Sunday, August 7, 2011

Party to the people

The group stage of any major tournament - let alone the Under-20 World Cup - is not too different from a high school prom. It's the culmination of an arduous journey that is a cause for celebration. Everybody gets to hang around, dance a little, try to impress the ladies and generally have a good time. The knockout round is the after party and everybody knows that's where the real action is. To get in, however, you have to schmooze smoothly with the cool kids and show you that you might be worth keeping around for later. Invitation only.

All World Cups have at least one team that fails to live up to its billing and worse still, its collective talent. These teams are strikingly disappointing in the way they flame out. Either by arrogantly underestimating the opposition (Portugal and France '02), collapsing with the aging legs of bygone stars (Czech Republic '06 and Italy '10) or declaring public mutiny on their coach (France '10), every tourney has its underachiever(s). Think good hair, but bad BO.

Naturally, youths are not immune as Croatia has been more than willing to play the part this time around. Considering this team made it to the semis of last year's European Under-19 Championships one would think they could manage better than fourth in their World Cup group, score more than two goals, or at least beat Guatemala. Having accomplished none of these feats, they will go home without a win, without a point, and in the unenviable position of being this competition's most disappointing team.

In the very same group as Croatia was Saudi Arabia - this tourney's most pleasant surprise. Despite having succumbed to Nigeria in the de facto Group D Final, the Saudis impressed with a degree of skill and dynamism that put Croatia and Guatemala on the end of three and five-goal defeats, respectively. The Nigerians possess the requisite degree of explosiveness that did the Saudis in, but this is not your older brother's Saudi Arabia.

Because this team is quick on and off the ball and has the option of pressuring high or sitting deep to absorb pressure and set up the counter, they are more than capable of a deep run of continued upsets. Unfortunately, their unexpected success has earned them a date with the steadily improving samba princes of Brazil in the Round of 16 and nobody parties harder than the Brazilians.

For a tournament that has averaged two and a half goals per game thus far, there has been a reasonable amount of parity. True blowouts have been few and far between. This begs the question: Where have all the minnows gone?

Answer: The Round of 16.

Guatemala has progressed thanks to this goal kick assist at 1:25 (I apologize for the choppiness in advance):

Surely New Zealand is wondering if the eleven goals Guatemala shipped in could somehow result in the deduction of a point. While life is not so fair for the Kiwis, Guatemala's fifteen minutes of worse-than-reality TV fame should be long forgotten after their encounter with Portugal on Tuesday. Fish Bowl, here we come!

On the bright side, Nigeria have been playing some downright sexy soccer to the point where if I keep watching them my girlfriend will get jealous. The Super Eagles have pushed the throttle wide open and taken all nine points from their Group D opposition and boast two of the leading contenders for goal of the tournament have come out of the Nigerian camp. Ahmed Musa and company have earned their spot on the short list. When it's all said and done, nobody should be surprised to see them lifting the cup.

Standing in the way however, is England, who has channeled New Zealand's men's team of last year in drawing all of their group stage games – without scoring a goal. Aside from their wilted display against Mexico in Cartagena, this makeshift England team has shown why the Premiership is the most popular league on Earth. Brian Eastick's team is always on the prowl, has yet to meet a tackle it does not embrace and promises to equal the entertainment value of Nigeria Wednesday. If you can only watch one game this round, this is it.

My quarterfinalists? Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, France, Nigeria, Portugal and Argentina.

- Jacob Klinger


Darius said...

Wasn't the tournament's disappointing team the U.S.?

Jacob Klinger said...