Two tones of blue battle for the U-20 World Cup

Posted by Cetin Cem Yilmaz

Uruguay's players celebrate their victory over Iraq in the penalty shootout of their Under-20 World Cup semifinal.GettyImagesUruguay's players celebrate their victory over Iraq in the penalty shootout of their Under-20 World Cup semifinal.

France and Uruguay will battle for glory in the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup final on Saturday, while Turkey attempts to take some positives from hosting the tournament, which concludes in Istanbul.

A few weeks ago, few would have predicted that Les Bleuets and La Celeste would be contesting the showpiece, but the duo have overcome some of the biggest obstacles that a tournament full of incidents could throw up and have earned their shot at the title.

Speaking at the news conference on Friday, Jim Boyce, FIFA's vice president and chairman of the organizing committee, praised the level of the competition so far and said: "We've seen some fantastic games. There's been some really exciting football, last-minute goals, penalty shootouts.

"I think those involved with the teams have encouraged the players to entertain the fans, play football and football has been the winner. The football quality has been tremendous."

He should have added the surprise factor too. Unfancied duo South Korea and Uzbekistan advanced beyond expectation and Iraq even managed to reach the semifinals. Conversely, heavyweights Spain and Colombia bowed out early, despite their star-studded squads.

But the fact that France and Uruguay meet in the showpiece final on Saturday shows that it is not just about talent, but about being a team.

France were the perfect tournament side: they were not flawless from the beginning, but they got better with time. Everyone knew they had Paul Pogba, hands down the most in-form player from the off, but Les Bleuets managed to improve their other key men with every stage. Jean-Christophe Bahebeck is an undeniable presence in front of the goal, Geoffrey-Kondogbia's versatility was impressive and Florian Thauvin made a late impact.

Coach Pierre Mankowski should take the credit for finding the right balance for this group of stars. The case with Thauvin is typical of how he handled the group. Thauvin was not producing the goods on the pitch, but Mankowski stuck with him and managed to get the most out of him when it mattered; the striker scored a brace against Ghana in the semifinal.

And the entire France team got better with every round. Against Spain, they looked out of sorts. They were clueless as to how to snatch the ball from the Spanish feet and did not force the tempo when they eventually did get possession. Two weeks on, they will be battling for the final, while Spain are at home.

France duo Pierre Yves Polomat and Lucas Digne celebrate beating Ghana in the semi-finals.
GettyImagesFrance duo Pierre Yves Polomat and Lucas Digne celebrate beating Ghana in the semis.

Les Bleuets should thank Uruguay for that, though. La Celeste knocked out the tournament's clear favourites and blew the U-20 World Cup wide open. Unlike most teams facing Spain, Uruguay did not just sit at the back while the Spanish were passing around and tried to break the links by pressuring them.

And unlike most teams in the U-20 age group, Uruguay knew about being patient. They waited more than 100 minutes for the goal that broke the deadlock, just as they kept their cool and scored the late equalizer against Iraq in the semifinals. They knew Iraq were notoriously weak dealing with high balls and fed the forwards in such a manner until they eventually got what they needed.

Before the final kicks off, Iraq and Ghana will contest the third- and fourth-place playoff in the same Ali Sami Yen Arena as the headliners, as a sort of warm-up act. Hopefully, the two most exciting teams of the competition will receive some much-needed crowd attention.

Turkey has fared significantly low in terms of attendance, so at least making an impression for the final is of utmost importance for the hosts. According to the FIFA figures, Turkey 2013 has drawn the smallest attendances of all U-20 World Cups, averaging 5,230 spectators per game.

The number is remarkably low, especially compared to the last three tournaments, in Colombia, Egypt and Canada, when average figures were around 24,000. Those figures do not bode well for Turkey's hopes of hosting the 2020 Olympic Games. Yes, Istanbul has impressed the International Olympic Committee with its budget and promises to deliver, but the empty seats in the stands will likely be a question on the voters' minds when September comes and it's time to pick the 2020 host.

On the organization side of things, Turkey pulled it off. There were no apparent problems and things went smoothly, despite a number of off-the-pitch distractions. This was important for a country that, despite its recent experiences of top sports events, was hosting a major multicity tournament for the first time.

Tournament director Ilker Ugur said on the Tribun Dergi website that he's happy with the impression the organization made on the visitors, and speaking from my personal experiences with international supporters and journalists I can say he is right. Ugur says the tournament fulfilled its promise: "A perfect organization, good pitches, experienced local organization committee and flawless infrastructure."

"No security problems" could be added to that. And that is some feat in the midst of nationwide antigovernment protests.

Now he, along with all the other football officials, should be worrying about one thing: why a football-mad nation proved to be so indifferent to a major event.

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