All roads lead to Colombia

The FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 does not kick off until 29 July next year but the qualification picture is already taking shape. Seven teams have made sure of their places at the three-week event, a showcase for the brightest young talent in the game today. rounds up the latest qualifying news from each Confederation as the countdown to Colombia 2011 continues.

Europe leads the way
The 2010 UEFA European U-19 Championship was held in France in July. The six places for Colombia 2011 were decided in the group phase, with the two section winners France and Spain going through to next year’s world finals along with runners-up England and Croatia and the two third-placed sides, Austria and Portugal.

Featuring the same nucleus of players that had taken them both to the final of the European U-17 Championship two years earlier, the French and Spanish met once more in the tournament’s deciding match, with Les Petits Bleus coming from a goal behind to defeat the tournament favourites 2-1 in a thrilling encounter.

Both sides will fancy their chances of success in South America next year, while England will be hoping to make up for first-round exits in their last two appearances in the world finals, which came at UAE 2003 and Egypt 2009. The last time the Portuguese figured on the big stage was at Canada 2007, when they went out to Chile in the Round of 16. Fellow qualifiers Austria will be out to repeat or even improve on the fourth place they achieved four years ago, while the Croatians will be making only their second appearance in the finals, their debut coming at Nigeria 1999.

Rest of the world joins the race
The AFC U-19 Championship gets under way in Zibo, China PR, on 3 October. The two-week event features 16 teams, four of whom will go forward to represent Asia at the world finals. The draw for the first round of the competition is as follows: China, Thailand, Syria and Saudi Arabia (Group A); Uzbekistan, Iraq, Bahrain and Korea DPR (Group B); reigning champions UAE, Vietnam, Jordan and Japan (Group C); and Korea Republic, Australia, Yemen and Iran (Group D).

The next qualifying event does not begin until 16 January, when South America’s finest will battle it out at the CONMEBOL U-20 Championship for four tickets to Colombia 2011. Though their place is already secure as hosts, Los Cafeteros will be competing in the ten-team competition, which takes place in Peru.

The Oceania U-20 Championship begins a day later in Auckland, New Zealand. The Kiwis are favourites to claim the sole qualifying slot, although American Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu will be doing their level best to stop them.

And last but not least, Africa’s four qualifiers will be decided at the Libya 2011 Orange CAF U-20 Championship, which runs from 18 March to 1 April, while 12 teams in the CONCACAF Zone will do battle in Guatemala between 3 and 17 April for the final four berths at the 24-team finals.