A first for New Zealand: A third title for Ghana?
For the first time ever the U-17 World Championship will be held in Oceania this year. From 10-27 November 1999, New Zealand will host the 15 best teams from the six Confederations. Already with their name on the trophy twice, Ghana are seen as the favourites to win again this time. But there be will stiff competition from some of the other participants.
Originally the U- 17 World Championship was a U- 16 affair when it was introduced as a logical next step after the World Youth Championship had got off to a successful start in 1977. The U-16 competition began in China in 1985 and 16 remained the age limit for the next two events as well in 1987 and 1989, but in 1991 the new age category (U17) came into being.
This popular competition will now travel to Oceania for the first time, after two earlier visits to Asia (China 1985 and Japan 1993), two to Europe (Scotland 1989 and Italy 1991) and one turn each for South America (Ecuador 1995), Central and North America (Canada 1987) and Africa (Egypt 1997).
By comparison with the U-20 - the latest competition for this trophy was last April in Nigeria, with most of the players already being professionals - the U- 17 is a rather uncomplicated affair. Tactical maturity is not yet fully developed and the sheer joy of playing is much more evident.
What goes for the players goes for the host countries of FIFA youth competitions too. They are given an opportunity to gather experience in hosting a major competition and at the same time to make the game (more) popular in the region.This applies particularly to the host country for this next competition, since in New Zealand football is not the most popular sport. Rugby and cricket for example are well ahead, with football only ranking in about fifth place. This tournament, it is hoped, will give the game a boost; the hosts are doing their very best and have chosen four excellent small stadiums for the matches, in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Napier.
What has been striking about the U- 17 competitions so far - and this in contrast to the U-20s - is the dominance of the African countries. Between them, Nigeria and Ghana have won four of the seven titles. The former Soviet Union managed to succeed in 1987 as did Saudi Arabia in 1989, before Brazil became the only other non-African nation to take the title two years ago - beating Ghana 2:1 in the final. With its vast pool of young talent, Ghana must be, counted among the favourites, especially with its record of reaching the final the last four times in succession, (two wins, two defeats), while Nigeria will not be present this time, having been edged out by Burkina Faso and Mali as African representatives.
The host country New Zealand, drawn in Group A, made their first appearance at a U- 17 championship two years ago, and while they did not win a game, they certainly gathered valuable international experience. On the other hand, the USA are regular participants, being the only nation to have qualified for every one of the U- 17 competitions so far they are always good for a surprise. The other two teams in Group A - Uruguay and Poland - have each only made one previous appearance (1991 and 1993, respectively).
In Group B, Ghana have to be seen as likely winners, with their outstanding record, which makes them the top-ranked side in the history of the competition. Their biggest challenge could come from Spain, who also have ambitions of winning the trophy, and thus following up the success of their U-20 compatriots in Nigeria last April. Mexico and Thailand complete this group.
Group C looks likely to see Brazil at the top, and they are rated as one of Ghana's main rivals. With them in the group are Australia, who like Brazil have only missed one U- 17 championship and are the normal representatives of Oceania. They were the last team to earn their tickets to New Zealand, coming through in the playoffs against the Asian hopefuls Bahrain. Mali, whose U-20 side caused a sensation in Nigeria in April, are taking part for the second time and may well provide yet another surprise (5th place last time). After the poor showing of their U-20 team this year, Germany are not expected to meet any great success at the younger age level.
Group D could be called the "new comers' group", with Jamaica, Burkina Faso and Paraguay making their debuts. Their relative strengths are hard to estimate. The only team here with any previous U- 17 experience will be Qatar. They have made five earlier appearances and earned considerable respect, with a 5th place in 1987 and 4th in 1991