The visceral joy of watching youth level football is the chance to witness a game untainted, free of the leaven of the Pharisees, whose knowledge contains corruption implicit. Then again, maybe it is just nostalgia, a yearning for the mental El Dorado of a bygone age, free of gamesmanship, cheating, and every such thing. Artlessness has its own attractions.
Mexico went for Nigeria right from the opening bell, weaving, jabbing and twisting away, nary a nod to caution. By the end, neither side could give any more; indeed, it would be unreasonable to have expected better. This was as good a game as you will ever see at U17 level.
Observing the trend of the tournament, it was only a matter of time before Emmanuel Amunike’s charges got a ticking-off for their limpid starts, a quirk both Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu and, tonight, Mario Arteaga picked up on and sought to punish.
Unlike the Brazilians, Mexico made the most of their early verve, edging ahead through Kevin Magana. It might have been their second; indeed, there may well have been more by the half-hour, as Nigeria reclined, complacent in their own sense of invincibility, bred by the tournament’s most prolific goal-haul. In those moments, El Tri may have ended the game as a contest. If you come at the king, you best not miss.
For a team that has scored 20 goals in six games, goalkeeper Akpan Udoh gets through a tremendous amount of work. Here again, he produced his regular left-handed Buffon save early on, (it is no surprise that he frequently faces shots from his right, as John Lazarus is very much the weak link in this team) before scooping a header onto the cross bar to keep the deficit at one. He is part goalkeeper, part oxygen tank, keeping the team breathing just long enough for them to break the surface and explode into the light.
It was just as well that he did, as five minutes later, drill sergeant Kelechi Nwakali sounded the alarm for the sleepy Golden Eaglets, winning and curling home a majestic free-kick with utmost precision and delicacy. If that was a creamy mousse, then Orji Okonkwo’s explosion was a pungent chili, a lick of fire down the spine that came out of nowhere to produce a half-time lead.
The scoreline was repeated in the second period, a perfect symmetry to underline a fact that it intrinsically undermines: this was a game decided by moments, and it was a lot closer than a two-goal margin would suggest. Victor Osimhen, all through this tournament both worker-ant and Queen, had a subdued game, but settled the tie with a cool penalty seven minutes from the end to equal the record of nine held by both Souleymane Coulibaly and Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
Until then, the same looseness that has characterised the Nigerian defence all through the tournament had threatened to give the Central Americans another way back into the match. Magana fluffed a chance easier than his first half goal, while right-back Diego Cortes went on an improbable half-run through the heart of the Golden Eaglets, and only had to skirt one challenge before scoring.
More than any other team, Mexico asked searching questions of the Nigerian team, and received few answers. Nigeria scored four goals, and twice hit the woodwork, but it was Arteaga’s side who opened up their opponents with greater regularity—two of Nigeria’s goals were from dead-balls, one was a once-a-lifetime missile; only Osinachi Ebere’s third saw Nwakali, producing his first statement performance of the U17 World Cup, prise open El Tri’s backline. Even then, goalkeeper Abraham Romero would not commend his own efforts in keeping it out.
As he ascetically eschews the joy of every goal, one would assume this is not lost of Amunike. A wrinkled Buddha, inscrutable as a Buckingham Palace guard, his fierce concentration is the perfect touchline exemplar for his dozy defence. Look, and look alive.
He will surely find this semi-final slugfest a stark contrast to the challenge of the physically imposing Malian side in Sunday’s showpiece. For now though, he can delight in the fact his team passed a different sort of test, clawing back a deficit; perhaps it is best that it was faced now, rather than in the final, with everything on the line and nerves to the fore.