It has been 35 years since Congolese football has had anything to celebrate, but it all went to script for the host nation at the weekend as they won the CAF African Youth Championship , beating Nigeria in the final.
The Congo U-20 side, trained by the Frenchman Eddie Hudanski, have won only the second continental trophy in the country's footballing history. The last was achieved by the senior team in 1972, when they won their one and only CAF Africa Cup of Nations title. Since then, the glory days have long receded for the former French colony, which is not to be confused with its bigger southern neighbour, Congo DR.
The Congolese juniors beat Nigeria at the Stade Massamba Debat in Brazzaville on Saturday in the deciding game, with Francel Ibara the hero of the day, cutting inside after a surging run in the 65th minute before firing the ball into the back of the net. Congo had given notice of their ability when Harris Tchilimbou hammered a fierce shot that thundered against the Nigerian woodwork as early as the 13th minute. It has proved the perfect result for the hosts, who had put considerable preparation playing host to Africa's top eight youth teams over the last two weeks.
Celebrations had started almost a week ago when Congo made it through to the semi-finals, thereby ensuring they would be one of the four representatives from the continent who go onto to play at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup™ in Canada , which begins on 30 June. Gambia, Nigeria and Zambia will be the other three African teams competing in North America.
"It is a great emotion and a great sense of satisfaction because we have been working for two years with these youngsters," said Hudanski. "It is a sense of enormous satisfaction to qualify for the World U-20 Cup, something that this side deserves because they have worked so hard since the beginning of 2005 and have been suitably rewarded.
"Winning 1-0 was evidence of just how hard this game was because Nigeria were such a powerful and sturdy team. We tried to play a more pure soccer, trying to pin the Nigerians back. And this succeeded for us because we completely frustrated them and that was what made us winners. Our defenders put in enormous performances because the Nigerian attackers were such quality and high level players but did not score," added Hudanski.
Congo's Fabrice Ondama was named as the tournament's best player to add to the celebratory scenes at a packed stadium after the home success.
Gambia beat Zambia 3-1 to take the bronze medal in a tournament that kept up with its past tradition of providing shock results. Nigeria had been the hot favourites win the title, aiming to extend their record to six African Youth Championship crowns, but they came up short. So too did the fancied Cameroon and Egypt, who were beaten in the group phase and missed out on a trip to Canada.