Europe on the march in the World Cup U-20s

Posted by Adam Bate

ANTALYA, Turkey -- South American domination of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup has been remarkable over the past two decades. The continent has provided eight of the previous 10 winners of the tournament, with Africa and Europe claiming one trophy apiece. Both Brazil and Argentina failed to qualify for this year's competition, but with Italy, Germany and Netherlands also absent, South America might have expected its reign to continue. However, the early signs here are that the winner is likely to come from Europe.

The representatives of UEFA are faring well so far, having lost two of their 19 matches against teams from other continents. Croatia's win over Uruguay in the opening round of group games surprised many, while Greece edging ahead of Paraguay in Group D -- albeit thanks to the drawing of lots (for once, a genuine lottery) -- means four of the six groups were topped by European sides. Six of the continent's representatives take their place in the knockout stages with only England, as is customary, failing to deliver.

Perhaps surprisingly, this improved showing was predicted by Turkey coach Feyyaz Ucar on the eve of the tournament. “The European teams are better both tactically and technically,” he argued, before adding: “Spain and France will bring life to this tournament.” It might be counterintuitive to what we know of the Under-20 World Cup, but Spanish football is forcing those ideas to be abandoned. The only team with a perfect record in the group stages of this competition, Spain's performances have confirmed that it can be considered the world leader across all age groups.

Furthermore, the fact that these results are being achieved in the stifling heat of the Turkish summer could well challenge the notion that a South American nation must, by default, win a World Cup in South America. Spain is only the fourth favourite with the bookmakers to successfully defend their senior title next summer in Brazil. While history should inform our view of the future, the lesson of the Under-20 World Cup appears to be that we should not neglect the compelling evidence of the present.

AP Photo/Walter MorenoChile coach Mario Salas has come under fire for his player selections at the U-20s.

South American scrutiny
While Europe impresses on the pitch, there can be no question that off-the-field South Americans continue to take this competition more seriously than their friends in the host continent. Average attendances are below 5,000 in Turkey, down from the astonishing figure of more than 25,000 per game in Colombia two years ago, and many of the fans in the stadiums have come from the CONMEBOL region to cheer on their sides.

Evidence of this passion for the tournament has been plentiful in the Antalya press box. During England's clash with Chile, journalists from the UK were outnumbered 10 to 1 by their Chilean colleagues. While English media outlets have only a passing interest, in Chile they appear to be lapping it up.

England coach Peter Taylor must be grateful for the easy ride in the absence of the tabloid hacks from his homeland. While Taylor's news conference questions in midweek were dominated by demands for his thoughts on Chile's approach, his counterpart, Mario Salas, received a tense interrogation regarding his selection of Angelo Henriquez ahead of Christian Bravo, as well as his subsequent substitutions and tactical changes.

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Unfortunately for Salas, the demands for answers have only increased following Saturday's surprise 2-1 defeat to Iraq in the final round of games in Group E. The result consigned Chile to the runners-up spot and left the assembled journalists questioning the decision to rest key players such as Bryan Rabello and Nicolas Castillo, the latter not even being introduced from the bench.

Of course, there is still time for Chile to turn things around with a last-16 tie against Croatia looming, while hopes are high for Colombia -- the only South American team to top their group. However, much to the annoyance of their passionate public and press, it seems as though a significant improvement will be required if Europe is to be denied the trophy in Istanbul on July 13.

Adam Bate is a football writer for Sky Sports, freelance feature writer for ESPN and regular contributor for When Saturday Comes and FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter at @ghostgoal.

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