Canada and hosts Honduras booked their tickets to football's biggest youth tournament at the weekend, leaving regional top dogs Mexico licking their wounds after missing out for the first time since 1975.
The celebrating nations along with already qualified USA and another Central American team Panama form the final quartet representing CONCACAF at the world finals to be held in the Netherlands from 10 June to 2 July this year.
The Maple Leafs proved their impressive performances at UAE 2003 were no fluke with three clinical displays in the competition running from 26-30 January. Under the guidance of coach Dale Mitchell and spurred on by striker Ryan Gyaki, they first floored the Tricolores 2-1 in the crucial opener, then defeated the hosts 1-0 to secure qualification before seeing off Jamaica 1-0 for a perfect nine.
"To my knowledge no Canadian team has come into Central America and won all three of its games," beamed Mitchell. "It is truly a remarkable achievement. Now we must start to focus our attention on our preparation for Holland."
Backed by a passionate crowd in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who were attempting to qualify for their fourth finals, opened up with a confident 4-2 win over the Caribbean side. However a 1-0 setback against Canada meant all was riding on the final clash of the competition against northern neighbours Mexico. For 77 minutes the thousands packed inside the Estadio Francisco Morazan sat perched on their seats as the game flowed from end to end. Then as the tension rose still higher, Angel Nolazco and Cesar Guity popped up with two goals in ten minutes and the celebrations began.
"It was terrifying. I couldn't sleep the night before," confessed an emotional coach Rubén Guifarro after the match. "I dedicate this victory to the journalists, my family, everybody that cares for me. We've made it! We can be proud of ourselves that despite our limitations we have achieved something in football."
Mexico, who were attempting to qualify for a record 11th finals, were left with the three points they mustered against the Reggae Boyz. It looks likely to be the end of the road for Argentine coach Humberto Grondona, whose Tricolor outfit struggled at the last edition of the finals in the UAE. But still more questions will be focused on the country's overall youth policy and development of local players. With more and more foreign players attracted to the relatively lucrative Mexican league, calls for a cap will no doubt increase in volume.
Jamaica, who, like their islands neighbours Trinidad and Tobago in Group A, ended the tournament pointless, will at least be satisfied they pushed their opponents in each of their three matches. They showed tremendous courage to come back from 3-0 down to 3-2 in the opener against Honduras before conceding a fourth on the break. Then, as coach Wendell Downsell tightened up at the back, they lost out by the only goal against Mexico and Canada.
Last time round it was Mohican-haired menace Ian Hume who ruffled opponents' feathers, bagging some outstanding strikes into the bargain. This tournament could see the emergence of another goalgetting Canuck - Ryan Gyaki. The attacking midfielder, recently tempted by English First Division club Sheffield United, notched all four Canadian strikes during the tournament.
Not far behind him in the goalscoring charts was Honduras' Cesar Guity. The striker grabbed two in the opening match against Jamaica before finishing off heavyweights Mexico with the final blow of the tournament.