Munich for the new season after a pair of years on loan from Stuttgart to RB Leipzig and a starting spot on the U-21 team that faltered in the tournament held in Czech Republic. Indeed, the Germans were demolished by Portugal in the semi-final but it wasn’t for a lack of talent, since the roster included two World Champions in Brazil last year, center-back Matthias Ginter and forward Kevin Volland, and more could have been selected from several regular choices by Joachim Low like defenders Erik Durm, Shkrodan Mustafi, Antonio Rudinger and midfielders Julian Draxler and Mario Gotze. Instead of loading up for the event, though, the side handed out to Horst Hrusbesch included two other players that could have featured for the U-20’s in Schalke’s Max Meyer and Arsenal’s revelation Serge Gnabry.
On the other hand, the process of sorting out the players adopted by Portugal was entirely different, even if the lack of titles conquered recently by one of Europe’s most regarded talent makers kind of explains it. The Portuguese haven’t added a trophy to their showcase since 2003, the U-17 Euro Championships they organized, and were eager to come out of the summer with some silverware one year after falling short on the U-19 final against Germany. The entirety of that generation was saved for the New Zealand encore and the team once again made the country dream, ultimately being knocked by Brazil on the quarter-finals after 120 minutes clearly dominated by the Europeans, lots of missed chances and a uninspired penalty shootout. The U-20’s were thus enable to repeat the achievements of their compatriots in 1989 and 1991, but they left the tournament followed by high praises and a slew of impressive performances, including striker André Silva, a highly skilled and mobile front-man, offensive-minded left-back Rafa, always dangerous when approaching the opposing end, and playmaker Ronny Lopes, a Manchester City property that played on loan for Lille last season. This trio had already played for their U-21 team and could have been helpful for coach Rui Jorge at the Euro’s – especially Lopes – but that’s simply not Portugal’s way unless a player completely blows apart the expectations.
Take the case of the U-20’s, that only had a player that wasn’t born in 1995 (the last year of eligibility), forward Gonçalo Guedes, and the makeup of the U-21’s*, that “just had to” receive the reinforcements of several players already firmly entrenched on the main national team, a group that would, in turn, form the best midfield on the competition. Sporting’s William Carvalho and João Mario plus Monaco’s Bernardo Silva, integral parts of Fernando Santos’ roster, were in Czech Republic and Valencia’s André Gomes would have completed the diamond on the centre of the midfield hadn’t he been injured, which opened a space for team captain Sérgio Oliveira. Anyway, the quartet paced Portugal to a strong tournament, highlighted by the 5-0 stumping of Germany in the semi-finals, and they would have terminated their title drought hadn’t been for a sturdy Swedish side that frustrated the favourites on the final. The Portuguese finished with the best attack (7 goals, tied with Sweden) and defence (only 1 goal allowed) and exhibited, by far, the most entertaining football on the field but they were left to pick up the consolation prizes: five members of the team were included on the tournament’s best eleven, including Bernardo Silva and William Carvalho, who squandered off for the best player of the tournament nomination, ultimately awarded to the imposing defensive midfielder.
Now, time for some comments on the other sides that competed on these tournaments:
• Sweden won his first ever men’s UEFA competition, coming out on top displaying the same competitiveness that edged France in the qualifying playoff round. The apex of that was the turnaround with only 10 men and 1-0 down against Italy during the first match in the competition, but the side led by Hakan Ericson also managed to rescue the passport to the semi-finals on the last minute against Portugal in game 3, a few days before stifling their rivals on the final. The Swedes relied on an organized defensive scheme boasted by two disciplined midfielders in Captain Oscar Hiljemark (PSV Eindhoven) and Oscar Lewicki (Malmo FF), and played long balls to their pair of dangerous strikers, the physically imposing John Guidetti and Isaac Kiese Thelin, both with experience on the main national team. They didn’t have game-breaking talent, with winger Simon Tibbling being the closest resemblance of that, but used their strengths perfectly and history has shown that, in short tournaments, sometimes is enough.
• With powerhouses like Spain and France dumped in the qualifiers plus Italy and England edged by the eventual finalists in the group stage, dark-horses emerged on the search for the title, with Denmark and Czech Republic showcasing a lot of talent on the event. The hosts were led by Jan Kliment, who burst to prominence due to the unexpected hat trick against Serbia – enough to secure the Golden Boot for best goal scorer of the competition – but right-back Pavel Kaderabek and midfielder Ondrej Petrak also had scouts drooling. Meanwhile, the Danes reached the semi-finals powered by hulking Werder Bremen central commander Jannik Vestergaard on defence, the poise of Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg (Bayern Munich) and Lasse Vigen Christensen (Fulham) on the midfield, and the flash of Viktor Fischer (Ajax) and Yussuf Poulsen up front.
• On the U-20 World Cup, the story of the tournament was the predominance of the African contingent on the latter stages, including semi-finalists Mali and Senegal plus Ghana, beaten by Mali in the last 16, and Nigeria, which lost to Germany. The Malians were the most satisfied in the end, carrying the bronze medals, but another shiny object was part of their luggage, the Golden Ball awarded to the tournament’s best player.
• Adama Traoré wasn’t freed for the qualification tournament but he joined his teammates in New Zealand and contributed greatly to Mali’s historical result, including a masterclass performance on the third place game highlighted by two spectacular goals. The slick creative force ended the tournament with four goals, three assists – a direct contribution in 7 of Mali’s 11 goals – and proved why he was already a key figure for the midfield of France’s Lille OSC, his club side. Since the end of the event, he has already agreed to join AS Monaco, where he’ll now exhibit his broad technical gifts, playmaking awareness and flair.
• Traoré is not the first African Golden Ball winner, following Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah, laureate in 2009 after his team’s triumph, and countryman Seydou Keita in 1999. The pair shows the hit and miss character of the award, since Keita played at the highest level for FC Barcelona and Seville but, on the other hand, Adiyiah signed with AC Milan in 2010, went to the 2010 World Cup, and five years later is donning the colours of Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima Football Club. Other former winners of the award include Diego Maradona (1979), Lionel Messi (2005), Sergio Aguero (2007) and Paul Pogba (2013) but also non-factors like Ismail Matar (UAE, 2003) and Henrique (2011)
• If we expand the sample to the other Youth World Cup promoted by FIFA, at the U-17 level, we find two more recent Golden Ball winners from the African Continent, Nigerian’s Sani Emmanuel (2009) and Kelechi Iheanacho (2013), which means that Africa has amassed 4 of the last 7 Golden Ball winners.
• The South American contingent, that usually dominates the U-20 competition (Brazil (5) and Argentina (6) have won more than half of the 20 editions), wasn’t impressive this time. Uruguay and Colombia fell in the round of 16 but the biggest fail was Argentina, which had his worst performance ever, finishing with just two points on an accessible group. Only Ángel Correa, the Atletico Madrid attacking midfielder, captivated for the Albicelestes with pace and skill that produced half of the team’s four strikes.
• Brazil reached the final after getting the better of two consecutive penalty shootouts on the round of 16 (Uruguai) and quarter finals (Portugal), but their squad didn’t excite most observers. Defensive anchor and captain Danilo played well above all his teammates over the entire tournament, relentlessly driving the team with his experience and power, while skipper Lucao, a composed defender with great anticipation, and left back Jorge, a speedy, offensive full back, also caught the attention of the scouts. Up front, the team lacked spark outside of Atlético Paranaense’s Marcos Guillerme and the irregular Boschilia, with Real Madrid’s Jean Carlos and Manchester United’s Andreas Pereira, in particular, notching underwhelming performances that saw them relegated to the bench.
*To be fair, 18-year-old Rúben Neves was named to Portugal’s U-21 squad, but he’s exactly the type of tremendously rare exception that corroborates the rule. And he was going to be the starter hadn’t they rescued William Carvalho…
(2nd part, regarding the Copa America and the Women’s World Cup right after the jump)