Big four ease through

The CONCACAF Zone's big four of Mexico, USA, Honduras and Costa Rica safely negotiated the qualifying competition for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, which has just taken place in the Mexican city of Tijuana.

The final phase of the tournament was cancelled as a result of the swine flu epidemic that has hit the country. Despite that, there was still plenty for local fans to enjoy as the region's stars of tomorrow laid on some entertaining, high-quality football. rounds up all the news from a truncated competition that still generated plenty of excitement and incident.

Mexico and USA hold sway
Group 1 was completely dominated by USA, who won their three games comfortably. The Americans kicked off with a 5-0 defeat of Cuba before producing another awesome display of finishing in beating Canada 4-2. They then completed a hat-trick of wins by disposing of Honduras 3-0.

That left the Canadians and Los Catrachos to fight it out for second place. A 1-1 draw between the two meant that their respective games with Cuba would prove decisive. While the Canadians lamented some wayward finishing in a narrow 2-1 win over the islanders, Honduras were not so profligate and romped to a 6-0 victory that clinched their place in Nigeria.

Group 2 was almost a carbon copy, with Mexico triumphing in their three matches, scoring 11 goals in the process and conceding none. In their first outing Los Aztecas brushed aside Trinidad and Tobago 7-0 and then secured their place in the finals with a 3-0 defeat of Guatemala. The Mexican second-string then earned a 1-0 win over Costa Rica to complete their nine-point haul.

Guatemala and Costa Rica fought it out for the second ticket from the section. The meeting between the two ended in a 1-1 draw and with both sides beating the luckless T&T 3-0, it was their results against group winners Mexico that proved decisive, Los Ticos edging out Los Chapines on goal difference.

Stars in the making
The four qualifiers were a class above their opponents. After missing out on Korea 2007, Mexico will be returning to the big stage with a generation of players that compares favourably with the side that lifted the trophy at Peru 2005. Led by the highly promising Martin Galvan, the Mexicans have every reason to be optimistic about their chances, especially with other talents in the ranks such as defender Kristian Alvarez, midfielder Carlos Campos and the strike duo of Erick Vera and Victor Manon.

USA were their usual solid selves at the back and showed some additional flair up front. Among their brightest hopes are goalkeeper Earl Edwards, a reliable presence between the posts, midfielder Steven Jerome and the impressive front man John McInerney, top scorer in the tournament with four goals.

Despite their respective defeats to the section winners, the two Central American qualifiers achieved what they set out to do. That said, they will need to rectify their errors if they are to impress in Nigeria. The Honduran duo of Nestor Martinez and Anthony Lozano and the Tico twosome of Joel Campbell and Josbin Mayorga will be vital to their sides' hopes in Africa.

The announcement that the tournament was to be cut short was greeted with disappointment by the semi-finalists, with USA coach Wilmer Cabrera expressing his solidarity with the people of Mexico. "We wanted to fight for a place in the final," he said, "but the well-being of the people comes first and we fully respect the decision."

Echoing those sentiments was Cabrera's Mexico counterpart Jose Luis Gonzalez. "It's been a superb stage and the tournament has been very positive for us in every respect. We wanted to see a few more players in action but the most important thing is the health of the boys and the population in general."

Despite the sudden abandonment of the competition, the region's fans will not have to wait too long before seeing their young heroes in action again, with Nigeria 2009 taking place this October and November.