Malaysia plays host to the ninth FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship from 16 June to 5 July - with memories still warm of how Latin teams from Europe and South America monopolised the last edition two years ago.

Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and Spain: the top four teams at the 1995 FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship provided a memorable demonstration of how Latin teams have called the tune in recent editions of the world’s most prestigious youth sports event.

Argentina took the Coca-Cola Cup in Qatar two years ago, succeeding Brazil and Portugal. Indeed, in the eight editions of the World Youth Championship to date, and the two preceding editions of the same event as a World Tournament, seven of the ten winners have come from South America or Portugal.

Strong challenge
So once again the main question at this year’s finals is clearly going to be who can rattle the Latin supremacy. And with 24 teams in the tournament for the first time, the challenge is likely to be stronger than every before, promising to create a competition to remember.

The main challenge is expected to come from Europe or Africa, with the Asians maybe taking advantage of home ground to make their presence felt, too.

It will not be easy to wrest Argentina’s grip from the silver trophy. Their magnificent victory in 1995 over Brazil, with a team including players who since then have already made their name in senior professional football at home and in Italy, was one of the finest wins in the history of the competition. And the style with which the Argentinian Class of 97 won the South American Youth Championship in Chile suggests there is another fine team already put together by thoughtful coach José Nestor Pekerman.

Toughest group
The Cup-holders may feel pleased with their first-round group, in which they face Hungary, Australia and Canada in Kangar. Brazil, on the other hand, seem to have things much tougher in Kuching, on the island of Borneo, where they face European champions France, Asian champions Korea Republic, and the ambitious South Africans.

"That’s the toughest group of them all," said Brazil’s 1994 World Cup captain Carlos Dunga, who played for Brazil when they won the Coca-Cola Cup in Mexico in 1983 and who helped make the draw in Kuala Lumpur in early April. "No easy games - they’re going to have to give all they’ve got in every match."

The African challenge will no doubt be led by Ghana, who finished only fourth in the African Youth Championship but whose teams have repeatedly excelled at the under-17 level even if they have so far failed to make an effective transition to the under-20 category - apart from a silver medal earned in style against Brazil in Australia in 1993. They will be based in the northern city of Alor Setar and have to face stiff resistance especially from China and the United States, with Ireland a less well-known fourth group member.

Côte d’Ivoire, irregular participants in the youth championships of FIFA, will not find the going easy in Johor Bahru, near the border with Singapore - a location likely to draw support for group opponents England. This, too, is a tough group, with Mexico and the UAE both teams with a thriving football tradition.

Spanish colony
Kuantan, on the east coast, will become a Spanish-speaking colony for a couple of weeks as Spain leads the pack against their linguistic fellows from Costa Rica and Paraguay, the quartet made up by Japan, whose football ambitions know no bounds.

And what of Malaysia? The home team has never before contested a FIFA finals, and this experience alone makes participation in this tournament a historic event. The squad has been studiously prepared by its Tunisian coach Hatem Sousse, having lived, trained and studied together for over two years.

"Every match will be a challenge for us," says Sousse realistically. "But if we can do well in the opening match against the African champions, Morocco - and why not? - then we could surprise some people in the other games against Uruguay and Belgium."

Certainly the young Malaysians will not be short of support. Playing in the splendid new Shah Alam Stadium just outside the capital, the underdog host team should not face excessive pressure from an unrealistically ambitious home public or media. And the visiting teams can look forward to boundless enthusiasm wherever they play. Although it has never been directly involved in a world championship before, Malaysia is known to be a football-crazy country, well informed on the game in other countries and continents and maintaining a professional league despite being hit in recent years by bribery scandals.

No less important, Malaysia has established a rightful reputation as a land of tourism and welcome, and will no doubt give all its young visitors a reception and a tournament worthy of its tradition.