When the draw for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 was made, Group B comprising Paraguay, Mali, New Zealand and Turkey grabbed the least attention. While the other groups were identified by the footballing powerhouses they contained, Group B was marked by the lack of it.
The junior level has its own pecking order, but the overall hierarchy in football is dictated by what a country achieves at the senior level and the number of stars they supply to the big clubs in Europe that dominate at the club level globally.
None of the four nations from Group B have won a FIFA World Cup at any age group, and they have made just 12 appearances at the senior event in totality. The group comprises teams that aren't completely alien to FIFA events, but ones that are still trying to build some sort of pedigree at the global level.
The Group B matches will take place at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai, a venue that's considered one of the finest among the other stadiums set to hold the tournament, so the teams would be keen to use the superior facilities of the venue to find their feet early in the tournament.
Last edition's runners-up Mali start as favourites to progress out as winners, while Turkey should provide the stiffest challenge to the African champions. Paraguay, who qualified after an impressive South American qualification, will be keen to disrupt this early notion, while New Zealand, who managed to qualify out of their group in 2015, will be no pushovers.
With these competitive teams all set to kick-start the battle for qualification, here's a detailed look at each team in Group B.
A glance at Paraguay's recent record in the run-up to the tournament won't have their opponents trembling in fear, but it's certain to give them a feeling of discomfort. The South Americans have established themselves as tough nuts to crack, with the Brazil U-17 coach Carlos Amadeu calling them a "unit stronger than the sum of their parts."
The verdict comes as no surprise as the Paraguayans were the only team to deny Brazil a win on their march to the South American crown. In fact, it was a feat that they had achieved twice in that competition.
Paraguay, who are coached by Gustavo Morinigo, lost just one game in the entire South American U-17 Championships including the qualifiers, to finish third in the final standings.
A group of players who have played together since a long time, they are a cohesive unit who have left no stone unturned in terms of their preparations for the competition. It included training at 2 am in the night just to get accustomed to the time zone in India. So expect the South Americans to continue their trend of springing up a surprise or two.
Past U-17 World Cup record: Like the other teams in the group, Paraguay haven't won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in their history. They have made just three appearances at the event in the past with their best effort coming back in 1999 when they reached the quarter-finals. In their other two editions, they exited the tournament at the group stage, which includes succumbing to a stoppage-time winner from New Zealand in the final group game of 2015. With the Kiwis in their group once again, it's a result that the Paraguayans would like to reverse in 2017.
Key Players: Forward Fernando Romero scored three goals for Paraguay during the South American championship and will lead their attack along with Fernando Cardozo, who's made an appearance for Olimpia's senior team, a club that's contributed to six players from the current side. Goalkeeper Diego Huesca, who's the only player from the team to play in Europe with La Liga giants Valencia, is sure to play a key role.
Mali, last edition's runners-up, enter the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup as African champions and are favourites, not just to advance from this group as winners, but also for the tournament.
Mali were unbeaten on their way to becoming African champions and only conceded two goals in the process. With three clean sheets in the competition, the Africans will be quite tough to defeat and the rest of the teams might have to look at other games to secure points from.
Although the Malians failed to score in two of the five matches of the African Championships, the team showed great mental strength to win two win closely-contested matches against Guinea and Ghana in the knockout stage. The mental aspect is one thing coach Jonas Komla has spoken a lot about in the lead up to the tournament and it could give them the edge in this group.
Past U-17 World Cup record: In India, Mali will make their fifth appearance at the U-17 event. Although scarce, Mali's time at the U-17 World Cups has been fairly fruitful. Apart from their second-place finish last time around, the African side reached the quarter-finals in 1997 and 2001.
Key Players: Hadji Drame, who plays as a forward will have to share the bulk of the attacking responsibility having scored three of their nine goals at the African Championships. The other player to watch out for would be midfielder Mamadou Samake, who netted the winner in the final against Ghana in the African Championships.
New Zealand, the perennial OFC U-17 champions, will once again be making the transition from undisputed kings of their confederation to relative underdogs on the global stage when they take to the field in Mumbai.
Having thumped New Caledonia 7-0 in the final of the OFC Championships, and scoring scoring nine goals for each every goal conceded in the same competition, the real challenge always begins at a World Cup for the Men in Black.
The dire need for his side to face sterner opposition has been palpable in coach Danny Hay's pre-tournament comments, but his side have managed to give a good account of themselves in the warm-up matches against Brazil and England — in both games they managed to score and only lost by the margin of a solitary goal.
Past U-17 World Cup record: New Zealand have appeared in seven previous editions and haven't fared as badly as is always expected of them. They have managed to reach the Round of 16 on three occasions in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
Key Players: Charles Spragg was New Zealand's top scorer in the OFC Championships with seven goals to his name. The striker will once again be key to their chances in 2017. Captain Max Mata, a towering figure in central midfield will look to be the glue that holds this New Zealand side together.
Turkey, one of Europe's five representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017, carry some big expectations after having qualified from what is the most competitive confederation at this age group.
The Turks finished ahead of Italy and Crotia in their group in the European U-17 Championships, before edging out Hungary in the quarter-finals. England got the better of them in the semi-finals, but the Turks made the Englishmen sweat it out to reach the final.
In a group featuring evenly-matched teams, Turkey will fancy their chances having fine-tuned their skills against much stronger opponents in the European Championships.
Past U-17 World Cup record: The Turks have been far from regulars at the FIFA U-17 World Cups and the 2017 edition will see them taking part in just their third World Cup at this age group. On the previous two occasions, they had a memorable fourth-place finish in 2005 and a run to the quarter-final in 2009.
Key Players: Malik Karaahmet was the team's top scorer in the European Championships with three goals, and is expected to be their chief goal threat along with Ahmed Kutucu, who is a part of for German club FC Schalke. Atalay Babacan, who was the only Turk in the team of the 2017 European U-17 Championships, will also look to make it big on the global stage.
Despite any big names, Group B could throw up some close and thrilling encounters in this World Cup, and with teams that have an upset or two in them, could potentially be the group where the tournament's surprise package comes from.
Published Date: Oct 06, 2017 11:36 am | Updated Date: Oct 06, 2017 11:36 am