Just before heading to Turkey for a holiday this summer, I happened to notice that the country was hosting the 2013 Under-20 World Cup at the time I’d be there (funny how soccer always “happens” to be “happening” wherever I go…). Excited to check out some rising stars of the global game, I booked tickets for the three matches that fit my schedule.
The first two matches were on June 20, just a few hours after my arrival in Istanbul. They were set up as a double header in Galatasaray’s spectacular new stadium (not their old stadium, infamously known as “Hell”). To get to the stadium, it was necessary to change trains in Taksim Square. Protests were still drawing big numbers in the evenings, but when I passed through during the afternoon, things were pretty quiet.
The stadium was a long way out of town, pretty much halfway to the Black Sea. France, the eventual winners of the tournament, dominated Ghana in the first match with a mixture of slick passing and sharp finishing. The match finished 3-1 to France, despite the support for Ghana in the stands.
In the second match, Spain outclassed a hardworking USA team, beating them 4-1.
The stadium was disappointingly empty, although the few fans there did try to whip up some chanting. It was quite strange watching such high quality soccer with almost no one else around; sort of like watching a Sunday League match of the most amazing quality.
There was a tense moment when my section of fans thought we were fenced off from the only food: a stand selling chips and köfte (Turkish meatball) sandwiches. Luckily, the cops in charge of the gate saw what they were up against (hungry dudes) and very sensibly opened the gate.
The third match I attended was a Round of 16 elimination game in the Mediterranean port city of Antalya on July 3 between Paraguay and Iraq (yup, that age-old rivalry…). Given my experience in Istanbul, I had no expectations for any atmosphere (or even, any other fans). Boy was I wrong. Iraq won a 1-0 thriller in front of thousands of their own avid singing, dancing fans, many of whom had made the trip over from Iraq itself. Below are a few photos and a video of one of the more…unusual ways I’ve seen to cheer on your national team (warning: it involves a live baby).
Overall, the U-20 World Cup surprised me with its quality. I just hope people will recognize that although it is not the bona fide World Cup, it is still a great secondary showcase for world soccer.