The clouds parted and, seemingly only a few hundred feet below, there emerged a bullring, perched on a narrow ridge. Spreading out from it, roofs of rusted iron swept down the hillside, across the valley and up towards another ridge, on which two cathedrals were propped. Beyond them rose office-blocks, hotels and apartment buildings, the centre of town, and away to the left, imposingly massive on its own promontory, was the Palogrande, home of Once Caldas, Copa Libertadores winners in 2003.

There can be few airport approaches as dramatic as that to Manizales, in the heart of Colombia's coffee country. The mountains should have made development impossible, but instead, in an odd, linear fashion, following the contours of the ridge, the city spreads out, the shanties covering the lower slopes like a tattered shawl. A cable car links the main shopping streets to the bus station in the lower part of town. Manizales is a university town and the end near the stadium is packed with lively bars, where students mix with the backpackers who come here for the nightlife and, for a few days in August at least, with young footballers from Spain and Australia.

The end of town where I stayed was rather quieter, the hubbub of the markets interrupted only by the constant plock of balls from the many billiard halls, all of which seem to be fronted by silent men solemnly sipping coffee beneath enormous moustaches. Every now and again everything was drowned out by the din from the plaza in front of the older of the cathedrals, where a fan-park attempted to drum up enthusiasm for a series of five-a-sides with blasts of Shakira and assorted Europop. 

Colombia didn't really need such gimmicks for the World Under-20 championship. As soon as you left the most touristy areas — the bars of El Poblado in Medellín or the walled city in Cartagena — you could hardly have failed to realise there was a major tournament going on. Every host city bore adverts with the slogan ‘Armenia [or Pereira or Baranquilla] es Mundial'. The flags of the competing nations, particularly those based in each city, were everywhere, leading — inevitably — to some odd juxtapositions. The flashy new mall on Plaza de Bolívar in Pereira, for instance, was bedecked in the blue and red of North Korea.

There was real pride that the tournament is being hosted in Colombia. Every taxi-driver, hotel receptionist and waiter seemed primed to remind people that "it's the second-biggest Fifa tournament," and the national team played with a coherence that showed how seriously they had been drilled over the previous year. "Our reputation is for drugs and murder," said a taxi driver in Pereira. "But that is in the past. Now we have to show the world our new face: beautiful countryside, beautiful towns, beautiful women. Beautiful football."


I went to Manizales partly because England might have played a second-round game there, partly because it was close to their two other possible second-round venues, but mainly to see Spain against Australia. In some ways, as an English journalist, the moment you break away from England is the moment the tournament begins, the moment when you start to watch the football for what it is, rather than for what stories you might be able to sell from it. The paradox about covering a major tournament is that the more games you go to, the less football you see. It's always a balancing act: do you hole up in one town, watch the games there and follow the rest of the tournament on television, or do you flog your way around the host country, see maybe a game every other day (thereby gaining a truer impression of the match than you get on television) and end up missing a huge amount of the rest of the competition? It was something that struck me particularly in Germany at the 2006 World Cup: I saw an awful lot of England being mediocre, but not a second of Brazil, Germany or the Netherlands, nothing of France until the semi-final and nothing of Italy until the final. I came home and watched highlights to catch up.

To an extent it depends on the host country. In Angola and South Africa, internal transport was so difficult that it made sense to have one base and move only when necessary. In Argentina, it was so easy, even with the ash cloud from a Chilean volcano getting in the way, that it would have seemed a shame not to take in as many different cities as I could. In Colombia, I opted for an approach midway between the two, sticking with England until they were eliminated (for financial as much as for patriotic reasons), and then making decisions on a game-by-game basis. Heading to Manizales for Spain v Australia was my first break from England and, also, my first break from Colombia's tourist heartlands. 

England began in Medellín, a city synonymous with the drugs cartels, and once the world's kidnap-capital. It too is perched in the hills, but nowhere near as precariously as Manizales. As if to underline the city's grisly reputation, England's first training session was at a sports centre named after Andrès Escobar, the defender murdered in 1994 shortly after scoring an own goal in the World Cup. Later, they went to Envigado, an eastern suburb of Medellín, and the home patch of Pablo Escobar, the notorious narco-chief. He even funded the local team, in whose stadium England trained, watched by a few dozen enthusiastic locals. Outside, where their bus pulled in, an open-air aerobics class was taking place. A little later, blundering about looking for lunch, I came upon yet another modern mall that, in its antiseptic blandness, could have been anywhere in the world. I don't know how a drugs baron's hood is supposed to feel, but I'm pretty sure it's not like that. 

Then again, Medellín has changed radically over the past decade. Murder and kidnapping are down, and a new metro system, integrated with cable-cars to link the hill-top barrios with the centre of town, is a source both of pride and economic advancement. The city sees itself as a cultural centre, but even though the tournament clashed with the annual flower festival and the parade of horses — in which around 7000 farmers from the surrounding areas bring their animals to walk through the town — it was well-supported. Almost 22,000 were there for the opening double-header in which England, after a bright start, failed to break down North Korea, and then Argentina, as lacking in cohesion as the senior team had been in the Copa América, scraped a 1-0 win over Mexico thanks to the smooth running of one of their two genuine creative talents, Erik Lamela. The other, Juan Iturbe, was fit enough only to start on the bench, but his swoops in from the left after coming on spoke of a player of immense promise.

Asked afterwards if he had any specific plans to deal with Iturbe and Lamela in the second match, the England coach Brian Eastick replied that he had faith in his system. It was amply rewarded. This time a full house of over 40,000 turned up and, having been warmed up by Mexico's win over North Korea, they saw England withstand 25 minutes of almost continuous Argentinian pressure before the game was changed by the arrival of the midfielder James Wallace as the centre-back Nathan Baker went off with concussion. As Reece Brown dropped from midfield into the back four, England began to hold the ball and, although they rode their luck at times, they were well worth the goalless draw they achieved.

From England's first game on, I'd had a sore throat and, when it looked like developing into a cold, I went to a local pharmacy, which sold me four red pills, telling me to take them at 12-hour intervals. I took one after dinner that night, which seemed to help. The next morning I took a second. Within 10 minutes, I was suffering stomach cramps, shivering and sweating. I've no idea whether the medication was to blame — does a pill have an impact that quickly? — but for the rest of the day, at roughly half-hourly intervals, I was hit by similar pains. 

Tournaments make you ill. This was something I learned at the very first one I covered, the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000, when I contracted salmonella. You don't sleep enough; you tend not to have time for exercise; you exist on a diet of coffee and sandwiches grabbed at stations and stadiums; you drink too much because, really, what else are you going to do when you have a night off and the only people you know in the area are other journalists? Personally I love the immersion of three or four weeks focusing entirely on one event, of spending your life thinking and talking about the tournament so you can process copy at double the normal speed when the request comes. But it is exhausting. I find the World Cup, for instance, too much. After five weeks of 19-20 hour days, living out of a rucksack, I'm drained. I'd say it took me a month to recover after the South Africa World Cup.

Since Lebanon, I've been fairly fortunate. In Bamako at the Cup of Nations in 2002, three of us ate cheese and ham toasties in the bar of the Hotel Amitié. The other two ended the day on drips in hospital; I escaped unscathed. A bit of stomach bother in tournaments is common enough and I was prepared just to sit it out, but that night at the press conference a couple of the local volunteers saw one of the attacks of cramps and insisted on getting the stadium doctor. He diagnosed colitis and prescribed two different pills.

Initially they seemed to do the trick and, although I was feeling delicate, I made my way to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast for England's third group game, against Mexico. On the first day I was cautious about what I ate. On the second, convinced I was cured, I tried a pizza. I wasn't and I threw up all night. The next day, soaked in sweat but icy cold, dozing fitfully, I contemplated bailing out and going home early. I'd intended to head up to the fort of San Fernando, and have lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants in the old town, but I just lay on my bad, whimpering and looking at the ceiling. Eventually, I dragged myself out of bed and staggered the 100 yards or so out of the guest house to the main road where I could pick up a taxi to head to the stadium. In the heat and the humidity, even that left me exhausted.

In a less dramatic way, England suffered from the climate early on. A redbrick bullring towers over the Estadio Olimpico, and it was hard not to draw the comparison: a slow-moving beast being tormented by nimble Latins. Reece Wabara clumsily conceded a penalty, but Taufico Guarch's kick was poor and the immense Jack Butland saved low to his right. A couple of minutes later, a lucky ricochet played Guarch in again. Butland spread himself and made another excellent save. As against Argentina, though, England found an inner strength and rallied. Another local landmark, the 50-foot thick defensive walls that ring the old town, came to seem more appropriate. The game fizzled out as both sides realised a goalless draw was enough to take each through. 

Condemn England for their caution, or praise their resilience? Many on Twitter were in no doubt, scorning England's supposed negativity and the fact they'd qualified for the last 16 with three successive 0-0 draws. That, though, seems to miss a vital point, not merely about Eastick's side, but also about football in general. One of the sport's great strengths is that the better side does not always win: that a team with poorer players can, through doggedness, effort and organisation, prevail. Anybody who's ever played in, or watched their team pull off, a backs-to-the-wall win (or draw) knows that's one of the joys of the game.

Those criticising England's approach failed to take into account the circumstances of their preparation. The clubs denied Eastick 36 players, meaning not only that some very good players were absent, but that a team had to be put together almost from scratch a fortnight before the tournament began. Add in the injury to England's main centre-forward, Ryan Noble, and the fact that the timing of the tournament placed it in the English pre-season, meaning that for most players the opening game against North Korea — in which they wilted noticeably in the second half — was their first competitive match since May, and England were left scratching around for whatever dignity they could muster. Making it through the group stage for the first time in 14 years was actually a laudable achievement.

They weren't entertaining? So what. One of the most depressing things about the modern breed of armchair fan is their demand to be entertained, their seeming belief that coaches and players are somehow answerable to them. They're not. Sport is about struggle, about sides trying their utmost to win using whatever means they can within the rules and the spirit of the game as they interpret it. And if that means playing defensively, so be it. Happily another of football's strengths is that, at the highest level, its most effective form tends to be proactive and attractive to watch; England, through circumstance, weren't playing at the highest level and so exercised what the great Italian journalist Gianni Brera termed "the right of the weak" to set up defensively. (There is need, perhaps, of a minor clarification. Playing defensively is one thing; diving, spoiling, time-wasting is something else. It's a distinction that's often overlooked. I accept that the spirit of the game is something largely self-determined, but for me, defensive football done well is to be admired; cheating is not.)

Football didn't begin as something for people to watch. It began as two teams playing each other to see who was better; only later did it turn out that was something people would pay to go and see. The priority is crucial, and shouldn't be hidden by talk of attendance figures or television rights deals. When I began discussing this on Twitter, a few people replied that "football would be nothing without the fans". That's not true. Fans are important, of course, but they are secondary to the game itself. I'm not saying everybody has to like defensive football, but it must at least be respected. Those who don't, those who would rather weaker sides opened up and offered themselves as sacrificial victims, those who arrogantly demand that they should be entertained, probably should turn away from football to something that offers more reliable and instant gratification: pornography, perhaps, or basketball. 

That said, one of the problems of international football is that there are too many mismatches, too many games in which one side feels compelled to defend. Equally, it must be acknowledged that youth football doesn't really help itself. Last summer saw European Championships at Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 levels, and World Cups at Under-17 and Under-20. In theory, the Under-20 World Cup is the biggest youth tournament there is and yet by the time it comes around, the world is already exhausted and bewildered by the flurry of youth football. Inevitably, there are compromises: after all, if you're a gifted Spanish 20 year old, do you opt for the European Under-21s, which has the advantage of giving you a break before the next season, or for the supposedly bigger tournament, the World Under-20s?

"It would be great for Fifa and Uefa to sit down and have a really good discussion about that," said Eastick. "For instance, the Under-20 World Cup doesn't marry with the European Under-17, Under-19, Under-21, seniors. It would be nice if they could get that all into sync. The decision could be that we go with Under-17, Under-20 and a seniors. If they could get round a table and a) discuss that and b) discuss the calendar — when would be the best time to hold the tournament — that would be very useful."


The consequences of a weaker team not setting up to defend were apparent in Manizales, where the cooler air and comparatively relaxed atmosphere gradually coaxed me back to health. Australia, having taken only a point from their games against Ecuador and Costa Rica, needed at the very least a point against Spain to have a chance of going through as one of the best third-placed teams. They tried, unconvincingly, to press high up the pitch, but after five minutes they were 2-0 down and had cleared another effort off the line. By half-time, Alvaro Vázquez had completed a hat-trick and it was 5-1. The final hour of the game was deathly dull because it simply didn't matter; Australia's inability to play defensive football killed the game as entertainment. Wonderful as Spain were at times, even they seemed bored by the end. Presumably the armchair moaners were as delighted as they would have been watching the baiting of an arthritic badger.

The only thing to lift the torpor was a group of Australian backpackers, around two-thirds of the way through a 72-hour bender. To the bemusement of the heavily armed police, they got the crowd going with a series of semi-coherent chants, and at least one of them got his reward that night as two members of the Australia team helped him persuade a local girl that he was part of the squad. As the Australians drank on one side of the street, Spain's players wound down in a bar over the road, their respective buses narrowing four lanes to two and creating a long traffic jam. 

I moved on to Pereira, taking a bus through hills covered with coffee-bushes. It's not, in truth, the prettiest town, but the large, modern stadium is highly impressive. On the way from my hotel to the ground, as we passed through the ramshackle shops selling tyres and other parts for cars and motorbikes that seem to ring every Colombian city, my taxi driver started asking about the London riots, which had been at their height the night before. I explained how I'd sat anxiously following events online, watching the looting getting closer and closer to my flat before fizzling out. "My sympathy for the problems in your country," he said, a droll glint in his eye suggesting he appreciated the inversion of stereotypical roles.

Had England finished second in their group, they'd have played their second-round game in Pereira. As it was, it was Mexico who met Cameroon at the Estadio Hernán Ramírez Villegas. The locals turned out in large numbers — over 20,000 were there — but they were distracted, following Colombia's progress against Costa Rica by radio and internet updates on their phones. As Franck Ohandza controlled the ball at an awkward height and, taking it at the top of the bounce, larruped a superb finish past José Rodríguez to put Cameroon ahead, he was rewarded with an enormous roar. It was so loud he even paused mid-celebration in confusion; simultaneously, Luis Muriel had given Colombia the lead. Carlos Orrantia, sliding in at the back post, soon levelled for Mexico, but the real drama was in Bogotá, and from then on the game became an exercise in reading crowd reaction, which was often as much as a minute ahead of Fifa's website.

There was an eerie silence as Costa Rica levelled through John Ruíz. Then howls of anguish and derision as Mynor Escoe put them ahead. When Colombia's captain, Pedro Franco, levelled with 11 minutes remaining the relief was evident in the shouts of glee. And then, in the final minute, Mark Clattenburg gave the hosts a penalty — a half-roar, followed by a fretful silence — immediately making locals even more friendly to los periodistas ingleses than they had been already. James Rodríguez converted, and Colombia were through.

It's only another hour by bus on to Armenia, where England faced Nigeria. The guidebooks are dismissive of the city, rebuilding work after the 1999 earthquake having left it a little characterless, but from the terrace of a finca on the edge of town, looking out over endless fields of coffee and cattle to distant mountains, it seemed pleasant enough. 

England, already depleted, lost another two players to injury before the match, while Wabara lasted only quarter of an hour before he succumbed to a hamstring problem. There was more dogged defending but, admirable as England's resistance was, they couldn't hold out forever. Seven minutes after half-time, Olarenwaju Kayode crossed from the left and Edafe Egbedi turned the ball in at the back post. Almost immediately Billy Knott crashed a bicycle kick against the bar and Matt Phillips wasted a number of good chances, but at the other end only the heroics of Butland, by some way England's player of the tournament, kept the game alive. Nigeria's 1-0 win was thoroughly deserved. England went home with no goals, a measure of pride and the — hardly revelatory — knowledge that the interests of club and national teams are often contradictory.

Nigeria, meanwhile, looked a seriously impressive team. West African football has lacked top-class wingers and playmakers for a decade, but after Ghana's discovery of Dede Ayew and Kwadwoh Asamoah, Nigeria also look to have some extremely talented creators. Quite apart from the centre-forward Kayode and the right-winger Egbedi, the winger Ahmed Musa, darting in from the left, was a constant threat to England and Abdul Ajagun excelled in a playmaking role. At the back of the midfield too, the captain, Ramon Azeez, gave a performance of elegance and control, occasionally breaking forward to demonstrate his shooting ability from long range. 

And then there was Nigeria's coach, John Uboh, by some way the standout figure of the early part of the tournament. A big man with a surprisingly high-pitched voice, he prowled the touchline in a broad-brimmed sombrero, a skin-tight grey T-shirt and chinos held up with a snakeskin belt. The hat, Uboh explained, was his way of acknowledging the hospitality of the local people. "I wanted to wear full national dress," he said, "but Fifa wouldn't let me. But while Nigeria are in this tournament, apart from when I sleep, this hat will not leave my head." Sadly for him, he was taking it off three days later.

Eastick, with a phrase that sent a shudder through the press-conference room, had suggested Nigeria were "naive" at the back; Uboh said merely that his team were committed to an attacking philosophy. Either way, France picked them off on the break, Alexandre Lacazette scoring twice and Gueïda Fofana adding a controlled lob-volley, guided over Dami Paul with the outside of his right foot, in a 3-2 extra-time victory. Eastick's phrase may have conjured up the worst stereotyping of the seventies and eighties, but in this case he was right; for all their attacking flair, Nigeria were undone by defensive weakness. France went through to face a tenacious Portugal, who had seen off Argentina in a penalty shoot-out after a dire 0-0 draw.

It was the other pair of quarter-finals, though, that attracted the most interest. It was widely expected that Colombia would sweep Mexico aside, but the lessons of their last-16 tie went unheeded. The centre-forward Luis Muriel, the left-winger Michael Ortega and the midfield creator James Rodríguez all excelled in the tournament, as Colombia, like Nigeria, aped the Spanish shape with a fluid front three backed up by a playmaker. Talking to taxi-drivers, journalists, barmen and fans, after I'd mentioned those three, around half then pointed out that the goalkeeper, Cristian Bonilla, was also very gifted. He hadn't particularly stood out, but having little to say to the contrary, I would nod in agreement.

He's only 18, and it would be absurd to write him off on the basis of the one game in which I did notice him, but Bonilla was at least partly responsible for his side's exit. The whole side must take responsibility to the extent that they dominated almost completely but failed to take their chances, and there was no blame to be attached to the goalkeeper for the opening goal, scored after Mexico's first serious attack resulted in a generous penalty award seven minutes before half-time. Duván Zapata equalised, but as the hosts relaxed in expectation, the Mexico substitute Edson Rivera scored twice. The first was a header from a corner; Bonilla's foot movement was poor and, as a consequence, although he got a hand to the ball, he couldn't keep it out. The second was a swerving long-range drive that flew in off his arm. Neither were howlers, but Bonilla bore a degree of culpability for both.

Having spent the days after England's exit on the finca, I took the bus to Pereira for the quarter-final between Brazil and Spain. As soon as I got in the taxi at the bus station, the driver asked me if I'd watched the Colombia game the night before. Fortunately, weeks in Argentina at the Copa América had prepared me to make sympathetic noises in bad Spanish. "Una gran decepción (a big disappointment)," I said, at which the driver burst out laughing. There is a healthy level of self-mockery about football in Colombia.

Thanks largely to the excellence of the centre-forward Henrique, who set up both goals in a 2-2 draw, and Gabriel, the goalkeeper, who capped a fine game by saving two penalties in the shoot-out, Brazil went through. For all the quality of their individuals, though, the impression was that Spain were playing a far more sophisticated form of football, their tiki-taka 4-3-3 dominating possession and creating overlaps to exploit Brazil's narrow 4-3-1-2 system. Both Spain goals, significantly, came from crosses from the full-backs. As at the Copa, the quarter-finals took a terrible toll, with the three best sides up to that point — Spain, Nigeria and Colombia — all going out.

I stayed in Pereira for the semi-final. In Medellín, to general surprise, Portugal beat France 2-0 to reach their first final since 1991 and the glory days of Jorge Costa, Manuel Rui Costa, Luís Figo and João Pinto. This side could hardly be more different from that one. Whereas that team was noted for its attacking flair and close passing; this one is rooted on defensive resolve; they reached the final by conceding no goals in six games, and scoring five. Only Danilo, who headed one of the goals against France, really caught the eye, and he was a holding midfielder. In the second half of that game France had almost all the ball, but kept running into walls of red shirts.

Brazil set up a repeat of the 1991 final by beating Mexico 2-0. Henrique, having laid on both goals against Spain, this time scored twice, both in the last 10 minutes, to put a patchy game out of its misery. Mexico, so enterprising at times in the tournament, were tentative, seeming to suffer some sort of cultural cringe against Brazil; as Rob Smyth once noted, the greatest trick Brazil ever pulled was to convince the world that jogo bonito exists. That flair had been apparent only in flashes during the tournament, but Brazil finished the final off with a goal worthy of the finest of their sides. 

I arrived in Bogotá two days before the final. I'd thought that having spent the majority of the previous fortnight at around 1500m, the altitude wouldn't affect me, but the extra 1000m made a significant difference. Even the shortest walk left me short of breath, and for the first day or so I had a perpetual headache. Quite how footballers unused to altitude can play there I have no idea.

Cloud squatted low over the city, shrouding Monserrate, the rocky outcrop that glowers over Bogotá from the east. It was somehow both chilly and humid and I was, I confess, unnerved by the guards in camouflage gear and incongruous white gaiters who patrolled the area around my hotel, semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. I wandered to Candelaria, the oldest part of the town, but whatever charm the grubby cobbled streets may have had, despite the tourists, disappeared as I saw a man being pickpocketed. The incident played on my mind. It had taken me a long time to realise what was going on, and it was only when I saw the thief pluck a phone from his victim's pocket that I realised he wasn't a mate playing a prank. I turned to shout, and even as the thought that the thief might be armed occurred to me, the crowds closed around the pair, and carried me away from them. I should have shouted, of course, but it wasn't just cowardice that killed the words in my throat.

Reading The Fruit Palace, Charles Nicholls's brilliant account of his slightly ham-fisted investigation into the Colombian cocaine trade in the early eighties, it's hard not to feel a pang of guilt. He seemed to have done so much more with his time than I did: cadging lifts on fishing-boats, escaping earthquakes on mules, fleeing from heavies in an abattoir, hanging around with dealers and pimps and paranoid fantasists who might just be about to break a major story about smuggling in to Europe. What had I done? Watched a lot of football, talked to a lot of taxi-drivers and spent a lot of time wandering around hotels trying to find decent wifi reception. Thanks to the colitis, I didn't even really have a proper night out: five beers on the terrace of the finca in Armenia was as good as it got.

Yet perhaps that in itself is significant. Colombia is a country that has lurched from one period of violence to another over the past 60 years or so and it will be some time before anybody can say with any confidence that it's all over (both anecdotal evidence and statistics, in fact, suggest crime is creeping upwards again, particularly in Bogotá and Medellín). But it is going through a period of relative calm. Yes, the FARC —the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movement that has effectively been waging civil war since the mid-sixties — retains control of parts of the south and, yes, you have to be careful not to wander into the wrong area after dark, but this is a lively, diverse country in which it's perfectly possible to city hop for four weeks watching football without having any adventures.

Repeatedly during the tournament, I'd been asked to give interviews for Colombian television, radio and newspapers (I did one interview while waiting for the doctor in the stadium; the next day the receptionist in the hotel said to me, "I saw you on TV last night. You looked terrible.") All of them asked what I thought of the organisation, and to each I replied that, while you had to take into account the relatively small scale of the competition, it had gone perfectly smoothly.

That wasn't entirely true. Accreditation, in Medellín at least, had been a farce to collect, the office hidden away in the depths of a volleyball arena near the stadium, unmarked and, to most of the volunteers on whom you always end up relying in such circumstances, unknown. When I eventually found it, they processed my accreditation, and then revealed that the Fifa holograms hadn't been delivered. I was told to return on the day of the game to collect the completed badge. As you needed a badge to get in to the stadium, that meant a fully equipped press-centre sat empty for three days with no journalists able to access it. But that seemed a minor issue alongside the general friendliness and helpfulness of the volunteers.

Had anybody asked after the final, though, I might not have been so generous; and not just because of the crotchetiness that inevitably develops from eight weeks on the road. As soon as there was a clamour for seats in the press-box, there was chaos. Numerous journalists were left sitting on the stairs and in the aisles, laptops propped on their knees. Colombia had considered bidding to host the 2014 World Cup and the sense was of a nation trying to work out whether it is worth putting itself forward as a host when the bidding process comes round again in eight years or so. In terms of infrastructure it is no worse off than South Africa or Russia, but given the sentimental case for hosting the centenary World Cup in Uruguay and Argentina in 2030, it may be some time before Colombia has a realistic chance. Certainly there is a general love of football: only the UAE, in 1993, recorded a higher average attendance for matches at an Under-20 World Cup and, as every conspiracy-savvy taxi driver pointed out, at that tournament a lot of fans had been let in for free. 


Brazil were heavy favourites for the final but, with their narrowness, there was a danger that they would end up, as France had, dashing themselves again and again against the massed centre of Portugal's defence. I feared something cagey and fractious, but an early goal changed everything, Oscar's free-kick drifting, via a brush off the head of Sergio Oliveira, past the Portugal goalkeeper Mika; the first goal he had conceded in the tournament. 

Five minutes later, Portugal were level, Nelson Oliveira getting behind the left-back Gabriel Silva and squaring for Alex to tap in. Gabriel Silva was withdrawn for Alan at half-time, but that position remained a weakness for Brazil, and Nelson Oliveira exploited it again early in the second half, hurtling into the box and then, from an angle that was seemingly too narrow, beating Gabriel with a shot that slithered under his body. It was not, in general, a good tournament for goalkeepers. Mika won the golden gloves despite the fallibility under the high ball he displayed in the final, but in terms of consistency and unflustered command, England's Jack Butland was streets ahead of anybody else.

The advantage Brazil had that set them above everybody apart from perhaps Spain was their strength in depth. When things weren't going for them, they could bring on the unpredictable Neguedo or the classy Dudu to add extra zest and creativity. They'd set up a goal each for Henrique in the semi-final, and in the final it was Dudu who dragged Brazil back into the game. Julio Alves seemed to have held him up, but Dudu rolled the ball back with the sole of his boot and pivoted to create a shooting chance. Mika parried his effort, but only to Oscar, who knocked a sidefoot volley into the empty net. 

At the final whistle, Portugal looked shattered and, with five of their players on yellow cards, it seemed unlikely they'd finish the game with 11 men, particularly when Sana was booked early in extra-time. As it was, they did go down to 10, but only because Danilo succumbed to a thigh injury. By then they were already 3-2 down, and Danilo's departure confirmed that Portugal weren't going to get back into the game.

The winner was either brilliant or immensely lucky. Oscar gathered the ball wide on the right, created a fraction of space, and clipped a chip over Mika and inside the far post. Was it deliberate? Only Oscar can say, but just as he shot something about the situation caused the thought to spring into my mind that there was a chance to loop an effort over Mika. Whether it was his body-shape or the distribution of players I don't know, but it was enough, along with the lack of spin or curl on the shot (or cross) for me to believe Oscar meant it and that he brought up his hat-trick with a moment of outrageous skill.

It was, though, a moment of individual brilliance, just as the equaliser had come from a moment of individual brilliance, just as it took moments of individual brilliance to unlock Mexico and Spain. Individual brilliance is, necessarily, far less reliable than the sort of team ethic of Spain. Brazil were good to watch in the way that it is always good to watch a side flirt with failure before hauling themselves to victory, but whether that is the sort of football that can, in the long-term, really challenge Spain is another matter.