In December, the Malagasy U-20 side raised eyebrows throughout southern Africa when they stormed to a first-ever win in the Cosafa Youth Championships.

The 'Bareas' from the island nation of Madagascar had always been gritty competitors, but were notorious for lacking a killer instinct until they cruised through the South African-held tournament to an ultimate 1-0 victory over Lesotho in the final.

Now, rather than rest on their laurels and bask in their most impressive achievement to date, the young Malagasy team are seeking to verify and even bolster their new-found credentials by challenging for a place in next year's World Youth Championships in Canada.

They will, however, face stiff competition from a strong field of African combatants, though they'll certainly hope to emerge from a preliminary round stage which takes place this weekend and will see first leg matches staged in destinations as exotic as Djibouti, Swaziland and Equatorial Guinea.

Madagascar themselves face something of a local derby against their Indian Ocean island neighbours Mauritius, with the first leg to be played in Antananarivo on Sunday and the return in Curepipe at the end of the month.

The team's coaches, Jean Marie Razafiarisoa and Etienne Rasoanaivo, are enjoying the benefits of being able to call upon players whose talents are being honed at a new academy set up in the country by Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international who has forged a formidable reputation for spotting hidden talent.

It was Guillou, certainly, who was the driving force behind the now famous Sol Beni academy in Abidjan, where a steady stream of brilliant young talent has emerged through the ranks of ASEC Abidjan to go on to play for clubs in Belgium, England, France and the Ukraine.

Beveren alone have more than 15 graduates of the academy still on their books, but now Guillou has ended his relationship with the Belgian club to head for Madagascar and Thailand, and start afresh with a new and, hopefully, just as promising crop of youngsters.

Voavy emerges as star-in-the-making
The signs auger well. Success for Madagascar in the Cosafa has awakened the country's football federation to the potential of its U-20 side and, as a result, their preparation for the World Youth Championship qualifiers has been unusually rigorous, and has included a tour to the Sava region, where they emerged with a string of victories over local club sides.

Striker Paulin Voavy is the kingpin of the Malagasy team, and he recently re-affirmed his star credentials by emerging as the outstanding player from a match against the country's club champions USCAFOOT.

Meanwhile, among the more illustrious football names forced to start their qualifying in the early rounds are Algeria and Tunisia, who for all their success at senior level, have struggled to develop successful junior sides over the past decade. Algeria meet Libya in the preliminary round, while Tunisia travel to Sudan this weekend.

In all, there are 14 first leg ties scheduled for this weekend, with the return matches to be played in a fortnight's time on the weekend of 28-30 April. The aggregate winners then advance to the first round in August, when they'll be joined by another 13 countries.

Ultimately, the final seven qualifiers will join hosts Congo for the African Youth Championships early next year, and it's there that the qualifiers for the World Youth Championships will be decided.


Preliminary round:

Libya v Algeria
Swaziland v Mozambique
Madagascar v Mauritius
Uganda v Zimbabwe
Malawi v Botswana
Niger v Togo
Rwanda v Ethiopia
Djibouti v Kenya
Equatorial Guinea v Gabon
Sudan v Tunisia
Sierra Leone v Gambia
Mauritania v Guinea
Senegal v Cape Verde Islands
DR Congo v Namibia

First leg matches: 14-16 April
Second leg matches: 28-30 April

First round:
Egypt v Libya or Algeria
Burundi v Swaziland or Mozambique
Zambia v Madagascar or Mauritius
South Africa v Uganda or Zimbabwe
Lesotho v Malawi or Botswana
Cameroon v Niger or Togo
Rwanda or Ethiopia v Djibouti or Kenya
Nigeria v Equatorial Guinea or Gabon
Angola v Cote d'Ivoire
Benin v Sudan or Tunisia
Morocco v Sierra Leone or Gambia
Mali v Mauritania or Guinea
Ghana v Senegal or Cape Verde Islands
Burkina Faso v DR Congo v Namibia

First leg matches: 4-6 August
Second leg matches: 18-20 August

Second round:
Burundi/Swaziland/Mozambique v Egypt/Libya/Algeria
South Africa/Uganda/Zimbabwe v Zambia/Madagascar/Mauritius
Cameroon/Niger/Togo v Lesotho/Malawi/Botswana
Nigeria/Equatorial Guinea/Gabon v Rwanda/Ethiopia/Djibouti/Kenya
Benin/Sudan/Tunisia v Angola/Cote d'Ivoire
Mali/Mauritania/Guinea v Morocco/Sierra Leone/Gambia
Burkina Faso/DR Congo/Namibia v Ghana/Senegal/Cape Verde Islands

First leg matches:
29-30 September, 1 October
Second leg matches: 20-22 October