Iran knows what India is like!
After failing to qualify for the first eight editions, Iran took part in the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time in 2001, where it suffered three defeats and finished bottom of the group. Eight years later, the Asian side was at Nigeria 2009, where it exited in the Round of 16, losing 2-1 after extra-time to Uruguay. At UAE 2013, Iran again reached the knockout stages, but again suffered defeat, losing 4-1 to Nigeria, the eventual champion.
Road to Finals
At last year’s AFC U-16 Championship in Goa, Iran emerged runner-up, losing only on penalties to neighbour Iraq. Team Melli scored 13 goals in all at the tournament, second only to Japan (24). In the group stages, Iran finished on top of Group A, edging the UAE on goal difference. It secured its place at the U-17 World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Vietnam in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Iran overcame a dogged North Korea on penalties.
Stars to watch
Alireza Asadabadi, Allahyar Sayyad, Mohammad Sharifi and Mohammad Ghaderi all scored three goals each at last year’s AFC U-16 Championship. Sharifi, a central midfielder, currently plays for Saipa FC in the Persian Gulf Pro League. Centre forward Younes Delfi, who plays for Esteghlal Khuzestan, is also one to watch out for.
Abbas Chamanyan coached a number of clubs before taking charge of the Iranian U-20 national team in 2002. The following year, he took over the reins of the U-17 team for the first time, steering Team Melli to a fourth-place finish at the 2004 AFC U-17 Championship. His team missed out on qualification for the 2005 U-17 World Cup, but the 53-year-old returned to the helm last year and helped the team book its spot at India 2017 through the AFC U-16 Championship.
Guinea: Can the junior elephant trample?
Guinea’s senior team has never taken part in the FIFA World Cup but for the U-17s, this year will mark a fifth appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The country was ravaged by the Ebola virus between 2014 and 2016, during which time the country’s clubs and national teams were forced to play all their games away from home, but that had no impact on the country’s football as demonstrated by Guinea’s qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup and India 2017. Nicknamed Le Syli Cadet (‘Junior National Elephants’), Guinea was part of the inaugural edition in 1985, back when the tournament was known as the FIFA U-16 World Championship. Guinea finished fourth on that occasion, losing 4-1 to Brazil in the bronze-medal play-off. On its next two appearances, at Scotland 1989 and Ecuador 1995, Guinea failed to progress beyond the first round. Two years ago in Chile, Guinea again stumbled at the first hurdle, drawing with England (1-1) and losing to Brazil (3-1) and South Korea (1-0).
Road to Finals
Guinea booked its spot at India 2017 via the CAF U-17 Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, where it eventually finished third. Guinea’s place at the continental championship was itself in doubt after it was drawn against Morocco in the second round of qualifying. But the side rallied from 1-0 down in both legs before progressing on penalties. After the third round, Guinea made it to the U-17 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. There, it finished second in a group including the host, Ghana and Cameroon to advance to the semifinals and thus seal its berth at India 2017. Guinea then lost to Mali on penalties in the semifinals but saw off Niger 3-1 in the third-place play-off.
Stars to Watch
At this year’s U-17 Africa Cup of Nations, Guinea’s Djibril Fandje Toure finished as top scorer with six goals to win the golden boot award. He is one to keep an eye on, as is midfielder Elhadj Bah, who scored twice.
Souleymane Camara understands that his side is in a tough group but he is far from giving up. “We have to reach the second round. It’s too early to talk about winning the competition. It won’t be easy because we’ve got players who are still developing. They’re going to be coming up against professional players who’ve already picked up valuable experience at reserve-team level with clubs like Paris, Lyon and Marseille,” he told FIFA.com last month. A former playmaker, Camara is nicknamed Abedi, after his idol Abedi Pele, and as a player has won two national cups in Guinea with FC Sequence. Camara has also been coaching the Guinean first division side Satellite FC since December 2016. “Ebola caused us a lot of problems but we managed to rise to the challenge,” he has said. “The success we’ve had is down to the talent of the Guinean players, and it’s not for nothing that we’re known as ‘the Brazil of Africa’.”
Germany: A trophy still not won!
For a country with a first-rate youth system, it’s surprising that Germany is yet to win the Under-17 World Cup. The best result a unified Germany has managed is the third-placed finish — twice, in 2007 and 2011. It has had to contend with the bad luck of being eliminated by the eventual champion in three of its last four appearances (2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015).
The current team may be in the best position to break that jinx. Right through the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in April-May, it remained an efficient unit, scoring a record number of goals and at the same time being finicky at the back. Coach Christian Wuck even sounded a warning, as he said, “this squad has got what it takes to win a title and we’ll give it another go in India.”
Road to Finals
At the U17 EURO, five spots for the World Cup were up for grabs — to the four semi-finalists and the side which finished fifth. Germany made the semis before losing to eventual winner Spain on penalties. But until the last four, it recorded seven victories from as many games (qualifying and main tournament), scoring 36 goals and conceding just six. It even prompted Wuck to call the bunch “the best group of players in terms of attacking play we’ve ever had during my time working in youth football.”
Stars to watch
Number 9s, at least in Germany, have been in short supply in recent times. So when Hamburg’s forward Jann-Fiete Arp netted two hat-tricks at the U17 EURO in May and became the first player ever to do so, he raised curiosity levels. Equally adept on either foot and with his head, a much wider audience awaits him in India. A classic No. 10, Leipzig’s attacking midfielder Elias Abouchabaka was the perfect foil for Arp. The two combined devastatingly in the quarterfinals against Netherlands when Abouchabaka scored the equaliser and Arp the last-gasp winner. If the two need any inspiration they need not look beyond Toni Kroos, the Real Madrid star who won the Golden Ball at the 2007 edition.
As a player Christian Wuck, now 44, made in excess of 100 Bundesliga appearances for Nuremberg, Karlsruher SC and Wolfsburg. But it is as a German youth team coach that he is well-known, having started in 2012. His wards reached the final of the U17 EURO in 2015 which they lost 4-1 to France. After blowing another chance in 2017, the World Cup presents him with a chance to secure ultimate glory.
Costa Rica: An impressive junior outfit
On the global stage at the under-17 level, Costa Rica is a relatively successful side. The World Cup in India will be its 10th appearance in the competition which includes a wonderful streak between 2001 and 2007, during which Los Ticos, as the side is fondly known, reached the knockout stage four times. It was the also the time when Keylor Navas, the current Real Madrid goalkeeper and the best Costa Rican export in recent times, was an unused substitute in all four matches at the 2003 edition. It didn’t qualify for the events in Mexico 2011 and UAE 2013, but the last time out in Chile 2015, it beat France on penalties to win its first-ever knockout game at the U-17 World Cup.
Road to Finals
Costa Rica hosted the Central American qualifying zone competition and won all four of its matches. It went into the 2017 CONCACAF U-17 Championship in Panama in red-hot form and sailed through the initial group stage, with another 100 per cent record. It scored eight goals and conceded only two. In its next match, it was hammered by the regional heavyweight and eventual champion Mexico 6-1 in the subsequent stage, but a slender 2-1 win over Panama, ensured it finished second and thereby qualify for the World Cup.
Stars to watch
Rodolfo Alfaro, the 17-year-old forward, impressed at the CONCACAF Championship scoring the crucial opener in the narrow 2-1 win over Panama and both goals, including the injury time winner, in the 2-1 defeat of Canada. Josue Abarca, attacking midfielder, has also been one of Costa Rica’s most consistent performers and even scored two goals of his own from four appearances on the road to India 2017.
Breansse Camacho, now 46, took charge of his country’s under-17 side in 2016 from the Argentine Marcelo Herrera. Camacho was in fact Herrera’s assistant at Chile 2015. Prior to this, Camacho has held roles as both an assistant and the head coach in the various Costa Rican youth team set-ups. The most notable of these was when he was part of the coaching team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada 2007. After the narrow win over Panama in May, Camacho expressed great admiration for the team. “At the age of 16 they surprised me with their character and calm,” he said. “And in the way they played the game. It is difficult to deal with such pressures.” He would hope for more of the same in India.