Africa's run of success in the FIFA Under-17 World Championship has come to an end. After Ghana in 1991, Nigeria in 1993 and Ghana again in 1995, the teenage World Champions at Egypt 97 came from Brazil, giving South America its first taste of success in this competition.
Before his team met Brazil in the final of the FIFA/JVC Cup in Cairo, Ghana coach Emanuel Kwasi Afranie said his boys were about to make football history. "We want to win this trophy for the third time," he said. "We want to take it home and keep it, showing that we are the best under-17 football country in the world." The ambition was healthy and entirely justifiable. Ghana were in their fourth successive World Under-17 Final, an extraordinary record unequalled in any FIFA competition. But this time they were up against especially tough and motivated opposition.
By the time the lights went out in the Cairo National Stadium on the evening of 21 September and the 35,000 spectators were on their way home through the impenetrable Cairo traffic, the talk was of the way that Brazil had clawed their way back into a game that had looked lost, and the drama of a winning goal three minutes from time. They had been treated to teenage football at its best, crowning a full fortnight of goals and excitement.
Brazil were, of course, beside themselves with delight at capturing the latest FIFA title that had hitherto eluded them; now only the Olympic Football Gold and the Women's World Cup remain to complete their collection. Only once before had the boys from Brazil made it to the U-17 Final, in Ecuador two years ago, when the Ghanaians had had far the better of an enthralling 3-2 win.
All African teams in last eigth
This time the match was no less fascinating, even if it took a little longer to get fully into its irresistible stride. When Ariyie put Ghana ahead six minutes from half-time, it was no more than the Africans deserved. Watched from the VIP box by FIFA's special Fair Play Day guest and Ghana enthusiast, Sir Bobby Charlton, the Cup-holders had the better of the first half and still looked capable of retaining their trophy when Metuzalem nipped the ball home after goalkeeper Boateng failed to hold it. But Andrey's last-gasp winner, rounding off an incisive move in the dying minutes, left the Africans too little time to hit back and sent the new Champions into a frenzy of delight.All African teams in last eigth.
"We had decided to let Ghana make the running and wait for our chance," Brazilian coach Carlos Cesar said after the game, adding with satisfaction, "and it worked." Even if Africa's strength in the teenage bracket was emphasised by the presence of all three African teams (Mali and the hosts, Egypt, as well as Ghana) among the eight quarter-finalists, Brazil's victory was perhaps no more than merely a matter of time. They had removed another South American contender and one of the main obstacles on their path to the Final, Argentina, in the quarter-finals, and had shown their football to contain the element of organisation that others lacked.
A pulsating Final
Ghana, for all the appeal of their uninhibited exuberance, were sometimes short of the organisational discipline that teams must have also at this age level. Not for the first time, they revealed a certain inability to pace their game, and the patience to which Carlos Cesar referred proved decisive.
The pulsating Final was a fitting climax to a superb Championship. Even before Egypt opened the proceedings with a 3-2 win over Thailand in front of Egypt's President Hasny Mubarak, FIFA's President Joao Havelange and over 75,000 other excited onlookers, the event gripped the nation and the Egyptian local organisers spoke not without reason of an organising committee of 62 million people the entire population of Egypt. The elimination of the home team, falling 1-2 to a polished Spanish side despite their best display of the competition, left the fans with nothing to cheer for but the football itself, and this they did with an enthusiasm that endorsed their reputation as a truly football-loving nation.
From Cairo to Alexandria, Ismailya and Port Said, the crowds turned out in force, sometimes in the hot afternoon sunshine, paying ticket prices kept sensibly low and in spite of the fact that Egyptian Television performed a herculean task in showing all 32 matches live. Some 80 other countries took matches live, too, while a further hundred showed highlights of various games.
Only four direct red cards
Outstanding players inevitably emerged, including Spain's long-haired attacker Sergio, misleadingly wearing number 2 but more often closer to the opposing penalty area than his own, a player ready to take on opponents with his speed and ball control; the perceptive Attram of Ghana, capable of individual exploits as well as creating unlikely opportunities for his colleagues; or the elusive Guindo of Mali, bewilderingly unpredictable on Mali's right wing.
An important part of the traditional appeal of under-17 football was no less in evidence in Egypt, namely the fairness of the players and their coaches. Examples : only four direct red cards in 32 matches; the FIFA Fair Play Trophy to Argentina for an exemplary record of good behaviour; when local supplies of water to the teams broke down in Cairo, Egypt readily sharing their own reserves with their Thai opponents; a devastated Spanish goalkeeper Casillas showing maturity and class beyond his years by congratulating each of his Ghanaian opponents after defeat in the semi-finals; Germany and Austria paying visits to the SOS Children's Villages in Cairo and Alexandria; and the finalist teams posing together for a unique group photo before the Final on FIFA Fair Play Day.
The informal note struck at the first tournament 12 years ago still prevails at the U-17 in its present form, even if winning the JVC Cup has become a matter of greater prestige than it was then. And it also retains its educational value, with teams not failing to broaden their cultural horizons by visiting the great sites of which Egypt has an almost indecently abundant supply.
1999 in New Zealand
The future of the U-17 looks as rosy as its present. New Zealand, this year's whipping-boys who conceded 13 goals in one game to Spain but who returned home richer for the experience and more aware of the work that remains to be done, will host the next edition in 1999, followed by Trinidad & Tobago in 2001 and Finland in 2003. Gone are the days when FIFA had to cajole countries into playing host to the competition. Just like its players, the Under-17 World Championship has clearly learn to stand on its own two feet.