Eritrea broke new ground at the weekend by qualifying for their first-ever continental championship, beating Zambia 2-0 away in Lusaka to record an shock 3-0 aggregate win and book their place at next year's CAF African U-17 Championship.
That tournament, which is to be held in Togo between 10 and 24 March, will decide Africa's representatives for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, with the top four finishers going on to represent their continent in Korea Republic next Autumn.
Eritrea, one of Africa's newest countries and an affiliated FIFA member for less than a decade, have never previously qualified for a continental championship, but surprised Zambia with their attacking bite at the Nkoloma stadium. The Red Sea state's U-17 side are coached by Romanian Dorian Marin, who is also in charge of the Ertitrean senior side that registered a stunning 2-1 away win over Kenya in Nairobi in September at the start of the qualifiers for the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals.
However, while there was joy for Eritrea, there was only despair for the Central African Republic. This little-known football nation had looked to be in prime position to take their place at a first-ever African championship after winning in the first leg of their final qualifying match away in Gabon, but they surrendered that advantage with a 2-0 defeat at home in Bangui on Sunday as Gabon fought back to take the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
Eritrea, Gabon and hosts Togo are joined by Burkina Faso , Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia in the eight-team line-up. Tunisia scraped through on penalties while Ghana qualified on the away goals rule, but the Burkinabe, Nigeria and South Africa all won handsomely, having already secured convincing leads in their first leg matches last month.
Big-name trio miss out
The most high-profile absentees, meanwhile, will be Senegal, Morocco and Côte d'Ivoire. The Senegalese Lions won 1-0 at home to Tunisia in Dakar on Sunday with a 21st-minute goal from Serigen Cheikh Diouck, but with their visitors having won the first leg by an identical margin, the match went to a shoot-out. There, Tunisia triumphed, with the decisive kick coming from Youssef Misakni after Senegal had missed twice from the spot.
It was a joyous return to the Demba Diop stadium for Tunisia's coach Maher Kanzari, who as a player had competed at the stadium in the CAF Champions League with Stade Tunisien in 1992. "Senegal were better than us today," he said after the match, "They were very tough physically. But the scoreline said 1-1 and we won the lottery of the shootout."
Elsewhere, Ghana had gone down 3-1 in the first leg against neighbours Côte d'Ivoire, but were right back in the tie within three minutes of kick-off as Adams Sadick found the back of the net. However, it took until the 69th minute for the Black Stars to score their second through Osei Ransford, the goal coming only after Ivorian goalkeeper Christian Fabrice Okoua had proved an imposing figure in the visitors' goal.
Burkina Faso were held to a goalless draw by Mali in Ouagadougou, and although they advanced comfortably thanks to a record 6-1 away win in the first leg, coach Pihouri Webonga admitted to feeling disappointed with his players' efforts. Nigeria, meanwhile, went through 5-1 on aggregate against Morocco despite defeat in Saturday's second leg in Rabat. Abdelilah Bendioua's 20th minute goal briefly gave Morocco hope of an improbably revival after losing by five goals in the first leg, but the home side could not add to their solitary score and the Super Eagles advanced.
Kermit Erasmus, who netted a first leg hat trick for South Africa, was once again the hero as he found the net again in a 2-2 away draw against neighbours Zimbabwe that secured a comfortable aggregate victory for the Bafana Bafana. It was a successful debut for South Africa's new U-17 coach Doctor Khumalo, who has taken over from Serame Letsoaka, recently promoted to the post of U-20 coach.