Security questions dog U-17 World Cup in Nigeria
With new U-20 World cup champion Ghana still trying on its new crown, the world of international soccer is ready to continue its African adventure, moving south across the Sahara to Nigeria for the U-17 World Cup.
But that transition might be less than smooth, as a host of challenges have emerged before the tournament even kicks off in a country just a little too unstable for many outside observers and most soccer fans.
The incongruity of playing a tournament for teenagers from around the world in a country with ongoing civil strife and serious security issues exemplifies why off-the-field issues top the storylines heading into the second youth World Cup in as many months on the African continent.
1. Will there be any fallout from the decision to stick with Nigeria as host?
If a country with constant internal conflict and occasional open warfare, problems with infectious disease, and perpetual budgetary problems -- to use a FIFA-style euphemism -- seems to you like an odd place to hold an international youth soccer tournament, you're among the majority that doesn't completely grasp FIFA's internal politics.
Yet even in FIFA's candy-coated world of international doublespeak, Nigeria has still managed to receive about the lowest possible ratings for its efforts as the event approaches. As recently as three weeks ago, tournament chairman Jack Warner said Nigeria was not ready, and FIFA bureaucrats were still making noises about moving the tournament just last week. In the end it was too late to do anything, and the decision was made to press on and hope the anticipated organizational issues don't spill on to the field.
"I think the issue with Nigeria is more something parents and other people have focused on," said American goalkeeper Earl Edwards. "From the standpoint of the team, I think all of us are just worried about performing no matter where it is, and we really haven't let that get to us at all."
In the meantime, most international media and all but the hardiest in the global soccer industry are skipping the trip, and FIFA has decided to send a "B" team of organizers. The hope is that everyone gets through the three weeks without any of the numerous worst-case scenarios coming to pass.
2. The age issue
There really shouldn't be an issue regarding age, given that the rules are laid out clearly enough in the name of the tournament. But much like the Little League World Series, it turns out some participants have, for quite a while now, been taking the tournament's age restrictions as a suggestion rather a regulation.
"The fact is that the incidence of overage players has been rampant in the Under-17s," said FIFA vice president Jack Warner at the close of the U-20 World Cup in Egypt, while explaining new measures being taken this year in Nigeria to avoid age-related cheating.
FIFA has instituted a simple MRI test which scans the bones in the wrist and detects accurately if a player in question is older than seventeen. The result, primarily in Africa, has been chaos. First, would-be finalist Niger was disqualified from the African U-17 championships for using overage players, making way for a Malawi side that had already purged a number of ineligible players from its roster before the tournament. Gambia went on to win the title, but then suddenly dropped the core of its team before a training stint abroad, without explanation but immediately after subjecting them to the MRI tests. In the meantime, host Nigeria ruled out nearly half of its player pool.
African teams have always been disproportionately strong at the youth levels, making this U-17 tournament -- the first guaranteed to be contested on a level playing field where age is concerned -- somewhat of a verdict on the legitimacy of that past success.
3. Who are the real young stars?
With limited international competition, it can be very hard to judge relative talent across nations at this level. Each country therefore enters the competition with its own youth version of the next international superstar, so the U-17 tournament provides a good stage to compare players from diverse backgrounds on even terms. Many of those players hyped going in will likely fall flat, while others will come from nowhere to perform brilliantly.
In 2005 the Mexican tandem of Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela lit up Peru on their way to the title. Vela later signed with Arsenal. Two years ago, it was Spanish duo Bojan Krkic and Fran Merida that impressed.
Though players are being discovered at ever younger ages, this is still the best international stage left to discover a concentrated wealth of new young talent. That means there are dreams and money to be made, so scores of scouts will descend upon Nigeria despite the complications of the trip. With their presence in mind, players are anxious to perform to the peak of their abilities to get to the next level.
"As far as going overseas after the tournament, or trying to go pro afterwards," Edwards said, "going overseas is a strong possibility for a lot of us."
4. Which will be this year's surprise teams?
Though almost an afterthought to the frenzy to find new talent, there's a World Cup trophy to be won, and the contenders on this stage are sometimes less familiar names in the global soccer hierarchy.
While the usual suspects like Brazil, Nigeria, and Spain are no strangers to the top of the podium at this event, more exotic soccer-playing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia and Burkina Faso have also found themselves among the medal winners in past years, allowing every team present to at least dream of taking home a world title.
As usual, this year's field includes a number of lesser-known soccer nations, so from among the field of pretenders a dark horse is likely to emerge.
5. Can the U.S. break through at the youth level?
Despite the singular distinction of being the only team to qualify for all 13 U-17 World Cups, the United States has never been able to parlay that consistency into a trip to the medal podium. In 1999 Landon Donovan was named the tournament's top player and led the Americans to a fourth-place finish, their best ever, but the Americans have been also-rans in the dozen other editions of the tournament.
There is some reason to believe this year could be different, with coach Wilmer Cabrera instilling an attack-minded attitude into what seems a very talented group of young Americans.
Here's a further look at those teams that will be vying with the Americans for the title, and some of the players that might steal the headlines in Nigeria, and for years to come:
Group A: Argentina, Germany, Honduras, Nigeria
Argentina and Germany are two perennial favorites at this level, because of the quantity and quality of players their systems produce on an annual basis. Argentina, which defeated the United States 5-1 in a friendly earlier this year, fields forward Daniel Villalva, who has seen time for Argentine power River Plate's senior team. The Argentines also boast a defense which allowed only four goals in five South American qualifying matches.
Germany has continued to build its own youth ranks and took the European U-17 championship on its way to Nigeria, bolstered by Liverpool youth academy midfielder Christopher Buchtmann and forward Lennart Thy of the Bundesliga's Werder Bremen.
If Honduras had a hard time advancing out of a weak group at the U-20 World Cup, the Catrachos are certainly up against it in Nigeria. Only the hosts, with a watered-down roster after their age-test purge, look to be accessible opponents for the Central Americans, playing in their second youth World Cup.
Group B: Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland
Perennial favorites at all levels, South American champions Brazil come to Nigeria looking for their fourth title at this level, which would move them ahead of the hosts into sole possession of first place on the all-time U-17 list. The Brazilians scored an impressive 2.4 goals per game in qualifying behind forwards Wellington and Coutinho, but anyone from their roster full of single monikers could potentially find stardom in Africa.
Like the U.S., Mexico swept through its CONCACAF qualifying group, but the inevitable showdown for regional supremacy had to be put off when the final stages of the tournament in Tijuana were canceled after the outbreak of swine flu. Led by forward Victor Mañon, a teammate of Paco Torres at Pachuca, the young version of El Tri have also added American-raised FC Dallas midfield prodigy Bryan Leyva to their ranks, though their leading scorer in qualifying, Cruz Azul's Martin Galvan, has been left at home following a violation of team rules.
Switzerland and Japan round out a group that will be a tough test for the teams from America. The Japanese boast a promising generation featuring a high-powered and organized attack, while the Swiss, in their first World Cup at this level, have a solid defense to go with attacking threat Nassim Ben Khalifa of Grasshopper Zurich.
Group C: Colombia, Gambia, Iran, Netherlands
If they can handle the heat in the sweltering port city of Calabar, the Netherlands will be the favorite in this group. The European runners-up are stocked with youth players from Holland's biggest clubs, and are led by Feyenoord striker Luc Castaignos, who is reportedly being pursued by the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea.
The toughest test for the Dutch is likely to come from Colombia, a South American semifinalist guided by the midfield play of Edwin Cardona, who managed seven goals in qualifying.
African champions Gambia have been strong at this level in past years, but lost almost half their championship team to the MRI age test. Their leading scorer, Ebrima Bojang, recently signed on with French League One side St. Etienne, and is among the key figures remaining. The Iranians bring a largely unknown domestic-based team that finished second in Asian qualifying, led by that qualifying tournament's leading scorer, Kaveh Rezaei.
Group D: Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Turkey
Quarterfinalists in the last four U-17 World Cups, Costa Rica should be pleased with its draw, though this version of looks weaker than those previous editions after edging Guatemala to the last regional qualifying spot on goal differential. Forwards Joel Campbell and Rosbin Mayorga will hope to follow in the footsteps of previous Ticos such as Hernan Medford and Celso Borges, who have made their names in this tournament.
The other contenders in the group are Turkey, which snatched the last Euro spot from England behind the play of highly rated Bursapor striker Muhammet Demir, and Burkina Faso, which has had some success at this level in the past, finishing third in 2001. Oceania champions New Zealand hope to somehow make the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament for the first time at any level.
Group E: Malawi, Spain, United Arab Emirates, USA
The U.S. faces a top-heavy group, starting with a matchup with always-highly rated Spain. Coach Cabrera prefers to attack first and ask questions later, but the Americans are short a number of dangerous offensive options with the absences of promising young players Charles Renken, Joseph Gyau and Sebastian Lletget. Cabrera's remaining arsenal, led by strikers Stefan Jerome and Jack McInerney and midfielder Luis Gil, should still easily find its way into the elimination rounds and could go even farther.
Emulating the success of the senior team, Spain's youngsters have not lost in 20 matches, despite the failure to qualify for the semifinals at the Euro championships after three scoreless draws in the group stage. The Spaniards -- who beat the U.S. 2-1 with a late goal in a friendly match in Madrid early this year -- got through to the World Cup anyway, led by FC Barcelona defender Marc Muniesca and Real Madrid midfield prospect Pablo Sarabia.
Malawi backed into the World Cup after Niger was disqualified from the African qualifiers for using ineligible players, and has had to revamp its own squad as well to conform to FIFA's newly tightened regulations. Rounding out the group is the United Arab Emirates, which finally agreed to attend the tournament after threatening to pull out due to the poor organization and security provisions, and may surprise in its first appearance at a youth World Cup in 18 years.
Group F: Algeria, Italy, South Korea, Uruguay
World power Italy headlines what should be a highly competitive group played in the northern town of Kaduna. As usual, the Italians pride themselves on a defense-first approach that will keep them in the match against any opponent. But that brand of soccer has never gotten the Italians very far in previous U-17 World Cups, a history they hope to improve on behind goal-scoring prospect Giacomo Beretta of AC Milan.
Danubio striker Gonzalo Barreto leads the Uruguayan attack for a team that resembles the country's senior side in its reliance on defense and individual creativity. For its part, South Korea has not navigated the group stage of this tournament successfully since 1987, but may like its chances this time around in a group rounded out by Algeria, one of the few African teams not tarnished by the player-age scandal as it makes its first-ever appearance at this level.
With so many questions to be answered on and off the field, it's sure to be an exciting three weeks in Nigeria as new stars emerge, highly touted teams and individuals fall by the wayside, and a youth world champion emerges from the heart of Africa.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at email@example.com.