Spain and USA are strong favourites to qualify from Group E of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, with both teams among the world’s most experienced sides at U-17 level. Drawn alongside this formidable duo are UAE, making a return to the competition after an 18-year absence, and Malawi, one of two tournament's two debutants.
There are no certainties in football, however, and Spain and USA will have to convert their statistical superiority into solid performances against two opponents with nothing to lose. UAE have rediscovered their best form, as they are currently demonstrating across all categories, while the Young Flames will face the stiffest of challenges in what will be Malawi’s first-ever FIFA World Cup appearance at any level.
The matches (all kick-offs in local time)
UAE-Malawi, Kano, 26 October, 16:00
Spain-USA, Kano, 26 October, 19:00
USA-Malawi, Kano, 29 October, 16:00
UAE-Spain, Kano, 29 October, 19:00
Malawi-Spain, Kano, 1 November, 16:00
USA-UAE, Ijebu Ode, 1 November, 16:00
How they qualified
Spain: Third in Group A at the UEFA U-17 European Championship Germany 2009
USA: Winners of Group A at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship Mexico 2009 UAE: Semi-finalists at the AFC U-16 Championship Uzbekistan 2008
Malawi: Fourth at the CAF African U-17 Championship Algeria 2009
Kano State, in north-western Nigeria, is the most populous in the country, and its capital, also called Kano, is the largest city in the region. Its origins date back to the year 700 and its economy is based around the production of cotton and groundnut oil.
Previously known as the Kofar Mata Stadium, the 20,000-capacity Sani Abacha Stadium was renamed in honour of the General of the same name, upon whose initiative a reconstruction project was launched to transform the old stadium into one of the venues for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Nigeria 1999. It has also hosted ties in the 2000 CAF African Cup of Nations, as well as several of Nigeria’s FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
The crunch match: Spain-USA
In what promises to be a tantalising clash, 2007 U-17 runners-up Spain will go head-to-head with the USA, the only nation to have qualified for every FIFA U-17 world finals. With these two heavyweights meeting on the first matchday in Group E, both will be looking to get off to a winning start at Nigeria 2009.
The young La Roja players will be seeking to emulate Spain's performance in Korea two years ago, and a win against their toughest group opponents would be a huge fillip. For the Stars and Stripes meanwhile, a good start is paramount in what they hope will be a lengthy African adventure.
The opening gambit
"We’ll take it one game at a time. I don’t want the players to be under undue pressure. Tournaments like this provide them with valuable experience and help them to develop as players." Gines Melendez, Spain coach