Despite the long shadow cast by the death of Samiou Youssoufou, the Beninese goalkeeper murdered on the second day of the event (Sunday 16 January), the African Youth Championship Benin 2005 has continued its course. With the first round over, the four African representatives at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 are now known. Benin, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco will carry the continental torch at the global event. But who will travel to Holland as African champions?
After getting off to a truly calamitous start, the Beninese hosts have steadied the ship to achieve their original objective of qualifying for their first ever FIFA World Youth Championship. In the wake of their abject opening performance against Nigeria (0-3) and the tragic death of the team's goalkeeper, Benin's 4-1 crushing of Côte d'Ivoire represents a triumph of mental strength.
Against a Baby Elephants side seen by many as favourites, Benin delivered a confident display, securing the win courtesy of a brace from their livewire striker Abou Maiga. The find of the first round, he found the back of the net again during the decisive encounter with Mali's young eagles to earn the vital point (3-3) that took Serge Devèze's young colts onto four points and earned them that all-important 2nd place qualifying berth.
With Bachirou and Romuald Bocco pulling the strings in midfield and Abou Maiga and Coffi Agbessi providing a cutting edge up front, the Beninese look a tight unit. Their qualification was met with an explosion of joy throughout the country, albeit tarnished by the accidental death of two fans in a Cotonou traffic accident.
Favourites Nigeria qualified in straightforward fashion from this 100% West African group. In taking maximum points from their three games, the Flying Eagles have been quietly impressive, none more so than the solid Taye Taiwo. A wing back with a penchant for forays forward, he was rewarded with two goals, including one in their final win over the Ivorians at Cotonou's Stade René Pleven.
Hertha Berlin's Solomon Okoronkwo and Enyimba's Solomon Abwo have also chipped in with two goals apiece, watched by Christian Chukwu, coach of the Nigerian senior team, in town to keep an attentive eye on the progress of the juniors.
"These performances give cause for optimism where the future of the national team is concerned. What's more, it's good to see Nigeria back in the World Youth Championship." Nigeria had not qualified since hosting the 1999 event on home soil.
Also impressive have been title-holders Egypt, who went through the group stage unbeaten. Their route to the final four encompassed a draw (2-2) with Morocco, sandwiched between wins over Angola (1-0) and Lesotho (4-1).
Prominent in these fine displays and sure to feature in the Netherlands this June were Ahmed Farrag (FC Sochaux, France), a scorer against Lesotho, Siam Islam from Zamalek and Abdullah El Shahat from the Al-Ismaili club. Mohamed Radwan, coach of the Junior Pharaohs, could not hide his satisfaction after Sunday's emphatic win: "We played to win because we had to beat Lesotho to top the group. Consequently, we get to play in the second semi-final at 5pm, thereby benefiting from a temperature comparable to what we're used to back home.
Morocco and Egypt satisfied
In the Moroccan camp too, satisfaction is the order of the day. The 1997 African Youth Champions, led by Mouhssine Yajour - scorer of two goals in three games - and ably supported by the professional foursome of Rachid Tiberkanine (Ajax Amsterdam/Holland), Karim Azizou (Bordeaux/France), Karim Meftal (Niort/France) and Youssef Abdellaoui (Saint-Etienne/France), showed that they are likely to be a force to be reckoned with in the future. Above all, the Atlas Lions are delighted at the prospect of again rubbing shoulders with the world elite in Holland, for the first time since Malaysia 1997.
Having picked up 4 points from their first two matches, the Moroccans only needed a draw from their final game to guarantee their progression. Nevertheless, the onus was on them to go for the win against the already eliminated Angolans in order to avoid meeting the Nigerian bogey men in the semi-final. And win they did, but the narrow margin of victory (1-0 courtesy of Mouhssine Iajour's second goal of the competition) enabled Egypt, easy winners over Lesotho (4-1) to snatch first place in the group. As a result, it is the Moroccans who have to take on the Flying Eagles, although it remains to be seen if Egypt can take advantage of the situation when they face the fired-up Beninese hosts…