FIFA U-17 WC: Paraguay, Mali warms up Group B

New Zealand will look to continue from its form in 2015, while Turkey has the UEFA U-17 European Championship performance certificate in its resume.

Gustavo Morinigo brings international playing experience to the Paraguay rookies. He represented the nation at the U-20 World Cup (Malaysia 1997) and turned out for the senior team at World Cup 2002.   -  GETTY IMAGES

The FIFA U-17 World Cup is bound to spring in a few surprises, considering the teams have the peak of youth to attack and defend. With Paraguay and Mali in the same group (B), the competition is likely to be tough. Let’s have a look.

PARAGUAY

Goalkeeper-captain Jose Luis Chilavert made Paraguay famous in the football world with goals from set pieces, apart from a massive presence under bar. He played two World Cups for the senior squad (1998 and 2002). Roque Santa Cruz, from another generation, made his nation proud as a striker in the Bundesliga (Bayern Munich) and Premier League (Blackburn Rovers). Keeping up with this South American flair for entertaining play and goal-scoring prowess, the Paraguay U-17 squad can be expected to impress fans in its fourth appearance in the FIFA event.

Paraguay’s best U-17 performance so far came on debut in World Cup 1999 held in New Zealand, where it smashed two goals against Qatar, five against Jamaica in the group stage, before qualifying for the quarterfinals against Brazil. It eventually lost 1-4 to the champion team. The next two appearances (2001 and 2015) saw its form dip and the team failed to make it to the knockout stage.

Road to India: Paraguay’s qualification from the South American U-17 Championship, featuring six powerful national youth squads, happened after holding Brazil twice (2-2 and 1-1) and Ecuador, beating Chile and Venezuela to finish third in the competition. The Gustavo Moringo-coached side was the only opponent to score against champion Brazil, marking itself as a team to watch out for.

Star watch: Skipper Roberto Fernandez, who is gifted with an ability for man-marking and equally comfortable moving with the ball in the rival half, is an asset to the team. He is a natural leader on the pitch.

Coach: Gustavo Morinigo brings international playing experience on the plate. He represented Paraguay at U-20 World Cup (Malaysia 1997) and turned out for the senior team at World Cup 2002 (South Korea/Japan). The midfielder also played in Argentina and Colombia during a 15-year stint. He started with the U-20 squad, before taking up the U-17 boys last year, transforming the side into a terrific attacking unit.

TURKEY

Turkey, ranked 33rd among FIFA nations with two World Cup appearances at the senior level, enjoyed more success in the junior ranks. As the host of World Cup U-20 in 2013, the Turks lost to France in the round of 16.

It was the European U-17 champion in 2005, from where current Borussia Dortmund pro Nuri Sahin emerged as a star, Turkey qualified for World Cup U-17 first time the same year in Peru. Four years later at World Cup U-17 2009 in Nigeria, the team advanced to the quarterfinals, before losing to Colombia on penalties.

Road to India: Turkey qualified from Europe for U-17 World Cup, after reaching the UEFA European U-17 competition semifinals and losing to champion England, so straightaway can be rated as the team to beat in Group B. Germany and Spain were the only U-17 sides to get past the former in the zonal group stage this year in May. Victories over Norway, Croatia, Italy, Hungary U-17 squads in the same event were signs of depth in the side. Having missed U-17 qualification for three World Cups in a row (2011, 2013 and 2015), it is possible for it to reproduce Euro U-17 form on a bigger stage.

Star watch: Malik Karaahmet adores Didier Drogba for skills in the goalmouth. Born in Turkey and based in Germany’s Wiesbaden, he plays for Karlsruher SC, a third division team in Germany. But he showed amazing form upfront for Turkey at the Euro U-17 event, netting three goals in five games. The young striker watches videos of his idol and dreams of scoring like the muscular Ivory Coast ace.

Coach: Bulgaria-born Mehmet Hacioglu is in charge from 2014. He is a former Fenerbahce player and has worked with Turkish teams from U-14 to U-19.

NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand’s eighth year of participation, sixth in a row, is a tremendous feat in a FIFA competition. Two years after qualifying for the first time in 1997, the Kiwis hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup, like India is doing this time, and derived benefits from the endeavor. Familiarity in match conditions did not help them gain any breakthrough on the turf, the seeds of progress though had been sowed and the rewards were witnessed in 2009, 2011, 2015.

Ten years after playing host (1999), New Zealand arrived on the world stage by qualifying for the knockout at World Cup U-17 2009 held in Nigeria, going down to the Africans in the quarterfinals. The Kiwis produced a repeat in 2011 (Mexico), losing to Japan. In 2015, Chile saw New Zealand seal a quarterfinal place for the third time in a row. The Kiwis in 2017 will be boosted by 2015 display, where they stretched Brazil to injury-time, before bowing out in the quarterfinals.

Luis Hendrique converted a match-winning penalty for Brazil in injury-time after the Kiwis missed a penalty kick in regulation time. So expecting a few shocks from New Zealanders is a probability.

Road to India: Winning the Oceania Football Confederation U-17 event was the route taken by the Kiwis. Papua New Guinea was a difficult rival in the semifinal, by then the World Cup berth had been confirmed so the team went on to demolish New Caledonia, the second qualifier from the zone, 7-0 in the title clash.

Star watch: Forward Charles Spragg. He won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball award at the OFC U-17 competition. He joined Auckland's Papakura City FC as a boy, took part in the Milk Cup played in England, testing his talents against club teams from Chelsea and AS Roma. Midfielders Oliver Duncan, playing for Brisbane Roars, remains the sole overseas professional.

Coach: Danny Ha was in charge two years ago in Chile 2015, so has the benefit of continuity. He got more time with the squad for 2017, and can only get better. A former international defender, he played in 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup for New Zealand and was chosen to lead the national side.

MALI

Mali’s reputation as a footballing power from Africa is the outcome of performances by exciting names from the nation. For example, Seydou Keita, Mamadou Diarra and Adam Traore. FC Barcelona’s Keita and Real Madrid’s Diarra were the members of a talented U-17 World Cup squad in 1997. AS Monaco signing Traore, now sent out on loan, earned the Golden Ball award at U-20 World Cup 2015.

The clinical performance (runners-up) at the U-17 World Cup 2016 in Chile, where goalkeeper Samuel Diarra won the Golden Boot award, underlined the young faces to watch out for in future. In 1997, on their first appearance in the U-17 FIFA event, the Africans went out in the quarterfinals against Germany. In 2001, the U-17 squad did not progress beyond the group stage.

Mali did not qualify till 2015 Chile, where the second place is the nation’s best result so far. Croatia in the quarterfinals, Belgium in the semifinals were brushed aside and the squad faced Nigeria in an all-African title clash. Diarra’s brilliance under the bar kept them in contention till the second half.

Road to India: Internal problems between the government and Mali Football Association (called FEMAFOOT) led to a suspension by FIFA. It was lifted just in time, when the CAF U-17 started at Gabon to decide four African qualifiers for India 2017. Mali regained the title by defeating Guinea in the semis and Ghana in the final, to be crowned the best U-17 team from the continent.

Star watch: Mohammed Camarra, midfielder and captain, led the way for Mali in CAF U-17 tournament, especially in the tough games against Guinea (won on penalties 2-0) and Ghana (won 1-0).

Team coach: Jonas Komla of Togo took over from Baye Bah, who guided Mali to U-17 World Cup final at Chile and will be hoping to go all the way this time. He has coaching expertise with Djoliba club at home and UAE team Bani Yas.