In just four months' time, the world of football will see the most exciting youngsters in today's game go through their paces when the FIFA World Youth Championship takes centre-stage. FIFA's second-biggest tournament in terms of competing teams kicks off in the Netherlands on 10 June, but all 24 of the sides who have now qualified will be dreaming of the 2 July final.
The representatives from Europe and Asia have had those dates written into their diaries since 2004 and, after qualification hotted up last month, they have now been joined by teams from the four remaining zones (Africa, Oceania, South America and North, Central American and the Carribean). We take a look back at the winners and losers on the road to the Netherlands 2005.
Africa: Heavyweights show Benin the way
January's African Youth Championship in Benin began in the most tragic of circumstances, when the host team's goalkeeper was murdered on the night of the very first game. Playing in his memory, his young team-mates found the strength to carry on and took themselves all the way to the last four, seeing off the Ivory Coast 4-1 and holding Mali to a 3-3 draw before succumbing to Egypt in a closely-fought encounter.
It was a superb performance that deservedly earned the Young Squirrels their first ever place in the global event, where they will be joined by three sides with a good deal more experience at this level. Nigeria won the tournament after dominating from start to finish, and can start looking forward to their first FIFA World Youth Championship in six years, while Egypt will be putting in their third appearance and Morocco will be reacquainting themselves with the competition after qualifying for the first time since 1997.
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North, Central America and the Caribbean: Mexico miss out!
Qualification places were up for grabs in two separate CONCACAF tournaments, with the first of them held in California. Playing on home soil, the USA emerged triumphant with three wins in three games to guarantee their fifth straight ticket to the main event and their tenth in total.
Habitual outsiders Honduras will also be making the trip, as will Panama, who secured their second consecutive qualification by seeing off Trinidad and Tobago. But the real surprises were to take place in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. For a start, the host nation went through for the fourth time in their history, and Canada proved that their excellent showing in 2003 was no fluke with a faultless display. The major shock, however, was Mexico's failure to earn their eleventh participation.
Click here for Concacaf review part 1
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South America: Three big guns and Chile
After two mini-championships, the strongest candidates from South America congregated in Columbia to dispute their four available berths. The home side will fill one of them after building on the impressive performances of their U-17 and Under-20 teams in 2003, while traditional powerhouses Brazil and Argentina steered clear of any pitfalls to qualify too. Although Argentina looked unusually below par, much will be expected of these three teams given that they all reached the semi-finals of the 2003 edition. The fourth representative from the continent will be Chile, who booked their passage on the final day at the expense of Uruguay.
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Asia: Korean supremacy and Syrian surprise
Korea collected their 11th continental youth title in Malaysia back in October last year. The Taeguk Warriors hardly had things their own way throughout the tournament, but eventually imposed themselves over an improving Chinese team in the final. Beaten by South Korea in the semi-finals, Japan go through too thanks to a solid, if unspectacular campaign. The real exploit, however, belonged to Syria, who will be competing in their very first FIFA World Youth Championship after reaching the last four. They look certain to replace Uzbekistan as this edition's unknown quantity when the action gets underway in June.
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Europe: Spain again, and some attractive outsiders
At youth level, Spain consistently field one of the strongest sides on the planet. World finalists in 2003 and winners in 1999, the Spanish have a whole collection of European titles to their name and strutted to victory in Switzerland last July. Their only real test came against the Ukraine, who took them to a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals and promise to be a team to look out for in the Netherlands. As do beaten finalists Turkey and the fourth semi-finalists Switzerland, a gifted, courageous and enthusiastic group of players. Germany and Italy, on the other hand, will need to improve considerably if they are to avoid an early exit this summer.
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Oceania: Australia untouchable, Solomon Islands show progress
As neighbours go, Australia must be almost impossible to live with for the smaller nations of the Oceanian zone. The dominant force on the continent qualified with ease again in a tournament ultimately marred by violence when the enthusiasm of some Solomon Islands supporters got out of hand during their final against Australia. An eighth straight appearance at the FIFA World Youth Championship is Australia's reward for winning that game, although the islanders can be optimistic for the future after demonstrating startlingly-rapid progress. Quite the opposite applies to New Zealand, who failed to even reach the semi-finals.
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