When it was announced that India would be hosting the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, getting a chance to witness some of the finest young football talents in the world likely evoked much excitement among football fans in India. Although the opportunity to play in a World Cup represents the greatest highlight of hosting the tournament for India, it will eventually be the football played by some of the top team in the world that will account for most of the memories of the competition.
There will be thousands flocking to stadiums when the tournament gets underway in October, possibly to witness the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi play. But if they are going to see one, it won’t be from the countries that have produced these two legends.
Neither Argentina nor Portugal have qualified for tournament. However, these two aren’t the only heavyweights of the football world that will be missing from Friday's draw.
Four-time world champions Italy and Netherlands have also not made the cut.
If you take a look at all the senior World Cups played so far, there hasn’t been a single tournament where all four of these sides have failed to qualify at the same time.
In 1950, three of these teams didn’t qualify for the finals with Italy being the only one to make the cut. Coincidentally, India were slated to be a part of that World Cup, only for financial problems and lack of practice to force them to pull out.
Leaving the trivia aside, it’s important to understand that the dynamics of a junior event is much different to that of the senior one. Due to the age limit, teams keep on changing for every edition. In fact, there are only a handful of players who have played in more than one U-17 World Cups in the past.
So the performance of the team entirely depends upon the fresh crop of players it receives at that age group. Moreover results show that performances at the U-17 level have little or no bearing on the performances of national teams at the senior levels.
Nigeria are five-time champions of the U-17 World Cup, but have hardly made ripples at the senior level. In addition, the fact that even Nigeria, who have won the last two editions of the U-17 World Cup, failed to qualify for the 2017 competition showcases the unpredictability and uncertainty of football at this level.
Another major factor that explains why heavyweights are missing from the U-17 World Cups over the years is because of the lesser number of teams participating (24) at this level compared to the main World Cup (32).
Even though the difference is just eight teams, it is created by reducing the number of participants from strong footballing continents like Europe and South America. As compared to the main World Cup, where a maximum of 13 teams can qualify from Europe, the U-17 event allows just five European teams to compete. The figure for South America goes down from six to four for this event. Meanwhile, the number of slots awarded to comparatively weaker members like Asia and CONCACAF remain the same. In the case of Oceania, which doesn’t have a guaranteed spot for the main event, two spots are reserved for the U-17 World Cup.
And so big teams from Europe and South America are in greater danger of missing out.
If you look at the history of the U-17 World Cup, Argentina’s absence is slightly more surprising than it’s European counterparts. The simple reason is that they have been far more regular participants in the event. La Albiceleste have taken part in 13 tournaments so far, and only Brazil and USA have appeared in more.
Argentina though have never won the U-17 World Cup and their best performances came in 1991, 1995 and 2003 when the finished third. Ever since finishing fourth in the 2013 edition, Argentina’s youth teams have struggled to make an impact on the global stage.
To qualify for the 2017 edition, Argentina needed to finish among the top four teams in the final stage of the 2017 South American U-17 Championships. But Argentina failed to even qualify for the final stage and were knocked out of the reckoning for a place in Friday’s draw at the first stage of qualification.
La Albiceleste finished fourth in a group of six teams behind Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela who qualified for the final stage. The South American giants could only register a single win in the campaign which came against bottom side Peru. The dismal showing is a continuation of the 2015 U-17 World Cup where Argentina were knocked out of group stage after losing all three matches while scoring just one and conceding eight in three matches.
Even at the U-20 level, where Argentina have been champions a record six times, their teams have failed to reach the semi-finals since the 2007 edition that they won. These are ominous signs for the senior national team that is full of aging superstars.
For Portugal, the scenario is not too different, except their pedigree in the U-17 World Cups is virtually non-existent. Selecção have only qualified for the event twice before with their last appearance coming back in 2003. On both occasions, the team were knocked out at the quarter-final stage.
On the European scene, Portugal have been highly inconsistent. They have been part of only six of the 16 U-17 Championships, but have won two of those. Their most recent one came in 2016 when they emulated their senior team to achieve European glory.
But Selecção didn’t even qualify for the 2017 edition, giving them no chance of making the 2017 U-17 World Cup.
Like Portugal, Italy too have a poor record of appearing at the U-17 World Cups. Italy have made the cut only seven times out of 17 and have never crossed the quarter-final stage.
This is the second consecutive edition that Italy will miss after failing to qualify for the 2015 event in Chile.
However, unlike Portugal, Italy did qualify for the 2017 UEFA European Championships, but exited the tournament at the group stage. A semi-final place was the need of the hour and the Italians fell well short of that.
The Azzurri have never been too well-known for having highly successful youth teams. The Italians have no World title at the junior level and in fact have fallen well short of it on most occasions. Their U-20 team’s third place finish at the World Cup recently is their best at all the junior levels.
Often having teams valuing more than the sum of its parts, the Italians will take pride in their four World Cups at the senior level. After all success of junior teams hardly matters if it isn’t translated to success at the senior level. Just ask Nigeria.
Perennial underachievers Netherlands who are often favourites going into the main World Cups, only to not win it, also won’t be a part of Friday’s draw for the U-17 World Cup group stages.
With qualification for the tournament a tough task for European teams, Netherlands have managed to qualify for the competition just three times in the past. They bagged third place in their debut campaign in 2005, but were knocked out of the group stages in 2009 and 2011.
The Netherlands have a dismal record in the U-20 World Cups too where they have never reached the semi-final stage.
However, despite their poor record at the youth levels, the Oranje came fairly close to booking a ticket to India. In the 2017 U-17 European Championships, the Netherlands were knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals. The semi-finalists automatically qualified for the U-17 World Cup, and the fifth and final team was going to be among the beaten quarter-finalists.
The Oranje though, due to their poor showing in the group stage where they managed just one win, failed to make the cut for the World Cup play-off which took place between the two best losers from the quarter-finals. Netherlands were the third best in that race.
With the senior team failing to qualify for the 2016 Euros, and struggling to make it to the World Cup next year, Dutch football is enduring tough times. The effect can be seen on it’s junior teams as well who are struggling to make big tournaments.
The absence of these teams may take the sheen off the tournament a bit, but there will be enough big guns on show at the 2017 U-17 World Cup. So as the draw for the competition takes place on Friday, a few mouthwatering clashes are sure to be thrown up, despite the absence of these heavyweights that rule world football.
Updated Date: Jul 07, 2017 11:44 AM