As the dust settles on what was an intriguing draw for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, it's that time again: when analysts and pundits try and gauge the "Group of Death", a sports cliche that, to use a sports cliche, is a proven match-winner each time.
The fact of the matter is, at the U-17 World Cup, four groups out of six will send three teams into the knockout stages to make up 16 teams. Thus seeing any pre-tournament favourites witnessing "death" in the group stages itself would be difficult, unless they have a meltdown. Moreover, there's the small matter of the U-17 age group not really caring too much for trivial matters such as reputations of the national teams at the senior level or past track records. Just ask Nigeria, the five-time winners and defending champions, who have not even made the cut this time around.
So, really, no one is a clear favourite!
Having said that, there are factors which help us fathom which team is a strong one – be it the way they qualified for the U-17 World Cup in the first place, their past performance in the U-17 World Cup and the footballing exposure the players of the team have received.
Then it becomes abundantly clear that Group F, with Iraq, Mexico, Chile and England, bears a small resemblance to the Group of Death. Not a striking resemblance. More like the one between distant cousins.
Consider this: England, who finished second in the UEFA U-17 Championship, are Europe's representatives in the group. In fact, they could have been the UEFA U-17 champions had they not conceded an injury-time goal against Spain in the final. That goal forced the game into a penalty shootout, where Spain triumphed.
Then there's Mexico, the CONCACAF champions. The Mexicans have appeared in 12 of the 16 editions of the U-17 World Cup – with two of those campaigns in 2005 and 2011 – fetching them titles. In their last appearance at Chile two years ago, they ended up 4th after losing to eventual winners Nigeria.
They were also in rampaging form in the CONCACAF U-17 Championship earlier this year, slamming 22 goals in just six games. Their only defeat at the tournament came at the hands of the USA team, who pipped them 3-4 in an entertaining group stage encounter. However, the El Tri got revenge for that defeat by beating USA to clinch their seventh CONCACAF title.
Also in the mix are Chile, who finished second in their South American U-17 Championships. They have only played in three editions before this, but notably finished third in the 1993 edition. The La Roja also hosted the last edition of the tournament.
In earning qualifying for the U-17 World Cup, they showed an uncanny ability to grind out 1-0 results – five of their results in the tournament came with the margin. Despite sealing qualification by finishing second in the uber-competitive South American zone, Chile will be smarting from the 0-5 defeat Brazil inflicted on them in the final group stage match.
Coach Hernan Caputto, who was present in Mumbai for the draw on Friday, admitted the odds will be against his side when the tournament begins on 6 October.
"We are grouped with a very tough team like Mexico. Other countries like Iraq and England are equally strong. We know we have the potential but we need to speed up a little. Our team is going to prepare well for the tournament. Also, before coming to India, we might play friendly matches against England and Iraq in Europe to get used to the conditions," Caputto told reporters on Friday.
The fourth team in the fray are Asian champions Iraq, who claimed the AFC U-16 Championships in 2016 thanks to their direct style of football. They have previously competed at the U-17 World Cup in 2013, where they lost all their group matches to be dumped out in the first stage itself.
But at the AFC U-16 Championship, the Iraqi outfit proved that it is a pragmatic unit, preferring to put long, diagonal passes behind the rivals' defence than trying to build their attacks patiently.
The format of the U-17 World Cup will mean that the four best-placed third place teams will make it to the last-16 besides the top two teams from each group.
That will leave the second-best side in Europe, the North American champions, the second-best team in South America and the Asian champions fighting for three, or possibly two, spots.
To use another sports cliche, something's got to give.
Published Date: Jul 08, 2017 07:07 pm | Updated Date: Jul 08, 2017 07:07 pm