Oscar, Jorge Enriquez among young standouts in U-20 World Cup
In the end, it turned out Brazil's greatest attribute was its ability to keep going. Of course strength in depth from the bench -- the fact it could call on the likes of Dudu and Negueba late in games to add zest to the attack -- helped. Negueba is a raw, unpredictable presence, and laid on the first goal in the semifinal for Henrique. Dudu set up the second and, more importantly, it was his influence that turned the final back Brazil's way.
Portugal led 2-1 with 13 minutes remaining and looked almost as comfortable as it had in stifling France in the semifinal. But then Dudu, held up by Julio Alves on the left side of the box, turned sharply with a backheel, working a shooting opportunity. Mika, the Portugal goalkeeper, parried his shot, but Oscar was on hand to knock a simple volley into the empty net. Oscar, who had impressed throughout the tournament on the left side of Brazil's midfield diamond, then completed the win in extra time with what was either a brilliantly audacious chip from the right flank, or a fortuitously mishit chip. His performances through the tournament probably earned him the benefit of the doubt.
Was Brazil a worthy champion? Well, it was the best of the four sides in the semifinals and, while Colombia, Nigeria and Spain all played better football at various stages, Brazil was the one who stuck it out, and showed the determination to cling on in games until the abilities of their individuals could have an impact.
It was Henrique, the center forward, that FIFA named player of the tournament, yet another mystifying decision in the fine tradition of bizarre choices. Henrique, who had begun the tournament as a substitute, played well, and scored five goals but even he seemed a little nonplussed by the award. "I think I would choose Oscar, who had an excellent tournament," he said. "He helped the team a lot, playing in an unaccustomed position. He marked well, he got forward. He made a lot of assists, and scored the goals in the final which not anybody could have done."
Oscar wasn't even in the top three. Nelson Oliveira, Portugal's rapid right winger, came second, a reasonable enough choice given how important his role as a lone forward was in Portugal's largely defensive 4-1-4-1. But Danilo, the holding midfielder and Nuno Reis, the captain and center back, had reason to wonder why their contributions weren't recognized. The answer, of course, is that such awards are, as they always have been, skewed toward attacking players.
In that regard, it was heartening to see Jorge Enriquez, Mexico's captain and holding player, recognized with the bronze ball. Shaven-headed and commanding, his distribution was at times questionable, but his commitment and energy were a key part in dragging his side to third place. Generally, it was a good tournament for deep-lying anchors. Fernando of Brazil was impeccable in possession, although he lacked the fire of Enriquez; Danilo was arguably Portugal's key player, and the Nigeria captain Ramon Azeez, caught the eye with his forward surges from a deep position.
Mika, having kept six successive clean sheets, and the hero of Portugal's penalty shoot-out victory over Argentina in the quarterfinal, was an understandable choice for the Golden Gloves award, although his shakiness under high balls in the final raised serious question marks. Personally, I'd have given the award to Jack Butland, England's vast and preternaturally composed keeper, who conceded just once in four games, saved a penalty against Mexico and made a handful of other exceptional blocks. "He's probably the best young goalkeeper I've seen in six years working with England," said England's coach, Brian Eastick. "He's an outstanding prospect and a very mature young man. Birmingham have a very promising goalkeeper and it wouldn't surprise me if he breaks into the first team this season."
Butland certainly takes the goalkeeper's slot in my team of the tournament. Right back is tricky: Carlos Orrantia of Mexico was excellent going forward, but he played as a wing back in a 3-4-3, and so for his greater defensive ability. I went for Spain's Hugo Mallo, who also is comfortable going forward, as he sowed in setting up Spain's first goal against Brazil. Historically, left backs have tended to be more feted than right backs, but that wasn't the case in this tournament (Brazil's Danilo, such a key part of Santos's Copa Libertadores-winning team, could be added the list of impressive right backs.) Spain's Sergio Canales gets the nod for his steadiness, and for his assist against Brazil.
In the center at the back I have Portugal's captain, Nuno Reis, a splendidly obdurate figure, and alongside him, Brazil's hulking Juan Jesus, who was not just physically imposing, but was prepared to sally forward with the ball at his feet.
As probably the best of the defensive, deep-lying midfielders, Enriquez is my anchor in a 4-3-3, flanked by Azeez, for his combination of defensive and forward-thinking attributes, and Oscar, who would naturally be the most advanced of the three, a playmaking presence to the left of center. Portugal's Danilo had a good claim for the defensive place, as did France's Gueida Fofana, a composed distributor.
Only Alexandre Lacazette of France really challenged Henrique to be center forward. Ghazi, though, his pace losing out to the Brazilian's all-round game. Sergio Canales and Daniel Pacheco of Spain were both in contention on the right, but neither played consistently enough, so Nelson Oliveira of Portugal, who tended to start central and drift right, wins the place.
The hardest decision was on the left. Alvaro Vazquez scored five times cutting in from that flank, and Ahmed Musa was superb there for Nigeria. In the end, though, I went for Michael Ortega of Colombia, for his all-round game: his movement, his intelligence, his dribbling, and his ability to cut in and present a goal threat.