On an overcast afternoon in the Peruvian capital, the United States secured first place in Group C courtesy of a 1:1 draw with Côte d'Ivoire in the teams' final group game at the FIFA U-17 World Championship. After falling behind to an early goal at Lima's National Stadium, the Baby Elephants raised their game after the break to ensure they would not make the long journey home empty-handed. The Stars and Stripes, for their part, will now face the runners-up of Group D in the last eight.
With the group safely won, John Hackworth declared himself proud of his boys' efforts, saying: "I'm pleased that we finished top, but I know we're capable of better. On the whole things have been very positive so far. My players have done a very good job and they've all proved to me that they can be relied on."
Just prior to kick-off, both captains read out a message drawing attention to FIFA Fair Play Day which was roundly applauded by the crowd. John Hackworrth's USA side were fastest out of the blocks and looked the hungrier in the early exchanges. In fact, there were less than five minutes on the clock when Jeremy Hall seized on a mistake in the Ivorian defence to put his side ahead with an opportunistic header (1:0, 4'). Apart from giving the North Americans a dream start, the goal failed to ignite the game, and it soon slipped into a predictable and monotonous pattern.
Latest photos from Peru 2005
The West African side seemed to take forever to react to going a goal down, but when they finally mustered a decent riposte they almost scored. Ali Keita shook off his marker and broke at speed down the left before slipping the ball into path of the Irenee Kouakou. Unfortunately for the young midfielder, his finish let him down and the chance went begging.
With little in the way of entertainment, the game was becoming all too predictable. The public, who did their best to encourage both teams, gradually began to side with the Africans. The last decent chance of the half stemmed from an Ismael Fofaza shot that flashed across the face of goal but went narrowly wide of Bryant Rueckner's left-hand post.
Cold comfort for supporters
With the evening chill descending on the stadium, many fans took the opportunity to button up at half time. Francois Bohe made one change to the Côte d'Ivoire line-up during the break, throwing Serge Kouadio into the fray. Despite being renowned as a pacy striker, the youngster from Academy Mimos-Sifcom had little impact up front. One player who did come to life in the second half however, was the USA's Gabe Farfan, who tuned twice in the opposition's penalty box before firing his shot against the crossbar.
As the Peruvian public entertained themselves with the time-honoured Mexican wave, Hackworth gave a run to Ryan Soroka, the player who recently had the distinction of scoring goal number 1,000 in the history of the FIFA U-17 World Championship. But even his appearance failed to change the pattern of a game that was big on endeavour and good intentions, but patently lacking in free-flowing football. With nothing to lose, Francois Bohe's side decided to throw everything they had at the North Americans. First Marius Gnabouyou tried his luck from distance, only to find Rueckner equal to the challenge. Then minutes later, it was the turn of Kouakou, whose shot struck the upright.
The US coach was gracious enough to recognise that the Africans were the better side on the day. "We lost our concentration a bit, which can happen at their age. They need to become a bit more mature, but that can only happen over time," he said.
With the USA reduced to 10 men late on after the dismissal of Amaechi Igwe for a second yellow card, the Baby Elephants seized the opportunity to pile on the pressure. Rueckner did wonders to beat away a powerful header by Koffi Kouassi, but the Africans would not be denied. A corner kick fell to Siaka Bamba, who only had to tap in from under the post to give his side a well-deserved equaliser (1:1, 87'). The goal was loudly cheered by the locals as well as a large contingent of Gambian supporters gathered to watch their side in the later game.
"We wanted to win this game to leave a good impression on the tournament. We pressed as much as we could in the final minutes, but unfortunately we were unable to capitalise on the chances we had, even with an extra man," rued Francois Bohe afterwards.