French class prevails
France's FIFA U-17 World Championship Trinidad & Tobago 2001 presented by JVC title was largely the result of the extraordinary exploits of striker tandem Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama Pongolle, but all 18 players and the coaching staff contributed to the nation's first world youth title.
France came into the tournament off an impressive vice-champion finish earlier this year in the UEFA Under-16 Championship, but the team had not played together for nearly four months before assembling for training at the National Training Centre in Clairefontaine, France in the last week of August.
France had not played in a FIFA U-16/U-17 World Championship since 1987, and they were the only team in the field to not play a single friendly before the tournament.
Still, the pedigree of French football preceded them into the tournament, as Les Bleus are the reigning World and European champions on the senior level.
A loss in their first game, a 2-1 defeat to Nigeria in Group B play, made every game that followed a must-win match for France as no team who had lost a game had ever gone on to win the championship.
The French defence was still shaky in their second game when they won 5-3 over the United States, but their offence was definitely on track as Sinama Pongolle notched his first hat-trick of the tournament.
Needing another win to assure themselves a spot in the later stages of the tournament, France produced a comprehensive effort to defeat Japan 5-1 in their last Group B game on the strength of another hat-trick from Sinama Pongolle.
Standing in their way in the quarterfinals were two-time defending champions Brazil, but the French made some adjustments on defence and sent the Brazilians packing with a 2-1 win.
France played their first game away from Tobago in the semi-final against Argentina, the second-straight South American power they would have to face.
In this game, Sinama Pongolle was held off the score sheet for the only time in the tournament, but Le Tallec was there early in the second half to even the game 1-1. Defender Jeremie Berthod headed home a corner kick to send to the French to the final.
Against Nigeria in the final, the French performed masterfully on both sides of the ball. The French defence, led by captain Jacques Faty, held an opponent scoreless for the first time in the tournament, and Le Tallec and Sinama Pongolle were both on target.
France head coach Jean-Francois Jodar was impressed with the individual performances of his star strikers, but also the resiliency of his team to beat three of the traditional World football powers.
"This is a title we deserve because we beat Brazil, Argentina and Nigeria, three nations who are among the best football nations in the World. We played very well, and we were very, very confident."
Le Tallec and Sinama Pongolle combined for 12 goals in the tournament, and Sinama Pongolle became the tournament all-time leading scorer with nine goals, one better than the previous record of eight.
The Le Havre team mates, who will embark on careers at English Premier League side Liverpool in 2002, became the second-straight pair of team mates to win the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Silver Ball, following the United States' Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley at the FIFA U-17 World Championship New Zealand 1999.
Yet, the depth of French talent was evident as Jodar used six different line-ups in six games. In fact, 15 different players earned starts during the tournament, including Samuel Pietre who tied for second on the team with three goals.
So while Le Tallec and Pongolle dominated the headlines, it was the entire group that helped the team to their first World title at this level.
Jodar said, "They were decisive as strikers, but they also benefitted from the rest of the group. You cannot have good results without exceptional players, and they were exceptional during this tournament. I am very glad for Anthony that he could help decide some games late in the tournament. I am really, really proud that Sinama Pongolle is the new record-holder for goals scored in this competition."
Sinama Pongolle was also quick to praise his team mates with whom he has played for nearly three years in the French youth system.
"This success is a collective one due only to our work together, and then on an individual basis."
The French players will return to their club sides in France and Italy this fall and finish up their schooling, but new challenges sit on the horizon.
Le Tallec feels the players will have to set their sights now on the next level of competition at the FIFA World Youth Championship United Arab Emirates 2003.
"We need to keep our feet on the ground because reaching for a higher level is something different now. We have to go on working and working, and then we can see what happens."