The young pearls of African football will be striving to put an end to European dominance in the Meridian Cup when the biannual competition is held in Turkey from 4-11 February.
This fifth edition of the Meridian Cup once again brings together the top four U-18 teams on each continent. The semi-finalists of the CAF U-17 Championship 2003 and the top three from the European U-17 Championship, which was held in France last May, join the hosts Turkey to decide which side of the Mediterranean reigns supreme.
The competition was first staged in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1997, and only two teams have been ever-present since: Spain and Nigeria. The Africans prevailed in that first event, but on each subsequent occasion, it has been the young Furia who have taken the honours.
In 2001, the competition changed its format and instead of being divided into two groups, a round-robin system was set up, whereby each team plays all the teams from the rival continent, and the winner is the continent that has amassed most points from the various games played. Thus far, Europe has emerged victorious.
As the best performers in the last three editions of the competition, Spain are widely tipped to do well. While the Spanish senior team has yet to come good on the international stage, their underage teams have provided a consistent example of how to win at the top level. However, team coach Juan Santisteban plays down the statistics, insisting he does not have a magic formula. "Without being modest, a dose of luck and having a good bunch of players plays a big part in these competitions."
Even if Spain fail to fire on all cylinders, Europe's other representatives should provide a stiff test for their African opponents. Portugal and France defeated Spain in the last two finals of the UEFA Under-17 European Championships. The African teams will be up for the challenge though. Nigeria will strive to emulate their success of 1997, while Cameroon will be intent on restoring the pride in their underage teams that was lost by not qualifying for the last Olympic Games.
"How to keep the lads focused is what most concerns me. They shouldn't start believing that they've already made it. They have to realise that this is only the beginning and that they still have a long way to go before becoming professionals", noted the Spanish coach.
Portugal coach Carlos Dinis added: "There are no easy teams. Physically strong, the Africans are always tough to beat, but we are confident in ourselves and know we are in good position to win."
This year, the Meridian Cup is being held in the two main cities in the Aegean region in the west of Turkey; Aydin and Izmir. The Kusadasi, Söke, Aydin and Ödemis stadiums will see the stars of the future prove their worth. In economic terms, Izmir, with 3.5 million inhabitants, is the most important city in the region. A busy port and attractive surroundings also make it the focal point on this part of Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
This is the ideal competition for young players to show off their talent and attract the attention of coaches and managers. Hugo Viana and Ricardo Quaresma from Portugal, Fernando Torres and Andrés Iniesta from Spain, Cesare Bovo from Italy and Bartholomew Ogbeche form Nigeria are just a few of the players who have used this occasion to announce their arrival on the world stage.
Moreover, the Meridian Cup is a fantastic opportunity for the participants to gain international experience both in football terms and on a personal level. The eight teams will stay in the same hotel for the week and will have the opportunity to make friends with people from very different backgrounds. It will provide the platform for an enriching cultural experience that can only help all the youngsters gain in maturity.
The Meridian Project
This youth competition forms part of the Meridian Project, a joint UEFA/CAF programme whereby the European federations assist their African counterparts in the development of their sporting infrastructure. The principal objective is to increase the standard of football played through the donation of sporting goods and the organisation of training courses in technical, administrative and medical matters.
Ethiopia and Central African Republic were the first two beneficiaries of the project in 2003-2004. The Ethiopian Football Association received medical and refereeing equipment, and a large amount of balls to help the development of sporting education in schools. Central African Republic, meanwhile, were given the financial support necessary to extend their headquarters and received various courses for instructors.
Along with all this background activity, the Meridian Cup is a symbol of the friendship and cooperation that exists between the two continents.
Meridian Cup, Turkey, 4-11 February