Drawn into a daunting group at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011, Congo coach Eddie Hudanski and his players have been spurred on by the challenge and are determined to find an escape route through to the knockout stages. Having set off for France for their final preparations ahead of Mexico 2011, the Devils are resolved to double their preparatory efforts in the wake of a draw that lines them up against the talented hosts as well as the champions of both Europe and Asia.
Congo will play in one of four matches on the opening day of the tournament, 18 June, and will take on the highly-rated Netherlands before meeting Mexico three days later in Morelia and Korea DPR another three days after that. Such a task may seem overwhelming for Congolese hopes, but Hudanski would only be drawn to describe the challenge as “very interesting."
“Taking on the home nation in their own country is something really tough,” said the well-travelled French coach. “Mexico at home is a big morsel to eat. But African football must go into these tournaments without any complexes and play to win, not just to compete."
Hudanski has also been studying tapes from the recent UEFA European U-17 Championship to get a sense about the Netherlands. “The Dutch are a very solid team,” he said. “The unknown factor is Korea, but they could be something very interesting too. To have to start against the reigning European champions is perhaps not the best option, but we will be prepared for every match.”
A veteran now of youth development on the continent, Hudanski will have mental fortitude high up in his team planning. “Our goal is to qualify for the knockout stage by ending the group in the top two places. We’ll need to win two games to make sure,” added the coach, who was at the helm when Congo’s under-20 side showed promise at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada four years ago.
Making a difference at youth level
Two world championship appearances inside the space of five years is a remarkable achievement for a country whose senior success is confined to a single CAF Africa Cup of Nations triumph almost 40 years ago. Hudanski’s creation of a national training centre for young talent is now producing a steady flow of talent, with the under-17 side taking bronze at the CAF U-17 African Championship in Rwanda at the start of the year.
Hudanski himself believes he is seeing more and more talent, not only in Congo but also across the continent. “You can see the development and the higher level that the game is being played at,” he said. In preparing his latest crop of youngsters, Hudanski returned to his roots at French club Auxerre, who were the prime movers behind the creation of Congo’s training centre and had recommended Hudanski to Congolese authorities. And the side will be among the opponents that the young Africans will face in a warm-up game before making the trek to Mexico.
Making the final selection of players ahead of a tournament is never easy said Hudanski, but working so closely with the youth set-up in Congo has allowed him to take a longer-term view. “Regulations allow us to take only 21 players to Mexico while I have been working with a group of 25. It will be with a heavy heart that I will have to remove four players, but there will be life for everyone after the World Cup because they will return home to move up to the under-20 age group, to defend the country’s colours and possibly have a chance at doing well in the next African championships and even the [FIFA U-20] World Cup.”
Congo's youth teams have shown real dividends in the six years since Hudanski has been working in the country, and a positive showing at Mexico 2011 will hopefully keep the ball rolling in the right direction.