Having arrived in Benin as favourites, the Nigerians lived up to their billing in fine style. A class apart during the group stage, they held their nerve in a tough semi-final to narrowly defeat Morocco on penalties. The Egyptians, as solid as ever, provided Nigeria's opposition in the final, while hosts Benin garnered a highly commendable semi-final berth. As the dust settles on the tournament, the under-performing Ivorians and Malians will have most cause for regret. Read on for a review of the African Youth Championship Benin 2005.
After winning the event twenty years ago as a player, Samson Siasia this time tasted glory as a coach. He stuck with the same set of players throughout who rewarded him by winning four of their five matches and never buckling under the pressure of being favourites.
"I was extremely pleased with my players today. I was hoping for victory," he declared after the 2-0 win in the final courtesy of an Isaac Promise brace. It brought to an end a 16-year wait for Youth Championship glory since Nigeria's voracious spell in the 1980s (four consecutive titles between 1983 and 1989). The Flying Eagles bagged a total of eleven goals, but most revealing of all was the variety of scorers, with Okoronkwo, Abwo, Taiwo and Promise all netting twice to underline the rich seam of attacking potential running through the side.
Benin a revelation, Morocco and Egypt up to scratch
The Squirrels of Benin managed to overcome the tragedy which blighted them after the opening match (the death of their goalkeeper Youssouffou) to qualify for their first-ever FIFA World Youth Championship. What is more, they even came within a whisker of creating a massive shock in the semi-final when they took the lead against Egypt through the find of the tournament, Abou Maïga, the scorer of four goals in all. Ultimately, however, the Beninese were not to be denied their place on the podium, as they went on to beat Morocco on penalties in the third-place play-off.
Benin's French coach, Serge Devèze, whose contract expires on 31 January, declared after qualification for the FIFA World Championship: "We're happy but there's also bitterness because we lost Campos. His memory will remain with us forever. Since September, the whole squad has been dreaming of qualification. They all wanted it together and now we have achieved our objective. That's a tribute to the memory of Youssouf Samiou."
The Moroccans, meanwhile, looked capable at times of adding to their 1997 African title. A complete team underpinned by an effective defence (only five goals got past their keeper Mohamed Bourkadi), with the excellent Nabil El Zhar puling the strings in midfield and a clinical finisher up front in the shape of tournament top scorer (5 goals) Mouhssine Yajour. The Atlas Lions looked in fine shape. However, Yajour's double against Nigeria proved insufficient in what was a stormy semi-final encounter during which two goals were ruled out and a brace of red cards brandished.
As for the Egyptian title-holders, they were forced to give up their throne at the final hurdle. Despite enjoying a fine tournament, the Pharaohs, three times winners at this level, suffered their first defeat of the fortnight on Saturday 29 January. The Sochaux (FRA) striker Ahmed Ferrag proved one of the revelations of the competition (two goals), sending his side through to their semi-final with Benin. Having been somewhat disappointing in the United Arab Emirates in 2003, the Egyptians will be trying to reproduce their exploits of 2001, when they finished third at the global event in Argentina.
Lesotho make a bright debut
Apart from the unexpected presence of Benin in the semi-finals, the African Youth Championship threw up another surprise in the shape of little Lesotho. Having qualified for the first time, the Crocodiles showed that their COSAFA 2003 success was no fluke. Despite two defeats against North African outfits (2-0 by Morocco and 4-1 against Egypt), they showed tremendous qualities in beating their Angolan neighbours, in what was a deserved victory over a supposedly superior side.
Côté d'Ivoire and Mali disappointing
Excellent in 2003 in Burkina Faso, much had been expected of the Baby Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire again this year, but they spectacularly failed to deliver. After a win over Mali, they imploded, going down 4-1 to the rampant Beninese, then 1-0 to Nigeria, who had already qualified after two matches. The huge contribution of professionals like Souleymane Bamba (PSG) and Kouadio Herman (RC Lens) failed to have the desired effect, while the last-minute defection of Salomon Kalou, currently on superb form at Feyenoord Rotterdam (Netherlands), seemed to take a great toll on the performances of Koné Tiegbé's charges.
Winners in 2001, Angola got nothing to show for their efforts this year, registering a sorry three defeats in three games. Mali's Little Eagles, meanwhile, failed to follow in the same flight path as their elders, excellent at the CAN a year earlier. An opening defeat against Côte d'Ivoire, followed by a good performance against Nigeria but one which ultimately resulted in a 3-1 defeat, put paid to their chances. Needing a win in their third game against the Beninese hosts, they could only manage a 3-3 draw.
Benin, who finished third, conceded the highest number of goals(9).