Portugal

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group D

Full of geographic curiosities by congregating the two Iberian countries (Portugal and Spain) and two of the nations that comprise the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), Group D may ultimately fail to deliver much in the way of drama since the strongest sides are expected to bully the two debutants. Consequently, it’s entirely up to Portugal and injury-ravaged Scotland the task of spoiling the pre-written narrative.

England

Despite having previously reached the final at the Euro 2009, England’s campaign at the 2015 World Cup – where they overcome Germany to secure bronze – has been considered the dawn of a new era for the “The Lionesses”.

A period where England is a full-fledged candidate for every title in women’s football on the strength of a fully professional national league (FA WSL) backed by the deep pockets of famous English Premier League outfits. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City are heavily represented in the experienced English roster, and with that comes the realisation there’s no reason to acquiesce to anyone but the Queen. The English ladies are going for the European crown, full stop.

Qualification: Group 7 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearances: Eight

Best Performance: Finalist (1984, 2009)

Head Coach: Mark Sampson (WAL)

Star Player: Karen Carney (Chelsea FC)

The Birmingham native is one of the longest serving players in the English roster since she prepares to take the field in a fourth European Championships, and it’s fair to say she never had so many good teammates to cooperate with.

England’s midfielder Karen Carney prepares to launch a long pass across the field

Usually deployed on the left side of the midfield, Carney perfectly personifies the gritty mentality the English love for her zeal looking to recover the ball, yet she also possesses the skill to manufacture offense in waves. Right footed, the Chelsea winger regularly strays from the flank to take her chances inside the opposing block, looking to disentangle defences with her trickery, propensity to play one-twos with the forwards and smart passing.

A bold, energetic style that betrays her old struggles with depression, an illness that almost put an end to her career precociously. England fans are certainly glad that story also took a turn for the best.

Player to watch: Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal FC)

Limited to a single appearance at the 2015 World Cup due to injury, the time has finally come for Jordan Nobbs, a former standout for England’s youth teams who has yet to shine in a major senior international competition.

A lithe midfielder of exquisite technique who loves to shoot from distance and play balls over the top, “Nobber” is utilized as a right midfielder by Mark Sampson so that she can overload central areas and expose her superior playmaking skills, which significantly boost the fluidity of England’s game in the final third.

Capable of lighting up a game with an extraordinary long-range howitzer or a superb assist, it’s time Jordan Nobbs’ name surfaces across the continent when mentioning the best midfielders around.

England’s Jordan Nobbs attempts to keep the ball in play

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): K. Bardsley; L. Bronze – S. Houghton (C) – M. Bright – D. Stokes; J. Nobbs – J. Moore – J. Scott– K. Carney; T. Duggan – E. White

The 4x4x2 is almost as ancestral as the sport in England, and Mark Sampson respectfully hasn’t deviated from it even if there’s a nuance worth mentioning.  Both Nobbs and Carney aren’t the usual line-hugging wingers and love to move inside, therefore the width is mainly provided by the overlapping runs of the full backs, especially the marauding Lucy Bronze.

Regarding the lineup, in comparison with the team that made history in Canada the fresh faces are center back Millie Bright (Chelsea) and midfielder Jade Moore (Reading), who seem to have usurped veterans Laura Bassett and Fara Williams, respectively. In attack, Toni Duggan is close to untouchable, but Ellen White faces a lot of competition from Jodie Taylor, Nikita Parris and diminutive Fran Kirby.

Spain

Verónica Boquete, “la Princesa del deporte rey” has been the flag bearer of Spain’s women’s football for close to a decade.

Verónica Boquete has scored more goals (38) than any other player in Spain’s national team history, including eight at the Euro 2017 qualification phase.

Verónica Boquete, elite level playmaker, played over 30 matches this season for Paris St. German, the UEFA Women’s Champions League Finalists.

Verónica Boquete, 30 years old, is still widely regarded as Spain’s best offensive player.

Verónica Boquete is NOT in Spain’s Euro 2017 roster for “performance”-related reasons, according to Coach Jorge Vilda. Incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, Vero or no Vero, Spain is a deep well of confidence following an imposing qualifying campaign, and there are expectations La Roja is finally ready to enter the conversation concerning Europe’s best teams.

After all, it would simply ride the example established a long time ago by their youth teams, perennial contenders at the U-17 and U-19 level, and more recently by the Spanish clubs, with each passing season gaining traction against their German, French, Swedish and English counterparts.

Qualification: Group 2 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1997)

Head Coach: Jorge Vilda

Star Player: Verónica Boquete Irene Paredes (Paris St. Germain, FRA)

A mainstay of Spain’s backend for many seasons, Irene Paredes Hernández achieved a new level of recognition over the last two seasons by marshalling Athletic Bilbao to an unlikely Primera Division title in 2015-16, and following it up with a high profile move to Qatari-backed PSG.

Irene Paredes rallies her teammates during a World Cup qualifier in Italy

The 26-year-old went on to quickly pick up the reigns of the French defence, and performed at an admirable level on their campaign to the Champions League Final, displaying all the qualities of modern center backs: speed, agility, aerial prowess, assertiveness under pressure, and poise handling the ball and completing the first pass from the back.

Four years after scoring an own goal in Spain’s quarter-final affair at the Euro 2013, she will be looking for redemption with a national team hoping to build on the triumph at the 2017 Algarve Cup, a competition where Paredes was, not  incidentally, named “Best Player”.

Player to watch: Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)

After taking part in consecutive European Championships at the U-17 level, Alexia debuted for the senior team as a 19-year-old and in time to secure a place on the roster that would reach the last eight at the Euro 2013. Four years have passed since then, and her influence on Spain’s and Barcelona’s game still hasn’t stopped growing

A versatile left footer that is comfortable as an interior, winger or supporting forward, Alexia Putellas is one of Vilda’s favourites because she can either act as the main conduit of offense in the center of the park, or provide a dangerous presence out wide, curling balls into the area and attacking the far post. At age 23, and with three Spanish League titles on her résumé, one of the brightest faces of Spain’s ambitious generation is also the key to unlock new heights.

Spain’s midfielder Alexia Putellas (#21, white) has the guile to get out of difficult situations

Probable Lineup (3x5x2): S. Paños; I. Paredes – A. Pereira – M. Léon; M. Torrejón (C) – V. Losada – V. Torrecilla – A. Putellas – L. Ouahabi; J. Hermoso – O. Garcia

Jorge Vilda replaced long-time manager Ignacio Quereda after the fiasco at the 2015 World Cup, and he gradually introduced a backline of three to rip into the tactical DNA of a team that used to run a 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1.

With more elements operating in central areas, the possession-based style was maintained, but the defensive record improved significantly, as Spain allowed just two goals in qualifying and scored 39. A testament to the progresses experienced by many players, including “carrilleras” Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi, whose offensive propensity really shines in this system.

Without Vero Boquete, new Paris St. Germain recruit Jenifer Hermoso – who tallied 35 goals this season – is the major offensive catalyst, while the greatest dilemma is the identity of the starting goalkeeper. Lola Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid pipped Sandra Paños’ Barcelona for the Spanish title, but it’s the latter that seems to hold the inside lane in this race of 24-year-olds.

Scotland

If a very demanding draw and a quarrel between the players and the Scottish Football Association over compensation wasn’t already enough to cast a large cloud over Scotland’s perspectives at the Euro 2017, the last months of preparation brought an additional element: an injury-barrage that all but ends their chances of upstaging England and Spain for a place in the quarter-finals.

Forward Lizzie Arnott and defensemen Jennifer Beattie and Emma Mitchell, all prospective starters, were ruled out in the weeks leading up to the tournament, but those misfortunes fall short of the monumental problem that is the absence of 2016 BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year and Arsenal FC’s star playmaker Kim Little, who suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament rupture in club training.

An untimely injury took Scotland’s star Kim Little out of the competition

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 1 (7W, 1D), inferior goal difference in tie with Iceland

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Anna Signeul (SWE)

Star Player: Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich, GER)

Without the talent of Kim Little at their disposal, Scotland will have to rely even more on the hardworking, resilient nature of most of their players, and there’s no better example to follow than winger Lisa Evans.

Even though she wasn’t blessed with the speed, creativity or flash of many positional counterparts, the 25-year-old has still been able to attract the interest of clubs such as Turbine Potsdam, Bayern Munich and Arsenal  FC because few can match her tactical awareness and willingness to sacrifice individual accolades for the better of the team. Feisty and diligent tracking down the flank, Evans hugs the line to provide width in attack, but can also dash towards the goal or surprise defenders with diagonal runs.

No doubts remain that Scotland will have to stand firm in the face of adversity and take advantage of every offensive transition. That’s where Evans’ versatility and stamina could prove essential.

Player to watch: Caroline Weir (Liverpool FC, ENG)

Caroline Weir proudly wears the No. 10 shirt for Liverpool FC, and such honour serves to bestow the potential of a player Scotland’s managers believe is able to pick up part of the slack left by Kim Little.

Caroline Weir is one of Scotland’s key midfielders

A gritty midfielder that always plays with her head up, Caroline Weir has the vision to deliver passes from afar to center forward Jane Ross or the wingers cutting inside, yet her true strength lies on the ability to slow the game down, hold the ball and wait for the play to develop in front of her eyes.

A feature that she’ll explore at the European Championships, since the 22-year-old is bound to operate a few meters closer to the goal, looking to support the lone forward and make the best of opportunities to hit from long range with her excellent left foot.

Probable Lineup (4x5x1): G. Fay (C); K. Smith – I. Dieke – V. Barsley – H. Lauder; L. Evans – L. Crichton – R. Corsie – C. Weir – Fi. Brown; J. Ross

Scotland’s usual formation is the 4x2x3x1, but against their rivals in Group D expect a much more compact 4x5x1, with striker Jane Ross left to her own luck and no clearly defined creative fulcrum filling the void of Little. The better they can do is deposit their hopes in Lisa Evans and Caroline Weir, who should have green light to take their chances offensively.

As for the other substitutes called to action, center back Vaila Barsley is the most promising. A recent discovery by Scotland’s staff, she’s been exceptional filling in for Jenn Beatie while club teammate Fiona Brown seems to have locked down the left midfield position on the strength of a series of impressive showings.

Portugal

Fifteen of the top seventeen ranked teams at the time of the qualifying group phase draw ended up securing qualification to the Euro 2017. Care to bet who wasn’t supposed to be here?

The Portuguese women, listed on Pot D (26th) but surprise runners-up in Group 2. They upset the Republic of Ireland and Finland (the only finalist in 2013 to miss out this time) to snatch a playoff spot, and then ousted Romania to reach the Finals.

Portuguese players celebrated an historic qualification to the Euro 2017 after defeating Romania

Home to the reigning men’s European Champions, this is a massive step for a country where women’s football has been nothing more than an afterthought outside of a few days every March, when they host a prestigious international tournament in the region of Algarve.

That being said, what’s a realistic target in Dutch soil? Escape alive against England and Spain, first and foremost, and try to squeeze something out of the match versus Scotland.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 2 (4W, 1D, 3L), 11 points behind Spain; defeated Romania in the playoff on away goals (1-1)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Francisco Neto

Star Player: Cláudia Neto (Linköpings FC, SWE)

Portugal’s captain is their only World class player and, it turns out, also the inspirational leader. That much was plainly evident in qualification, when Cláudia Neto’s six goals rescued several crucial points to make the dream come true.

Key figure for Linköpings’s Damallsvenskan success last year, 2016 was truly a banner year for the 29-year-old midfielder, who does so much of the heavy lifting for this Portuguese team. Neto is a transitional force, carrying the ball up the field, a playmaker, recognizing passes others can’t, a pace-setter, a chance-creator and, finally, a goal scorer.

Cláudia Neto’s hat trick against Finland reinvigorated Portugal’s qualifying campaign

A facet instigated by Francisco Neto’s curious decision to slot his most important player as close to the other teams’ net as possible, wagering she could bury more opportunities than her colleagues would with the roles reversed. Until now, it has worked so well that Cláudia Neto is regularly nicknamed CN7, a cheeky comparison to a certain superstar footballer who happens to be a compatriot.

Player to watch: Diana Silva (Sporting CP)

The revelation of the Portuguese League in 2016-17 is expected to come off the bench at the tournament since Francisco Neto values experience to a tee, but be on the lookout for her disconcerting presence up front.

While undeniably raw on her movements and technical gestures, there’s an intriguing potential latent on Diana Silva, a striker that impresses for her quickness and mobility across the front end, yet isn’t afraid to work hard to get the ball back or enter in confrontation with the most rugged defensive players. Moreover, in possession, she can prove daunting to handle with time to accelerate, dribbling past the clumsiest opponents to set up her teammates or try to score.

At age 22, Diana Silva can still be considered a diamond in a rough, and an international career may be in the cards if she finds a way to make the most of her time in the Netherlands.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): Patrícia Morais; Matilde Fidalgo – Sílvia Rebelo – Carole Costa – Ana Borges; Dolores Silva, Vanessa Marques – Suzane Pires, Carolina Mendes; Ana Leite – Cláudia Neto (C);

In the most decisive of moments, the two-legged playoff with Romania, Portugal lined up on a 4x4x2 with a diamond-shaped midfield, and it’s possible things will remain that way for the final tournament in spite of a sharp rise in the quality of the opposition. However, a more rational option would be the return to a stingiest 4x2x3x1, with Cláudia Neto dropping back to partner defensive anchor Dolores Silva or, in alternative, holing up between the lines.

Portugal’s Dolores Silva jumps past the challenge of a Romanian player

Portugal’s main factor of disturbance is Ana Borges, a lightning quick winger adapted to the left back position who loves to charge up the field in possession. Meanwhile, Neto and Dolores Silva are the stalwarts of Portugal’s midfield and Ana Leite a mobile, German-educated forward that is a favourite of the coach.

The rest of the midfield and attack, though, is easily interchangeable, with the likes of Mélissa Antunes, Fátima Pinto, Amanda da Costa, Laura Luís and Diana Silva hunting down an opportunity to start.

Advertisements

Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

Closing remarks on the Euro 2016

The UEFA Euro 2016 ended last Sunday in Paris, with Portugal taking the trophy for the first time in their history, and behind the competition left a trail of notable occurrences. I decided to weigh in on what I’ll recollect from a month of international football on several fronts, handing out my own accolades (and reproaches).

Here are my choices and the corresponding justifications.

 

Best Game: Germany-Italy

If you’re going purely by the entertainment standpoint, obviously Portugal  3-3 Hungary and France 5-2 Iceland extend a strong case, but I tend to get caught on tactical battles. With the caveat that I didn’t see Italy’s dismantling of Spain, my choices got narrowed down to Germany-France and Germany-Italy. The SF encounter was intense, physical and emotional as always happens when those two countries clash, but the chess game played by Joachim Löw and Antonio Conte takes the cake. A fascinating contrast of styles despite analogous starting structures, it featured the thrilling uneasiness that comes with the belief that every erroneous bounce of the ball could decide the match (which would have happened if Boateng hadn’t suffered a brief brain pause). It was just an absolute classic between the two most competent sides in the tournament. In the end, the dramatic, memorable penalty shootout was simply the cherry on top.

Worst Game: Wales- Northern Ireland

A snooze fest that not even two boisterous sets of fans could save. Little to null goal action, a festival of predictable moves and broken plays that was mercifully ended with an own-goal obtained once the most talented player in the pitch gathered the means to try something different.  A preview of Premier League action in a (not so remote) post-Brexit future?

 

Best goal: Xherdan Shaquiri, Switzerland-Poland

An outrageous overhead kick from the edge of the box tying an elimination match with ten minutes to go? Is there really a question about this? Should it really matter that Switzerland ultimately lost? Yes, please. No. No.

Xherdan Shaquiri temporarily stunned Poland with this ludicrous execution

Honourable Mentions: Marek Hamšík (Slovakia v Russia), Éder (Portugal v France)

 

Best coach: Fernando Santos (Portugal)

An experienced manager that believed stubbornly in his ideas and in the end got crowned in spite of the avalanche of critics.

Portugal dominated every group stage match – as they ought to- but a series of unlucky bounces pushed them dangerously close to falling out, yet the confidence of their coach never wavered. They never dazzled but Santos, certainly inspired by his time at Greece, saw the end of the road before anyone else and did everything he could to get there. If it meant committing all his resources to stifling Croatia’s free-flowing style and hope for a reverse of fortune on the fast break, he went for it. If it meant leaving Ronaldo on an island and force him to retreat to the midfield to feel the ball, let it be. If it meant drilling his players’ mind to keep an eye on both ends at every move, may it work. If it meant tempting destiny by tossing his spare striker into the heat of the Final.…well, why not? As they say, “better be lucky than be good”.

Portugal’s manager Fernando Santos is lifted in the air by his players after the triumph in the 2016 European Championship

However, don’t be fooled. Portugal didn’t put the odds in their favour just by shrinking their margins of error, trusting the individual quality on their side and riding the faith of their coach.  They were mature, tactically aware, malleable and resilient in front of the adversity, as Ronaldo’s injury in Paris highlighted. Both Fernando Santos and its players deserved their immortality in Portugal’s football lore.

 

Worst Coach: Tie between Marc Wilmots (Belgium) and Ray Hodgson (England)

Wilmots came into the tournament under pressure for his palpable shortcomings guiding a stacked line-up brimming with highly valued offensive talents, and didn’t exactly dismiss those concerns in France. Being outsmarted by Antonio Conte in the opener may be excusable, but he didn’t learn from his mistakes when the team was again tasked with having to manoeuvre past a stingy 3-5-2 defensive scheme. If you beat teams handily (but not without some compromising signals burbling) with Kevin de Bruyne slotted behind the striker and multiple talents playing off each other, why bring back the Marouane Fellaini option for the QF against a Wales team that thrives with speed on the counter? Was he expecting the midfielder’s bountiful hair to cover the space his legs couldn’t?

Wilmots may be absolved from his backline’s mistakes after his most experienced options went down, but the lack of a clear strategy to overcome a side that blocked them twice on the qualifying phase was embarrassing.  He simply hasn’t displayed the tactical nous necessary and it backfired spectacularly this time, putting his job under serious peril (and… now it’s gone). I highly doubt he’ll have the chance to waste another opportunity like this.

Marc Wilmots was the face of Belgium’s incapacity to surpass Wales

As for Hodgson, the writing has also been in the wall for some time. With a career built majorly at underdog sides he could pummel to fit his defensive approach, the 68-year-old is a relic of another era at a time England is producing generations of  unpredictable talents. The English roster had the depth and high-end skill to match the best in the competition, but no one ever understood how they wanted to play.

It was not only the bizarre saga about Wayne Rooney’s assignment, but the inability to put players in position to succeed, with the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane turning into caricatures of their form for Pochettino’s Tottenham. Were it not for Daniel Sturridge’s late match winner against Wales, “The Three Lions” would have left the competition without a victory and the game against Iceland simply displayed the team’s contradictions, with England unable to break down their opponents despite ample warnings. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were free to run forward but England just couldn’t find man advantages at the flanks to afford solid crosses or open space in the middle to pierce through. Watching 18-year-old Marcus Rashford being sought repeatedly on the final minutes to force 1 on 2’s (or 3’s) reeked of desperation and fittingly signalled the end of Hodgson’s tenure.

 

Underachieving team:  Belgium

When you possess their array of talent, get tendered a soft road to the final, and still can’t beat Wales at the third try, you failed. Plain and simple.

Overachieving Team: Iceland

The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament was vaulted by almost 10% of their own in route to stamp the shock of the tournament, and in the process caught the hearts of millions. Fighting like Vikings until the final drop of sweat left their bodies, Iceland’s infectious disposition was in display as they firmly chased an unsurmountable deficit against France in the game that ended their Cinderella run.

They take the recognition over the other feel-good story, Wales, because they can’t count on a World top-ten (five?) player to lift them at any time.

The “Please, take another drink” team: Croatia

Croatia’s triump over defending Champions Spain didn’t have the follow up they expected

I called them “indisputably one of the most talented (ensembles) in the tournament” and they   didn’t disappoint, amassing a deserved victory over Spain to finish atop the competition’s toughest group. Everything was clicking, even as there were questions about their ability to function as a team, which, outside of those final moments against Czech Republic, proved unwarranted. However, their journey took an unfortunate turn while they sat at home, and they can blame Iceland for that.

Ante Čačić took too long to decipher Portugal’s plan and when he acted (the brazen Marko Pjaca should have been launched earlier) fatigue was already too prominent to control the outcome. Croatia got greedy chasing a goal and was punished on the break, traveling home way too early. Better luck next time.

 

Worst Teams: Sweden and Ukraine

Playing 180 minutes of football in a major competition without recording a shot on goal is acutely disconcerting, and Erik Hamrén should thank Zlatan’s national team retirement for temporarily changing the narrative.

Nevertheless, Sweden’s dearth of a mere flicker of imagination was dispiriting to watch, as their game was entirely founded on Albin Ekdal’s and Kim Källström’s ability to play long balls towards their strikers.  They waited…and waited…and waited for Ibrahimović to do some magic but their frustrated star could never deliver with two or three men hanged over him, as wingers Sebastian Larsson and Emil Forsberg became invisible for the tournament’s entirety. Sweden’s rudimentary style lacked offensive spark and not even the generation that won the U-21 Euro last year seems to have an answer for that.

The Ukrainians were the only team to leave the tournament without tallying despite possessing the firepower to do so in the Konoplyanka-Kovalenko-Yarmolenko trio. To a positive showing against the World Champions, especially in the first half, Ukraine responded with a listless display against Northern Ireland in a do or die situation. They did better against a Polish team already qualified but still came out with nothing to show for it.

 

Best fans: three way tie between Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Vibrant, piping, unconditional and unwavering support coupled with a legacy to boot. We’ll miss the Icelandic “Haka” (or “thunderclap”) the French so shamelessly copied, Wales’ rendition of “Don’t Take me Home” ringing until the Semis and the memorable “Will Grigg’s on Fire”.

Wales’ Red Wall crossed the English Channel to support its heroes in France

 

Best Player: Antoine Griezmann (France)

Out of sorts against Romania in the opener, Atletico’s marksman rescued victory against Albania coming off the bench, yet his party wouldn’t really start until the knockout stage got running.  Five goals in three games powered the hosts to the Final, and the vision of the blue #7 darting through Germany’s end jumps out as the remembrance from the tournament’s most-charged encounter. He didn’t reach the same level of brilliance displayed in the Champions League a few weeks earlier, but so didn’t any of his rivals, and there’s no denying his numbers (six goals and two assists) and influence. Had Griezmann struck on any of his glorious chances in the final, a new French legend would have been born. This way, he just takes two (somewhat) meaningless trophies home.

Honourable mention: Toni Kroos (Germany)

The maestro of the Mannschaft was omnipresent throughout the competition: recovering, distributing with assertiveness, shifting the point of attack, finding his teammates in between the lines, delivering every free kick expertly. It was tiring watching him pull the strings and become the fulcrum for a team that missed dearly the finishing ability of Thomas Müller, probably the major reason they couldn’t go further. After a long season for Real Madrid, the effort laid down by the slick midfielder deserved another corollary. At age 26, he may be the world’s best all-rounded central midfielder.

The class of Germany’s Toni Kroos was in display at the Euro 2016

 

Best eleven of the tournament:

 

GK Rui Patrício (Portugal): A victim of Portugal’s early hitches, he brought his A-Game for the knockout rounds: a vital late stop in extra time against Croatia (with the post’s assistance), a great stretch save to pare down a Polish kick in the shootout, a handful of superb saves in the Final to prolong the tie and set up Éder’s gift from the gods.

RB Alessandro Florenzi (Italy): At the hardest position to fill, I opted for a player that symbolised Italy’s performance, as the hard-working wing-back was key on Antonio Conte’s strategy. His versatility allowed his team to meander between tactical structures almost imperceptibly, and he impressed closing down the flank aggressively and diligently helping out in attack.

Leonardo Bonucci was a leader for the Azurri at the Euro 2016

CB Leonardo Bonucci (Italy): Started the competition providing an outstanding dipping ball for Emanuele Giaccherini’s goal, and ended exhibiting nerves of steel in front of Manuel Neuer, flawlessly converting a penalty late in regulation, an unusual situation for him. He couldn’t do the same in the shootout but he looked sublime throughout, commanding Italy’s backline with aplomb and chalking up the offense, channelling his inner Andrea Pirlo. At age 29, his stock rose so much that he can become the World’s most expensive defenseman this summer.

CB Pepe (Portugal): The lifeblood and vocal leader of Portugal’s defensive unit was in imperial form against Croatia and kept the level up there onwards, using his athleticism to clear every attempt venturing close to Portugal’s net. The “Man of The Match” award in the Final was as much deserved as long overdue.

LB Raphaël Guerreiro (Portugal): Snapped by Borussia Dortmund earlier in the tournament, Guerreiro validated the German’s confidence by showcasing his skilful left foot abundantly. A poised, offensive-minded left back with defensive acumen and speed to transition back and forth, he excelled whipping the ball towards the box on crosses and free kicks. By far the most dynamic full back in the competition, and so, so close to becoming the hero in the final with his smashing shot off the cross bar.

CM Toni Kroos (Germany)see above

CM Aaron Ramsey (Wales): Chris Coleman anchored much of his team’s success on Ramsey’s ability to connect the midfield and attack, and the Arsenal man delivered on the task. He pushed the pace forward elegantly, and smartly attacked the space between defenders, all without ever relinquishing his duties alongside Joe Ledley and Joe Allen. Magnificent against Belgium, he was absent in the SF due to suspension and Wales missed his craftiness dearly. His four assists led the tournament alongside Eden Hazard.

OM Dimitri Payet (France)see below

F Gareth Bale (Wales): Three splendid goals in the group stage to fire up Wales’ debut, and an enduring “never die” attitude after that despite failing to hit the scoreboard again. His teammates looked for him in times of trouble, and Bale relished the challenge of inspiring them with his unrelenting runs and thumping shots.

F Antoine Griezmann (France) – see above

Antoine Griezmann shined brightly for the hosts France

F Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): The Portuguese captain was the face of anxiousness for the first two games, but everything changed after his crucial brace against Hungary. He ditched the selfishness that was creeping into his game, and understood how he could better help his team: pushing back defences, offering passing lines, supporting the ball movement and crashing the box to finish. The individual moment of genius came on a towering header against Wales and later his teammates picked him up when he went down in tears, managing to claim the title he desired so much.

 

Bonus:

I wrote a series of articles previewing the players that would breakout in the competition, and now decided to do a quick follow up by keying in on my top five hits and slips.

Missed the mark:

Piotr Zieliński (Poland): Only 45 minutes of playing time against Ukraine as Adam Nawałka rested some starters, he gave entry to Jakub Błaszczykowski, who would score the game-winning-goal. The option for the two man partnership up front killed his chances

Jason Denayer (Belgium): Marc Wilmots’ last minute change of heart on his defence’s composition relegated Denayer to the bench in favour of Thomas Vermaelen, and he only got in the action when the oft-injured Barcelona man flailed before the QF. Then, Denayer got caught watching closely as Hal Robson-Kanu fed his inner Johan Cruyff, and both Ashley Williams and Sam Vokes headed the ball home.

Jason Denayer had his hands full against Gareth Bale and the rest of Wales

Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland): Started the first game against Poland but was taken out at halftime as the team looked for a more offensive minded approach. Later, he was thrown in injury-time against Ukraine, and never touched the French grass again.

Federico Bernardeschi (Italy): One hour as a left-wing back against Ireland while Conte rested almost all of his favourites on the group’s last encounter. And that was it for now. I suspect things will look different in Russia’s 2018 World Cup.

Oğuzhan Özyakup (Turkey): Featured in all three of Turkey’s games but the impact just wasn’t there. A half-time casualty against Croatia, opening space for Hakan Çalhanoğlu to tuck inside, Özyakup was one of the victims after Spain’s lashing on the second match. Fatih Terim still gave him 30 minutes on Turkey’s farewell.

 

On the spot:

Dimitri Payet (France): I read somewhere before the Euro’s beginning that Payet might leave as the best player in the tournament. I didn’t exactly buy that right away, but an outstanding kick to pry away the triumph against Romania on the opener turned the spotlight on him. Payet wasn’t unerringly brilliant throughout, but his scented, unpredictable game brought much needed flair to France’s midfield. Didier Deschamps’ option was, thus, completely vindicated by a trio of cracking goals and a couple of assists.

The trickery of Dimiti Payet wreaked havoc in the pitches of France

Elseid Hysaj (Albania): The Napoli man may have been the best right-back of the group stage, with his impressive stamina along the sidelines leading the minnows on their way to an historic first international participation. His stunning through ball to put Armando Sadiku face to face with the Swiss goalie was one of the best pieces of skill in the tournament, but he also locked down his flank impressively, contributing to a unit that proved tough to break.

Ondrej Duda (Slovakia): The creative midfielder scored just seconds after taking the pitch against Wales, and won regular duties as an improvised forward for the rest of the group stage, proving difficult to control due his shiftiness, technique and ability to soundly exchange positions with the members of the offensive trio slotted behind. Ján Kozák opted for a pure striker against Germany and Slovakia was kept at bay…

Jonas Hector (Germany): FC Köln’s inconspicuous left-back played every minute of the competition for the World Champions and his performances were staunchly immaculate. Consistent and dogged on defence, always available to support and offer width to Germany’s possession game, Hector confirmed his report as a dependable full-back destined for bigger stages. All in all, probably the second best in the competition at his position.

Ádám Nagy (Hungary): The slender defensive pivot was a working bee on Hungary’s midfield, vigorously pacing left and right looking to tackle, receive the ball and initiate the offense with crisp passes. Like the rest of his teammates, he seemed a bit bemused by Belgium’s attacking waves during the round of 16 match, but with so much space to cover by himself he can be forgiven.

Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Iceland): 15 minutes against Austria, and a last-gasp goal that reshaped the route of the eventual Champions and arguably the complexity of the entire tournament. THANK YOU, Arnór!

Iceland’s players mug goalscorer Arnór Ingvi Traustason after guaranteeing their first win in European Championships

Summer Tournaments everywhere – A recap of football’s club-offseason (I)

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.

Serbian Goaltender Predrag Rajkovic lifts the FIFA Under-20 World Cup trophy in front of his teammates

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.

Nemanja Maksimovic scored the tournament winning goal for Serbia

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.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Marc Stendera shined for Germany on the stadiums of New Zealand

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.

FC Barcelona and Germany’s U-21 Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen couldn’t avoid the humiliation against Portugal

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.

Portugal’s #10, Bernardo Silva

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.

Denmark’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has already featured for the senior national team.

• 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.

Mali’s Adama Traoré received the U-20 World Cup Golden Ball

• 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.

Ángel Correa leads his teamates on a rare moment of elation at the 2015 U-20 World Cup

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)