As the dust settled on qualifying Group B in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone, it was pre-tournament favourites Mexico and Costa Rica who emerged clutching a coveted place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 . Not that the road to qualification was a bed of roses for either the Tricolor or the Ticos. Blocking their path in the Mexican city of Culiacan was the spirited resistance of Jamaica and St. Kitts and Nevis, the islanders proving that they had not just travelled to make up the numbers.
Mexico under pressure
Roared on by their partisan home fans and boasting a squad containing no fewer than 11 players crowned champions at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, the pressure was firmly on Mexico to live up to the glorious heights of their performances on South American soil two years ago.
Led by irrepressible
Barça starlet Giovani dos Santos, the young
Tricolores certainly did not disappoint the crowds packing
Culiacan's Estadio Carlos Gonzalez for each of their three
games, finding the right blend of inspiration and perspiration to
guarantee their involvement at Canada 2007.
Up against St. Kitts and Nevis in their opening match, Mexico completely dominated proceedings, although they left it late to seal a deserved 2-0 win against their hard-working opponents. Opening the scoring for the hosts was Cesar Villaluz on 28 minutes, dos Santos adding the second four minutes from time.
The home side's second match proved to be just as tough, with Jamaica doing everything in their power to try and upset the Mexican applecart. After half an hour of a frenetic clash, up popped Cruz Azul forward Villaluz once more to edge his side in front, before Dos Santos grabbed the all-important second goal just ten minutes after the restart.
Qualification now safely in the bag, Mexico took on fellow favourites Costa Rica for the honour of taking top spot in Group B. Despite coach Jesus Ramirez's decision to field a virtual second-string side for his team's final group game, El Tri came mightily close to making it three wins out of three, only to be denied by a steely display from Costa Rica's backline. Having gone behind after just five minutes to a thunderous strike from the Ticos' Jean Carlos Solorzano, Mexico came storming back to equalise through Enrique Esqueda on 69 minutes. In the event, the 1-1 final result was enough to see Ramirez's side finish safely ahead of their rivals in first place.
Perseverance the key
Costa Rica, for their part, opened their campaign with a bruising encounter against tough-tackling Jamaica. As they struggled to overcome the fierce resistance of the Reggae Boyz, the Ticos needed all their class and finishing ability to come away with a vital 2-0 win. Having taken a crucial early lead through Celso Borges' penalty after just three minutes, Costa Rica were made to suffer all the way before Solorzano's late clincher two minutes into stoppage time.
If the Costa Ricans felt that the hard work had been done after the victory over Jamaica, the islanders of St. Kitts and Nevis proved just how wrong they were. The Caribbean minnows produced the performance of their lives to rock the Central American champions back on their heels, with Matthew Berkeley scoring after just one minute of a whirlwind start to give them a shock lead. Jose Luis Cordero struck back just three minutes later to level matters for Costa Rica, but St. Kitts and Nevis refused to lie down, Tiran Hanley finding the net after 12 minutes to make it 2-1 to the underdogs.
Forced to draw upon all their superior big-game experience, the Ticos took control of the game and laid siege to their opponent's goal. Their perseverance was eventually rewarded through star man Solorzano, whose kept his cool to score Costa Rica's second equaliser a mere four minutes before the half-time interval. With the tide now flowing firmly in Costa Rica's favour, Pablo Herrera made it 3-2 to the Ticos after 49 minutes of a pulsating encounter and seal all three points for his side.
Surprise packages and star men
One team to leave Mexican soil with their reputations thoroughly enhanced were St. Kitts and Nevis, virtual unknowns before the tournament began. Boasting a population of just 40,000 inhabitants, this tiny Caribbean nation shook the region's footballing heavyweights and gave the fans back home plenty to be proud of. Having travelled to Culiacan thanks to the generous financial support of their dedicated supporters, the islanders' efforts swiftly won over the home crowd, culminating in emotional scenes after their 1-1 draw with Jamaica in their final Group B clash.
On an individual note, the competition threw up plenty of names to look out for. Mexico's fearsome attacking trident of Cesar Villaluz, Giovani dos Santos, and Carlos Vela continued to torment opposing defences, aided and abetted by the pint-sized powerhouse Christian Bermudez and solid displays from Efrain Juarez, Jorge Hernandez and Patricio Araujo. Catching the eye for Costa Rica were outstanding goalkeeper Alfonso Quesada, Celso Borges, son of former national team coach Alexandre Guimaraes, and three-goal hero Jean Solorzano. Over in the Jamaica camp, Ricardo Cousins showed glimpses of a promising future in Reggae Boyz colours, while this competition will surely not be the last time we hear about St. Kitts and Nevis' Matthew Berkeley and Tiran Hanley.