When the FIFA U-17 World Cup draw took place in Mumbai earlier this year, two of the tournament favourites found themselves in same group. Group D featured the South American U-17 champions Brazil, and the European U-17 champions Spain, along with Niger and North Korea. Considering form and reputation, it was pretty much clear even before the start of the showpiece event about which teams would qualify to the Round of 16 stage.
As it turned out, Brazil topped the group with three wins and nine points in the bag. They were followed by Spain, who won two games, and Niger, who made it to the next stage by virtue of being one of the four best third placed teams.
Brazil landed in India without their most influential player Vinicius Junior but his absence was hardly felt by the team in the group stage. Lincoln, Paulinho and Brenner took charge of the attacking department and it worked wonders for the team. Lincoln scored in all the three matches while Paulinho ended up netting two goals.
Brazil's World Cup campaign didn't start on a positive note. Minutes into their first game against Spain, they had conceded. But their persistence in the first half paid off thanks to goals from Lincoln and Paulinho. Brazil's defence was heavily tested by Spain in the second-half but they didn't crumble under pressure. Goalkeeper Gabriel also showed his class, making few fine saves and helping his team to win the match.
After passing the Spain test, Brazil did not have much trouble in winning their next two matches. Though North Korea frustrated Brazil to some extent by parking the bus, ultimately they couldn't stop the South Americans from scoring. The scoreline read 2-0 by the end of the match and the result was enough for Brazil to qualify for the next round.
Brazil maintained their winning run against Niger, beating them 2-0 and will now face Honduras in the Round of 16. It will be a Herculean task for the North American nation to halt the mighty Brazilians from entering the last eight stage.
Spain did not particularly play poorly against Brazil but they were quite wasteful of their chances. The team, captained by Abel Ruiz, also had troubles adjusting to the weather conditions in Kochi and the Brazilians exposed quite a few loopholes in Spain's defence.
Spain had a quite a bit of thinking to do after the Brazil match. In their next game against Niger, Spain made sure they lived up to their status as one of world's best. Three first-half goals — two from skipper Ruiz — ensured Niger had no chance of a comeback in the match. The match finally ended 4-0 and Spain had more or less made it through to the next round. North Korea didn't trouble them much as Spain dominated the game to see off their opponents 2-0.
But the defeat to Brazil meant Spain ended up finishing second in Group D so now they will face France for the spot in the quarter-finals.
For Niger, a country participating in the World Cup for the first time, the big game was not going to be against Spain or Brazil. It was the match against North Korea that was a crucial in terms of making it to Round of 16. Salim Abdourahmane's 59th minute strike against Asian opponents was just enough for the African nation to progress to the next round.
Niger's 1-0 victory got them the vital three points and subsequent defeats to Brazil and Spain made no dent to their chances of featuring in the knockout round.
But a third-place finish meant they will face a tough challenge against Ghana. Niger's lack of goals in the tournament is their major headache. They will try everything to prevent Ghana from scoring but victory against the Black Starlets looks highly unlikely.
Once North Korea lost their match against Niger, all their hopes of reaching the next round were squashed. To beat the likes of Brazil or Spain is more like Kim Jong-un declaring democracy in his country.
Unlike their leader's famed aggression, North Korea's U-17 football team was all about defence. In fact, playing a defensive game, North Korea did well, considering they conceded only five goals in three matches. But realistically, it was just not enough for them to make it through to the knockout stage. The boys from North Korea displayed glimpses of their talent in all three games but the team did not have much quality to make an impact.
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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 10:05:28 IST