By DAVID MOSSE
Brazilian soccer was recently pronounced dead by British magazine FourFourTwo, and, frankly, the senior team did very little to dispel that notion at the Copa America, but Ney Franco's Under-20 side salvaged the summer by capturing Brazil's fifth World Youth Championship. It proved to be a dramatic, if not sparkling final on Saturday, with one player emerging as the undisputed star.
Portugal hadn't conceded a goal in the entire tournament, but the Lusitanians met their match in Oscar, as the Internacional playmaker fired an improbable hat-trick to secure the 3-2 victory in extra time.
He opened the scoring just four minutes in with a free kick from long distance, then Oscar sealed the victory by floating a shot/cross from the right side that sailed over the head of Mika and went in off the crossbar for the winning goal. Brazil was soon celebrating a remarkable 13th World Cup title in the three different age categories to go along with seven runner-up finishes. The future looks bright, as always, with the 2012 Olympics representing the next big challenge for this group.
Mexico claimed third place with a come-from-behind 3-1 win over France, and perhaps no country enjoyed a better summer at the international level. After a slow start to the competition, Chivas starlet Ulises Davila showed himself to be major talent, capable of contributing to the senior team down the road, while Jorge Enriquez emerged as an influential figure in the center of the park.
Both France and Portugal reached the last four, but Spain was the most impressive European side with Sergio Canales re-establishing himself as a great prospect following a wasted season at Real Madrid. Nigeria provided plenty of excitement early on, scoring a tournament-high 12 goals in the group stage before being unceremoniously dumped by the French in a thrilling quarterfinal match.
A quarterfinal exit represented a disappointing performance for Argentina, while Uruguay failed to advance past the opening round. Colombia proved outstanding hosts 25 years after being stripped of the World Cup due to economic instability. It also helped that Eduardo Lara's team played some of the most outstanding soccer in what must go down as an extremely successful tournament.
Here are five players who impressed over the past month:
Henrique began the tournament on the bench, but had worked his way into the starting lineup by the second group game and emerged as one of the competition's deadliest strikers, finishing joint top scorer with five goals. The Sao Paulo hitman notched the all-important first goal in four of Brazil's five wins and coolly converted his penalty kick in the shootout victory over Spain.
His double in the final 10 minutes against Mexico rescued Brazil from a difficult semifinal match, while the 20-year-old also combined well with his teammates, providing a lovely assist for Dudu's goal in extra time against Spain. Henrique was chosen as the tournament's outstanding player, which came as no surprise, despite his somewhat subdued performance in the final match.
Nuno Reis, Portugal
Goalkeeper Mika received most of the credit for Portugal's remarkable shutout streak that reached 574 minutes, but captain Nuno Reis was an imperious figure in the center of defense throughout the tournament. Reis helped neutralize strikers who proved virtually unstoppable in every other match, including France's Alexandre Lacazette and Brazil's Henrique in the final two games.
The Sporting Lisbon central defender spent last season on loan with Belgian side Cercle Brugge, and it remains to be seen whether he'll be brought back into the fold with Los Leoes. Nelson Oliveira shouldered most of the responsibility for the Lusitanians offensively, but Reis was just as important to Portugal's improbable run to the final, even converting his penalty against Argentina.
Alexandre Lacazette, France
Lacazette was finally handed a start in the third-place match against Mexico and promptly found the back of the net early in the first half. One can only wonder how many goals he might have scored with more time on the field, but Francis Smerecki chose to employ the Olympique Lyonnais striker in a super sub role, and he provided an incredible spark in each game, scoring five times.
The highlight came in the quarterfinal clash with Nigeria, as Lacazette was introduced sooner than usual due to Gilles Sunu's injury departure. He broke the deadlock early in the second half and added a second in extra time, as France eliminated the most explosive team in the competition. The one disappointment was his inability to break though against Portugal in the semifinal defeat.
James Rodriguez, Colombia
The Porto playmaker produced some scintillating displays, as the hosts reached the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Mexico. Rodriguez seemed at the heart of every Colombian move, and also found the back of the net three times. His service helped striker Luis Muriel emerge as an influential figure as well, as Los Cafeteros controlled every game, including the loss to Mexico.
Rodriguez squandered some good opportunities in that match, but also provided a pinpoint cross in the first half that defender Luciano Ospina was unable to re-direct on goal. He excelled on set pieces and should have an even bigger role to play for the Portuguese champions this upcoming season, while also becoming a fixture for Colombia's senior team, which could use the creativity.
Erik Lamela, Argentina
Lamela was expected to be Argentina's most important player, but far too much responsibility was placed on his shoulders, as Juan Iturbe failed to emerge as a strong sidekick offensively. Lamela scored three times, including a wonderful strike against Mexico in the opening game, but he picked up a bad knock in the second-round victory over Egypt that proved costly for his team.
The former River Plate starlet, who is on his way to Roma this upcoming season, was clearly not 100 percent in the quarterfinal confrontation with Portugal, as Argentina failed to break down the Lusitanians in 120 minutes. Lamela coolly converted his spot kick, but three of his teammates faltered, as the South Americans were bounced out of the competition in stunning fashion.
What did you think of the Under-20 World Cup? Which teams and players impressed you the most? Who do you see emerging as the biggest star to emerge from this tournament?
Share your thoughts below.