WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Bribery scandals, arrests and a tempestuous presidential election that demonstrated a growing split within FIFA were put to the side on Saturday as the next generation of soccer’s leading lights began the under-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
More than 25,000 people in Auckland cast aside concerns of the controversy in Zurich, where FIFA was thrown into turmoil after seven leading executives were arrested earlier this week on bribery charges, to produce a sell-out for the opening game.
Unlike many sporting events that battle for the discretionary dollar in rugby-mad New Zealand, more than 20,000 tickets had been pre-sold for the clash between the hosts and Ukraine at North Harbour Stadium.
A solid walk-up crowd ensured organizers were able to declare it a sell-out, no doubt helped by local soccer authorities cancelling all junior matches in Auckland, though traffic jams and public transport issues caused slight delays getting people into the ground.
Inspired by captain Bill Tuiloma, who plays for Olympique Marseille, the Junior All Whites came close to providing an upset against the Europeans, with Clayton Lewis, Noah Billingsley and Sam Brotherton all going close in the second half before the match ended in a 0-0 draw.
“We could have put it away in the last 10 minutes but things happen,” Tuiloma said. “In the second half... we created a lot of chances now we just have to finish them at the end.”
Pre-tournament favorites Argentina showed their class with some slick passing and exploitation of space against Panama in Wellington, but were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw after the Central Americans’ Carlos Small blasted a shot wide in the 86th minute when he was one-on-one with goalkeeper Augusto Batalla.
Argentine captain Angel Correa had scored two superb goals, though Humberto Grondona’s side should have put the game beyond doubt with numerous chances in front of Jaime De Garcia’s goal.
They also suffered concentration lapses with Panama’s Jhamal Rodriguez and Fidel Escobar scoring within five minutes of each of Correa’s goals, with Rodriguez’s 25-yard screamer in the first half an early candidate for goal of the tournament.
The United States avoided an upset in Group A against debutants Myanmar, who opened the scoring in Whangarei through Yan Naing Oo, before Maki Tall and U.S. captain Emerson Hyndman responded to give the Americans a 2-1 win.
Yaw Yeboah converted an 90th minute penalty, that he had won when he was brought down by Konrad Laimer, to salvage a below-par Ghana a 1-1 draw with Austria after Bernd Gschweidl had scored an early second half goal in their Group B clash in the late game in Wellington.
Editing by John O'Brien