The countdown to the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup can now begin in earnest after the final pieces were added to the New Zealand 2008 jigsaw.
Two months on from an initial draw that threw up as many questions as answers, the remaining qualifiers were added to the mix to round off some potentially thrilling sections. This was done at a supplementary draw at the Home of FIFA yesterday, an event staged less than 24 hours after Canada had claimed the final place at FIFA's newest tournament, concluding two dramatic qualifying competitions in Africa and North, Central America and the Caribbean.
Ghana's Lazarus-like comeback was the highlight of the CAF Women's U-17 Championship, the Black Maidens battling back from a seemingly hopeless position to clinch qualification in their final, do-or-die match away to Cameroon. At first, the Ghanaian bench - scarcely able to believe what had happened - broke down in tears, but raucous celebrations soon followed, with one chant ringing loudest of all: "New Zealand, here we come!"
Their reward for their efforts came in the shape of a tough draw that has pitted them against Germany and Korea DPR, European and Asian champions respectively, along with CONCACAF runners-up Costa Rica.
Nevertheless, captain Mercy Myles is adamant that Ghana are not making the long journey to the south-west Pacific simply to make up the numbers. "Playing at the World Cup has always been the team's dream," she said. "We have to go there determined to win."
As for Nigeria, who cemented their nation's pre-eminent position in African women's football by dominating the CAF qualifiers, they can scarcely expect to have it any easier against Brazil, England and Korea Republic in the Wellington-based Group C. Again, however, there is a fearless attitude to the African hopefuls summed up by the reaction of NFA General Secretary Bolaji Ojo-Oba to yesterday's draw.
"I feel comfortable," he told FIFA.com. "We have no fear, even though we have teams like Brazil in our group. In the end, it's always 11 against 11 - we just have to play our own game."
Americans assume favourites' role
The CONCACAF contenders, meanwhile, barely had time to draw breath following their own continental qualifiers before the challenge facing them in New Zealand was laid out.
For Canada, who recovered from a shock semi-final defeat to Costa Rica to edge out Mexico thanks to top scorer Tiffany Cameron's fifth goal of the tournament, there was the excitement of being lined up to face the hosts in New Zealand 2008's opening match, in a group that also includes Denmark and Colombia. "The team are ecstatic," said Canadian coach Bryan Rosenfeld. "Exhausted, but ecstatic. We're really looking forward to the challenge."
Paul Temple, coach of the Kiwi side that will face Rosenfeld's Canucks in the Auckland opener, knows the scale of the challenge facing him. "It's a tough group and provides us with a real challenge," he said. "Canada have a very good background in the women's game. But it's a mouth-watering way to begin the tournament.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, will know that the pressure is off as they look forward to their first-ever FIFA women's finals, particularly after they were drawn in that imposing-looking section alongside the Germans, North Koreans and Ghanaians. Kazbek Tambi's USA, by contrast, will enter the tournament under a weight of expectation, their status as favourites having been strengthened by beating Germany to the Future Stars title in New Zealand earlier this year and the ease with which they attained the CONCACAF laurels.
"When we got together as a team some months ago, we all agreed that our first goal was to get to the World Cup and our second was to win the CONCACAF region," Tambi said in the wake of his side's 4-1 final win over Costa Rica, a side they had earlier beaten 6-0 during the group phase. "Now we're going to set some new goals leading into the World Cup. We're going to have to work harder than we've ever worked to succeed."