The chorus of Spanish and Portuguese voices as the teams took the field in the 8km Stadium seemed to belie the 4,500km or so that separate Baku from Iberia. Both sets of supporters had reason to believe in their teams. Portugal had powered to the final by scoring 14 goals and conceding none. Spain had reached it at the expense of the Netherlands, Serbia, Italy, England and Germany. But, as the Czech referee, Petr Ardeleanu, signalled for Spain to kick off, neutral observers were also rubbing their hands together, relishing the prospect of a riveting tactical battle between teams of outstanding technical ability. They were not to be disappointed.
The team sheets had not raised an eyebrow. Hélio Sousa and Santi Denia remained loyal to the templates of earlier successes in the knockout rounds. Portugal operated their 1-4-3-3, Spain their 1-4-2-3-1. The Portuguese got into their stride immediately, the carmine shirts pouring forward, flowing along the wings, where the full-backs – Diogo Dalot on the right, Rúben Vinagre on the left – had no qualms about reaching corner flags or bylines. No half measures.
Portugal’s play was effortlessly creative, a mix of short combinations and long diagonal passing to feet or to spaces in the wide areas. The body shape and language of the back four indicated high levels of alertness. The middle three linked play with fluent movements, giving the ball-carrier passing options and permuting their positions without jeopardising team shape. Priorities were clear: Florentino as ball-winning shield in front of the centre-backs; Gedson Fernandes and, especially, Quina covering ground and constantly probing with high-tempo passing and solo skills.
Spain, during the opening 20 minutes, were pushed on to the back foot, like sailors confident in their ability to deal with rough weather yet permanently on alert. To their credit, they stayed in the game, stifling striker José Gomes as best they could and offering little joy to the Portugal wingers, João Filipe and Mesaque Dju. Spain were neither outplayed nor outclassed. Their exceptional close control allowed them to twist and turn their way out of the traps produced by Portugal’s high pressing game. The screening midfielders, Oriol Busquets and Manu Morlanes, played through midfield with neat combinations; Abel Ruiz led the attack with energy and appetite for the 1 v 1 duels; and, above all, Brahim Díaz pushed thorns into Portuguese sides with his skilful middle-to-front linking and darting solo runs.
The contest was not uneven but Denia was the more concerned of the two coaches, whistling and instructing from the corner of his technical area, while Hélio Sousa observed with arms folded until subsequently prompted to spread them in exasperation at his team’s struggles to deal with a string of Spanish corners.
As a spectacle, it was a joy to behold. There were minimal fouls, minimal blind clearances, minimal passing interchanges among the back four. The ball was won or lost but rarely given away. In terms of scoring chances, Portugal gained the upper hand. A high-speed solo run by Vinagre culminated in a shot which the excellent Iñaki Peña dealt with. A scooped pass by Gomes was chested down by Quina and hooked against the crossbar while the stadium DJ was preparing the ‘goal’ music.
He eventually played it after 27 minutes. Vinagre made another penetrating run down the left and his cross travelled the full width of the Spain box, diverted on its way by the chest of Gomes. Dalot, emphasising his attacking convictions, was there to strike a powerful shot with the outside of his right foot. Peña brushed it with a glove but could not do enough to prevent the sudden explosion of noise inside the stadium.
Denia’s team now faced a challenge. But, as they had done against Germany, they stood up to be counted. Jordi Mboula started to engage top gear on the right flank; the white shirts gained territory; and the outcome was a sequence of corners. The third one, delivered from the right by Morlanes, was only partially cleared and the ball came back in. The head of centre-back Juan Brandariz diverted it beyond the far post, where Díaz looped a header over Diogo Costa. Dalot’s scissor-kick clearance was too late to prevent the referee from pointing to the centre circle. Costa’s unbeaten run at the tournament had reached an end after 432 minutes. The equaliser, psychologically well-placed before half-time, was a critical moment in the match.
Soon after play restarted, it became apparent that the balance had shifted perceptibly. Spain, as they had done against Germany, gained a degree of ascendancy, with Díaz constantly probing through the middle of the final third and Mboula testing the abilities on his right side of left-back Vinagre. Portugal lost lucidity in their passing and, gradually, slackened their grip on the game. Spain’s approach play looked more threatening and set plays continued to trouble their opponents – Mboula misdirecting a free header from another corner.
Hélio, quickly sensing the need for action, urged his wingers to interchange and, after 55 minutes, sent on Miguel Luis for left-winger Dju, placing him in midfield and sending Quina into a wide-left position. Denia, saving his changes until the last 10 minutes, introduced Iván Martín in place of the flagging Fran García and raised eyebrows by sending out second-string keeper Adrián to warm up in the 73rd minute.
By that time, Portugal had recovered some of their vital signs. Both teams underlined the quality of their athletic conditioning by maintaining fast transitions in both directions and offering the crowd a compelling end-to-end contest – compelling enough to create a feeling that extra time might have been more welcome than an immediate transition into a shoot-out. But, as the clock ticked down, neither keeper was obliged to produce heroics and Denia finally managed to squeeze in his change of goalkeeper when the clock signalled 80+2. At this juncture, few would have guessed that Adrián would not get a touch of the ball.
The ensuing minutes demonstrated that both teams had worked on the art of penalty-taking and that their mental strength and maturity belied their dates of birth. Nine penalties hit the net – all of them firmly driven except the impudent dink through the middle by Díaz. On two occasions, Costa came close to getting glove to ball. But so near, so far. Morlanes stepped up to take the tenth spot kick and, after the referee had twice asked him to reposition the ball, struck it high against the outside of the post.
While the Portuguese launched themselves into a jubilant heap in the goal area to celebrate the end of a 13-year wait to lift the U17 trophy, the Spain players raced to embrace their disconsolate captain. After a thrilling contest between two outstanding teams, the title had been decided by the summary justice of the shoot-out. While the players vented their emotions, Hélio and Denia walked quietly, arm round shoulder, on to the pitch. They and their players deserved a standing ovation.