Festival International Espoirs Final Day – England win, Scotland third
After three trips to the final day of what used to be called the Toulon Tournament which featured France playing in the final (losing to Brazil in 2014, beating Morocco in 2015, and losing to England in 2016), in this year’s expanded edition they didn’t even make it out of the group. This left a final day line-up of Scotland v Czech Republic for the bronze medal, and England v Cote d’Ivoire in the final.
Clashing with the U20 World Cup in South Korea (well done England for their win), this year saw a reversion to the traditional youth team vibe, after some editions where U23 teams could qualify. All the twelve teams were listed as U19 or U20 except England, listed as U18 but with some 20-year-olds on the sheet.
France were in a group with Wales, Cote d’Ivoire and Bahrain – their opening 0-0 draw had the TV team confidently saying that was OK because Wales were the second-strongest team in the group. Turns out they were. Just behind Cote d’Ivoire rather than France. That match-up saw Nice’s Vincent Marcel open the scoring, but France were reined in by two substitutes, with goals from Jean-Thierry Amani, and Caen’s Kader Toure Yaya with an injury-time winner. There was a meaningless 6-1 drubbing of Bahrain (who hadn’t been that bad until that point) to finish, but France finished in third place having not shown their style when they needed to.
The new three-group system meant that the group-winners would be joined in a new semi-final round by the best runner up, which led to much as-it-standsing on the final group games. England had motored through Group A with three wins against Angola, Cuba and Japan, and Scotland took the best second-place spot from Group C by beating Brazil and Indonesia, after losing the opener to the Czech Republic 3-2.
The semi-finals saw England beat Scotland 3-0, and Cote d’Ivoire beat the Czech Republic 2-1, to set up a repeat of that Group C opener for the 3rd/4th place spot, and England to meet Cote d’Ivoire in the final.
Now. After last year, when I bumped (literally) into two participating teams in two hotels, I had a suspicion the same might happen. The final matches were taking place in Aubagne, which isn’t the biggest place in the world, and had only one hotel in the centre. So it proved – as I trundled across Cours Voltaire on Friday after a very delayed train and in sweltering heat, I saw a group of men in matching red T-shirts. The Scottish coaching staff, turns out. I also managed to find the stadium by accident, traipsing out to a restaurant only to find it shut, and then retraipsing my steps past the Stade de Lattre.
On final day, as the temperature hit 30 degrees by noon, a promotional dixie band and mascot were jigging around in front of a lot of confused locals just there for the weekly produce market. One of the mascot’s minders advised on the best route in to the stadium. The mascot looked on the verge of heatstroke.
Finding the stadium was one thing – finding out what to do next was the traditional another. If you think the scouting accreditation was sketchy (see right), they didn’t have a sign for the ticket office at all, and the woman in there seemed slightly surprised that somebody had turned up and wanted to buy a ticket.
The public area was small – just the final third that Czech Republic would be attacking first half – and the bloody dixie band made up a chunk of the crowd. They started playing, and then someone turned up the stadium PA to try to drown them out. It really didn’t work. It was deafening.
Scotland 3 – 0 Czech Republic
Early on, it looked like Scotland would be toast, as the Czech Republic put on massive amounts of pressure, particularly Viktoria Plzen’s Martin Graiciar in attack. The Scots were also being muscled off the ball when they tried to break forward, although Celtic’s Aidan Nesbitt was putting a shift in in midfield. However, the boys in blue showed they could soak up a lot of pressure, diminutive left-back Greg Taylor (who scored against Brazil, and won the MOTM award here) and centre back Zak Jules from Reading holding out against everything thrown at them. They also had to deal with other CB Alexander Iacovitti (Nottingham Forest) going off injured, requiring a shift around as Kilmarnock’s Iain Wilson dropped back into defence from midfield. But they held on. At this point, the Cote d’Ivoire team arrived and sat in the stands with the rest of us.
In the second half, Scotland’s breaking got better, and Rangers’ Ryan Hardie got the opener with a lovely measured shot from the edge of the area. Dundee’s Craig Wighton made it two with a close-range finish after a couple of blocks. The Czech Republic weren’t done, however, with left-back Denis Granecny barelling forward on a couple of occasions, requiring careful shepherding from Celtic’s Anthony Ralston. The third goal was an OG – but from a despairing defender trying to stop a lethal low cross from the right from reaching the guy at the far post. Scotland ran out 3-0 winners to completely overturn the group result and take third place at the tournament.
England 1 – 1 Cote d’Ivoire (England win on penalties)
As the final kicked off, things got lively in the stands, as the CIV supporters turned up with drums, whistles, and songs. They were soon disappointed, but by no means quietened, as Sheffield United’s David Brooks scored an absolute screamer inside the first 15 minutes. There were four starters for French teams – as well as Toure Yaya on the wing, there were Le Havre’s Christ Joel Tiehi in midfield, Lorient’s Jean-Philippe Krasso in attack, and Monaco’s Aboubacar Sidiki Kouyate in central defence.
CIV looked to be doing most of the running, but lacked control at the last moment, frequently running the ball out of play, or into a defender. They were winning a lot of corners, however, and keeping the pressure on. In injury time in the first half, they conceded a penalty – but goalkeeper El Hadje Dante made the save to keep it 1-0 for England at half-time.
In the second half, CIV continued to press, but England’s defence did a fine job blocking off attacks, and narrowing the angles to prevent the Ivorian wingers from getting a good ball in. Their one decent deadball was for a towering header from a defender (TM) that Huddersfield’s Ryan Schofield gathered gratefully – otherwise the CIV freekicks and corners were bad, with lots of high and wide shots as well. They play some lovely stuff with the ball on the ground, but…finishing.
However – in the final minute, CIV won a penalty. Unlike in the first half, this was converted (by Ake Arnaud Loba), to equalise with five minutes added time to play. The crowd went wild, one guy ending up on the roof of the tunnel. With no extra time at this level, it went to penalties. Helpfully at the wrong end of the pitch for the public to have a good view.
Dante got close to a couple, but Amani missed the fourth penalty, putting it too low and central, allowing Schofield to save with feet, and Leeds’ Ronaldo Vieira (So good they named him after two World Cup winners – Ed) scored England’s fifth to make them champions. Amani won 3rd-best player, England captain Joseph Worrall (Forest) 2nd – and ‘most elegant’, which was somewhat at odds with his frequent long-balls forward from defence – with opening scorer Brooks MOTM.
The next day, England went on to win the U20 World Cup, which may overshadow but should not undo this achievement. However, it’s worth noting that while the England side at Toulon was solid and efficient, the props shown by the team they beat are worthy of admiration. CIV were fun to watch, happy with the ball at their feet, just not, perhaps, entirely clear where it was going to end up. The auguries for them are also good.