Gambia will lead a group of African underdogs to the FIFA U-17 World Cup after triumphing in a CAF African U-17 Championship notable for the absence of several of the continent's superpowers. With the likes of Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire all missing from the CAF finals, the Baby Scorpions rose to the challenge of claiming a place at the global showpiece alongside Algeria, Burkina Faso and Malawi, while the Nigerians - as hosts - will further boost the African contingent.
In triumphing, the Gambians regained a trophy they last won just four years ago, following which they went on to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2005 and claimed impressive victories over Brazil and Qatar. This time, a hugely impressive Baby Scorpions campaign established them beyond doubt as the tournament's most accomplished side.
They kicked off the competition by beating Guinea 1-0 before ending Cameroon's hopes of qualification with a 2-0 defeat and, although they by this stage they had already secured their place at Nigeria 2009, they reinforced their superiority with victory over hosts Algeria in the final group match. However, their best performance came in the semi-finals, when they put four unanswered goals past Malawi. In the final, despite facing an Algerian side backed by a passionate home support, the Gambians rose to the challenge by replicating their group stage win to claim the trophy.
"We played a wonderful tournament, we were full of confidence but never underestimated our opponents," Gambia's Egyptian coach, Tarek El Syagi told FIFA.com. El Syagi had made every effort to ensure that his team were properly prepared, organising a month-long pre-tournament camp in Egypt so that his players could acclimatise to the colder weather of the North African region.
Firsts for Algeria and Malawi
Algeria, meanwhile, may have missed out on the title, but qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time in their history represented mission accomplished. Striker Nadir Bendahmane was the hosts' hero, grabbing the winning goals against Cameroon in their group opener and then in the decisive encounter against Guinea.
The France-based youngster, who is on the books of Cannes, proved to be one of the stars of the tournament, and his manager Hakim Midan voiced a belief that more is yet to come. "Bendahmane did a great job and I know that he can be even better because there is a lot of time for him to develop," said the Algeria coach. "I am sure we will achieve good results in Nigeria."
It was no surprise that Burkina Faso, who had already eliminated Tunisia, claimed third place, but Malawi - who will be competing in their first-ever FIFA finals - exceeded even their own expectations. They replaced Niger in the semi-finals following a decision by CAF to disqualify the Group B winners for age cheating. A protest from Zimbabwe, who lost all three games of their group campaign, led CAF to discover irregularities in the official documents of Niger's Boubacar Talatou, and eventually led to the team's disqualification.
Niger's loss was Malawi's gain, and they will now form one fifth of an African quintet aiming to ensure that the FIFA U-17 World Cup trophy stays in Africa.