Under-20 World Cup showcases best and worst of football

Posted by Adam Bate

ANTALYA, Turkey -- It might not be a World Cup year, but FIFA has still managed to make itself the focal point of attention this summer. If it's not Sepp Blatter dancing like a madman as the organisation's website is hacked, it's the protests on the streets of Brazil at the prospect of football's showpiece event coming to town next year. That said, trouble in Turkey is the last thing FIFA needs, but fortunately for the sport's governing body, its presence in the country for the Under-20 World Cup is a mystery to many.

The advertisements are everywhere. Billboards loom over the motorways and adorn the trams of Antalya where England, Iraq, Chile and Egypt are currently contesting Group E of the monthlong event. The official programme states that this is the second-biggest tournament in the FIFA calendar, but it seems that nobody told the locals. As Turkey are thumping El Salvador in their opening game, the bars blare out Brazil's win over Italy in the Confederations Cup. Even the taxi drivers are unsure of the way to the stadium where the games are being played.

Meet Kanki the dog - the official mascot of the 2013 Under-20 World CupGettyImagesMeet Kanki the dog - the official mascot of the 2013 Under-20 World Cup

Of course, the general public are incidental in all of this. Sure, the U-20 shindig receives the full FIFA treatment. There's even a mascot -- Kanki the dog, since you didn't ask -- but audience engagement is limited. Attendances are low with the cavernous Ali Sami Yen Arena in Istanbul at barely 8 percent capacity for the opening game of pre-tournament favourites Spain. It's a far cry from two years ago in Colombia when more than 20 games were witnessed by crowds in excess of 30,000.

However, for those within the game, the significance of the tournament is clearer. Scouts from clubs across Europe routinely litter the main stand. While the Under-17 World Cup may be the place to identify global talent, it is at the under-20 version where final decisions will be made. Many of the stars here remain available to the world's bigger clubs, as shown by the fact that 114 of the 126 players who could feature in the group games in Antalya are still domestic-based.

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Even the tournament format appears weighted in favour of player development and identification rather than audience enjoyment. The simple beauty of the European Under-21 Championship or the Confederations Cup is nowhere to be seen. Instead, 36 of the 52 games will be devoted to whittling the 24 starting teams down to 16 for the knockout stages - a warning of what lies ahead for those readying themselves for a bloated Euro 2016.

And yet, there is something to be said for prioritising the needs of the players over the fans. The simple joys of the game may be difficult to tease out when wading through a 113-page promotional booklet produced by the Chile press officer, but they become clear once the games get underway, when the Egypt players fall to their knees in defeat or when Iraq erupts in delight at a last-gasp equaliser.

The FIFA U-20 World Cup: Corporate junket meets pure football. It's a curious glimpse at both the best and the worst of the planet's most popular game.

Iraq's stunning comeback provides the country with much needed and much deserved optimismGettyImagesIraq's stunning comeback provides the country with much needed and much deserved optimism

Iraqi Optimism

"This was a big night for us," Iraq coach Hakeem Shaker told reporters after his side's astonishing comeback to deny England victory in its FIFA U-20 World Cup opener. At 2-0 down with a quarter of an hour remaining, there seemed little hope. However, Iraq was not to be denied and an Ali Faez penalty followed by a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser from Ali Adnan sparked ecstatic celebrations from Shaker and the bulk of the partisan Turkish crowd.

"Once we gained our confidence we were a match for them," added the coach. "Although England was very good and is a very capable team, we showed great fight to get back into it." It is the sort of fighting spirit that Iraqi football has had to show in order to endure through such a difficult period in the country's history.

Banned from the Gulf Cup of Nations from 1992 to 2004 due to the invasion of Kuwait, there have been some bright moments since the invasion of their own country by Allied forces a decade ago. Iraq was the shock winner of the 2007 Asian Cup, a joyous and cathartic triumph to draw a line under the brutal regime of Uday Hussein, the former head of the football federation and son of Saddam.

Involvement in the 2009 Confederations Cup came as a consequence of that success, but the Under-20 World Cup is Iraq's first involvement in FIFA's second-biggest international tournament since the war and is further evidence of a sport enjoying renewed life in the country. Qualification was achieved by beating Japan and Australia in the Asian Under-19 Championship, losing out to South Korea only on penalties, and those in Baghdad are in no mood to play down the accomplishment.

"This is a comeback of Iraqi football achievements," announced Iraqi Football Association president Najeh Hamoud in November. "This qualification will boost Iraqi football and it is proof that it never dies despite all hardships because we have the determination and capabilities."

As with any against-the-odds triumph, much of the focus will understandably be on the character of those concerned. However, it is important not to overlook the skill of this Iraq team as well. Mohannad Abdul-Raheem is a gifted forward who was the player of the tournament at last year's Asian U-19 Championship, while Humam Tariq is an extrovert attacking midfielder with a penchant for the spectacular overhead kick apropos of nothing - something that surely must be commended.

Both men are senior internationals and capable of making the transition to European football. More significantly, their qualities highlight the fact that, in terms of pure talent, any difference in ability at this age group is negligible in comparison to other countries. While Sunday's opponent England may bemoan the possible stunted development of its youngsters, seven of the squad played in the Premier League last season. In contrast, the entire Iraq squad remains domestic-based. As a result, the difference in their development is likely to diverge later with experience.

Of course, in the immediate future, vital experience could come far sooner than that for these Iraq players. A win over African champions Egypt on Wednesday would all but ensure a place in the knockout stages of a FIFA tournament for the first time since 1989 - and Shaker is not afraid to come up with something new for his opponents to deal with. "The tactics will not be the same against Egypt," he revealed on Sunday. "We have plans for each of the teams."

With the Iraq under-17 team also having qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup this October for the very first time, planning ahead is something Iraqi football can finally do with confidence and plenty of cause for optimism.

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