FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Former champions France head plethora of footballing cultures in Group E
Group E throws open a plethora of footballing cultures with a debutant (New Caledonia), a former winner (France), an Asian giant (Japan) and a dash of Latin America (Honduras) too.
The 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup juggernaut rolls into town in what will be the biggest global single sporting event ever hosted by India. As the clock ticks down to the last-minute tweaks and preparations before kick-off, Group E throws open a plethora of footballing cultures with a debutant, a former winner, an Asian giant and a dash of Latin America too. Only the top two teams from each group cement their place along with the four best third-placed teams in the Round of 16.
The Hondurans have been regular occupants of a spot in the showpiece event of global U-17 football for a decade now. In hope of emulating the success achieved over the years by fellow Hispanic countries, Los Catrachos retained most of the technical staff, helmed by Jose Valladares that led them to the quarter-finals of the 2013 edition. Valladares will step into his third successive FIFA U-17 World Cup as the head coach of his national side.
A robust youth development mechanism brought into effect post the turn of the millennium has ensured relative success in their regional CONCACAF U-17 tournaments. However, with the presence of teams like the USA and Mexico, the best finish Honduras have ever registered was in 2015, ending runners-up to Mexico, incidentally in front of their home crowd.
While a top-two finish in the group is not out of reach, a lot will depend upon how Honduras begin the campaign in their opening game against Japan, given they have been slow starters traditionally, which proves to be their undoing in the end. In their last friendly before they left for India, Honduras were defeated 8-0 by Spain U-17 — not really a morale-booster coming into a major tournament.
Highlights: It will be the fifth time Honduras make their way into the tournament finals after they have first qualified in 2007. Having only missed to enter in 2011, Honduras did not even win a single game until their third participation in UAE, 2013 where they lost in the quarter-finals to Sweden.
Key Players: Carlos Mejia recovered from an injury in time to make the trip to India and is the most lethal player Valladares has in his ranks. He won the Golden Boot in the CONCACAF U-17 Championship earlier this year for his seven goals.
Alexander Bahr, a product of the Atlanta United academy in the MLS will be key to shore up the leaky defence, which has conceded 10 goals in their last three games.
Ever since J-League academies were overhauled to facilitate the influx of thriving Japanese talent into the big time, the Samurai Blues have been carving a reputation for themselves in youth football. Qualifying for their eighth U-17 World Cup after failing to do so in 2015, Japan will fancy an easy passage into the knockouts. The real push begins from thereon, as despite their potential, Japan have been sent home from the first round itself on four occasions.
Losing semi-finalists in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championships in Goa, Japan remained unbeaten on both points and goals in the group round. However, a 2-4 loss to Iraq in the semi-final did not deter them from being one of the first teams to ever qualify for the tournament, more than a year ago.
Head coach Yoshiro Moriyama has put emphasis on percentage football and concentrates on swift attacks, given he was a striker himself. While Japan look increasingly favourites to emerge out of the group, the real test will come in the latter stages, where they tend to choke more often than not.
Highlights: Japan’s best ever finishes have only been quarter-final appearances twice in 1993 as host and in 2011. In 2013, Japan won all their group games but fell cheaply to Sweden 2-1 in the Round-of-16 match.
Key Players: Only 16, Takefusa Kubo, the 'Japanese Messi', is a former FC Barcelona player in their La Masia setup until the Catalans were found to have violated FIFA’s transfer policy for Under-18 players and the forward had to return home in 2015. He already has a taste of a world cup, fresh after making the trip to South Korea for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup with the Japan U-20s.
The first time U-17 World Cup participants New Caledonia also become only the sixth current member to qualify for a FIFA World Cup from their confederation, the OFC. The Kagues have finished second in their regional tournament three times — 2003, 2013 and 2017 with the last one definitely the sweetest, which confirmed their ticket to India.
Dominique Wacalie took over the side in April 2017. A player who plied his trade for many years in the lower leagues of France, will be aiming to punch above their weight. However, the odds are stacked heavily against the Pacific nation to even win a single point given no prior experience of a global event.
Highlights: One of the three teams to make their U17 World Cup bow alongside Niger and hosts India, New Caledonia have always finished top four in the qualifying process except for in 2011. Ever since an extra spot opened up for OFC members, New Caledonia now will aim to break New Zealand’s longstanding dominance.
Key Players: Defender Bernard Iwa has the uncanny ability to enter the opposition half and rattle his opposite numbers. With the absence of Paul Gope-Fenepej, Theo Bosshard will have to take up the mantle of scoring goals.
French teenagers have been taking the footballing world by storm over the past few years and eyeballs will be transfixed as to know if the next one is hidden amongst this current crop. A breeding ground for the likes of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappe, France have been pretty erratic in their U-17 World Cup track record. It is the first time Les Bleuets have qualified for successive editions after getting knocked out in the Round of 16 in 2015, Chile.
Being the last team to qualify from Europe, head coach Lionel Rouxel has his task cut out with France being termed as one of the contenders for the title. The ideology of the team revolves around attack with the squad carrying in seven players of such repute. Experience of training in a ‘big-team’ atmosphere with the likes of Olympique Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain will serve team members well in the long run.
Highlights: This is only the sixth participation for the 2001 champions. After their first appearance in 1984, France had almost gone into hiding until they came back in their title-winning edition. Apart from that, they have reached the quarter-finals twice in 2007 and 2011.
Key Players: Mark the name Amine Gouiri as the Lyon striker is the buzz of the town back home. He top scored in the U-17 Euros with eight goals to his name and has already been drafted to his club’s reserve side. With his strike partner from PSG, Yacine Adli is expected to form a lethal combo up top.
France and Japan look mighty favourites to top the group, thus making their match on 11 October at Guwahati the marquee of this group. Interestingly, a Francophone derby awaits on the very first game of the group itself when a Special Collectivity of France take on the mainland team. Honduras on the other hand will be looking to secure a knockout place well ahead of their game against France on the final match day.
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