Draw in Africa: Nigeria and Ghana the teams to beat
Everything is in place for the 2005 U-17 African Championship, which takes place in Gambia between 7 and 21 May. The draw was held on Thursday 10 March under the supervision of Issa Hayatou, President of the African Football Confederation. Drawn in Group A, host nation Gambia will meet Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso, while Group B favourites Nigeria take on South Africa, Zimbabwe and Côte d'Ivoire.
When the tournament kicks off on 7 May, events will unfold at two stadiums: the Independence Stadium Bakau and the Serrekunda Stadium. The top two teams in each group will then contest the semi-finals on 17 May, with places at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru up for grabs for both finalists and the third-placed team.
Teams to watch out for include two former winners of this event first held a decade ago: Ghana and Nigeria. Amongst the dark horses, Burkina Faso, shock victors over reigning champions Cameroon in the qualifying competition, will need to be respected. They will be out to go one better than their previous achievements in the African U-17s tournament, having reached two successive finals in 1999 and 2001 only to lose them both.
The other Group A sides are Gambia, Mali and Ghana. Much of the smart money will be on the Ghanaians, two-time winners in 1995 and 1999. Those who take their Gambian hosts lightly may well do so at their peril. The Young Scorpions had a fine tournament two years ago in Swaziland, and federation president Omar Sey had this to say about the draw: "It won't be easy, as all these countries have a distinguished pedigree at both youth and senior level, but I believe that we too are very well equipped to cope with any other team at this tournament." The fourth team in the group, Mali, overcame Guinea and Central African Republic to make it to this final phase.
Attack best form of defence for Nigerians and South Africans
Top seeds in Group B, Nigeria won the trophy in 2001 after having previously occupied all the other places on the podium (3rd in 99, 2nd in 97 and 4th on home turf in 95). To secure their participation this time around, the Golden Eaglets hit six goals in two games against their Angolan counterparts. Godwin Izilein, the Nigerian coach, professed his delight at the draw: "It's a fantastic draw for us. I'm happy because luck is once again on our side, as Ghana and Nigeria are in different groups. I promise the world and my country that we're going to pick up the first ticket for Peru."
His bullish approach will need to be tempered with a degree of caution, as Nigeria's opponents include a South African side that looked impressive in qualifying. Eight goals against Mozambique were followed by eight more against Sudan, as the South Africans struck a rich vein of scoring form that augurs well for their first participation in the tournament.
Group B is completed by Zimbabwe and Cote d'Ivoire, who came within a whisker of elimination in the final qualifying round against Senegal. Having crushed the Senegalese Lion Cubs in Dakar (4-1), the Baby Elephants took their eye off the ball in Abidjan, going down 4-2. Although sufficient to take them through, they could have done without the considerable scare.
Zimbabwe are even more indebted to the hand of fate for their place in Gambia, having been beaten at home by Tanzania in the final round. Fortunately for the Zimbabweans, who last took part in the tournament at Guinea 1999, they earned reprieve when Tanzania were disqualified by the CAF at the end of January for fielding an overage player in one of their matches.