England vs Spain: Who will colonise whom?

The FIFA Under-17 World Cup final promises a free-flowing but a tactically nuanced encounter which will often see interchanging of positions and systems as the teams figure ways to assert their dominance.

England players during their practice session on the eve of the FIFA U-17 World Cup final match against Spain at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata.   -  K. R. Deepak

“The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

After a dazzling display by the youngest talents in half a century of games, the end is near for the 2017 FIFA under-17 World Cup, which has exceeded all expectations, engulfing the nation of 1.32 billion in football fervour. The titular clash, to be held in Kolkata — which saw nationalistic passions soar high with Mohun Bagan’s historic IFA Shield victory over East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911 — will see the locking of horns between two pedigreed European nations, long known for their colonising zeal.

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Spain and England’s footballing fortunes, while divergent in recent times at the international level, are based on the solidifying work of their behemoth clubs, who more often than not have dictated the European football landscape, the playground of the world’s best and richest ball-playing geniuses. La Liga rivals, Barcelona and Real Madrid account for almost half (nine players) of the Spanish junior squad, while England, too, is blessed with players from the ranks of Manchester City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool among the rest.

Drawing from the benefits of a well-defined, well-structured and ironed out youth development programme, the age-group teams of both nations have tasted recent international and continental success. The players, trudging on the newly-laid turf of the Salt Lake Stadium, for long the battleground of one of the fiercest football derbies, will be familiar to each other, as the two teams met in the final of the continental championship in May. England’s ill-luck with shootouts continued as Spain won 4-1 on penalties after the match was tied (2-2) following an action-packed battle.

Spanish players in a jovial mood along with support staff during their practice session.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

The Three Lions, however, has tasted age-group success this year, with the country’s under-20 team ending its long wait for international silverware. The side was crowned the world champion in June, defeating Venezuela in the final. The win was followed up with the European under-19 crown a month later.

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The systematic approach to youth development, starting with the introduction of the St. George’s Park National Football Centre in October 2012, is clearly showing its results, with English teams finally playing attractive football, a far cry from the rudimentary, but often effective, long-ball game.

As frequently seen in the past, this World Cup has produced a plethora of goals — an average of 3.5 per game — an indicator of the lack of defensive discipline among the free-spirited youth, yet to be well-versed with the worldly ways of the professional game. Spain and England, though, have reached the apex clash, showing certain solidity in defence. Keeping the opponents under check in three of its six games, England has perhaps marshalled the backline best. Spain, too, has been consistently frugal (in comparison to other teams in the competition), conceding five goals, while maintaining two clean sheets in its matches.

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The teams, however, have shown more enterprise when raiding the opposition bay. A tally of 18 goals, seven of them coming from Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster (including two hat-tricks), puts England at the top of the goal-scoring charts. Spain, playing a hybrid version of its famed tiki-taka, is not lagging far behind, with 15 goals.

 

Modelling flexible systems around the continental 4-2-3-1 formation, the coaches — Steve Cooper (England) and Santiago Denia — have found ways to allow the attacking players maximum freedom to impress with their creative game. The finale promises a free-flowing but a tactically nuanced encounter which will often see interchanging of positions and systems as the teams figure ways to assert their dominance.

The homo sapiens of Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’— shouting more for the sorcerers from Spain and not their colonial masters of yore — will be there to lend their record support as we wait another 90 minutes (at least) to the end to find out who sings the joyous melody of another title triumph.